Ancient city Pingyao
It is 5 p.m. and we are at the Beijing station, just about to get on a night train. I know that we will get to Ancient city Pingyao in Shanxi province at 5 a.m. and I am looking forward to it. Some of my friends are a little bit worried about this early arrival, but I know that they will appreciate it because the only time when somebody can experience a poetically quiet atmosphere in this beautiful ancient city is before 8 a.m. After this time, shops, restaurants and bars are taking over. The first time I was here, even though I was amazed by the unique architecture, magnificent city walls, lovely people and good food, after a whole day I just sat out of the way and was crushed by the modernity which was everywhere. Why are we so focused on these cheap passions of a modern world? On the other hand, the good thing about modernity is that it is lazy. It sleeps during the early mornings.
Pingyao is an old banking town. It was one of the richest cities in China during the last two dynasties. After China lost its pride at the end of the 19th century because of the Western nations, Pingyao suffered greatly. The last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, was about to go bankrupt, but the court was still fighting for survival. So they asked for money from the rich city Pingyao. Pingyao helped them, but the Xinhai Revolution came very quickly after that and in 1911 the dynasty fell. And so has Pingyao. The money that they lent is now in the hands of the Chinese republic – nobody was going to give it back to Pingyao.
Thanks to the city being forgotten after its bankruptcy, it was not hit so hard by China’s crazy 20th century. You can still see a lot of original architecture that came from last two dynasties. Today the two main streets have been greatly reconstructed; one goes from the west gate to the east gate, and one from the south gate to the north gate. This street is called Qing-Ming Street, named after last two dynasties. During the day it is full of shops and tourists; during the night it is full of music, bars and restaurants. The commercialization is new to this city. I do not remember it being so strong during my first visit here. Advertisements all around the Shanxi province are proof of the changes in Pingyao. Billboards are calling us to come – “See again with Pingyao” is written next to every road. Pingyao is waking up again.
TIP: Download The Opera Theatre of Pingyao (China) – Théâtre Opéra de Pingyao from iTunes store
All around the city you can find great architecture. When you buy a ticket, you can enter most of the main tourist spots. I have not seen them all yet, but someday I will finish my exploration because the buildings I have seen so far are incredible, including the huge Confucius Temple, the Academy of National Exams, the first banking institute in China, and Wushu Academy. You can take a picture of any corner here and it will look great. Some people take pictures of the toilets even. The biggest structures here are the northern and southern gates, which are entrances to 6 km long and 600-year-old city walls. You have to come see these gates during the evening when they are beautifully lit. In the middle of the city there is a city tower with a great panoramic view over Pingyao. When you are tired of walking, try some local food, for example, “knife cut noodles”. They are typical for this province and are very different from Chinese “pulled noodles (lamian)” that are common in the Shaanxi province (Shanxi and Shaanxi are two different provinces next to each other). You can also try very good and inexpensive foot massages, or buy some typical Chinese handcrafts.
The tourists just started to come to this city in recent times, so they are quite isolated in those two main streets that I have mentioned. If you walk to any other small street anywhere around, you can find real, authentic, simple and sometimes also very poor local life. The architecture is not reconstructed yet, but it is still beautiful. Small Chinese restaurants and children chasing each other on bicycles are everywhere. Maybe because of the tourism they might have easier and richer lives than their parents, but it will also be a very commercial life, like everywhere else in China. I am feeling sad about it, but it is a very selfish feeling. Money that will be brought by tourists will create better opportunities to get out of a cruel reality in a frozen time.
How can you not get in touch with any modernity in Pingyao? Get out of your comfort zone; for example, take a walk around all the city walls – not only around the south and north gate but also go beyond. Some parts of the city walls will show you a different reality. It can become monotone, but if you like to see what is happening behind the curtains of a theater that is just waking up, you will appreciate it.
The other way is to wake up very early. Or take an early train like we did. That day my friends went to sleep. They were tired from the long journey in the train. Me, on the other hand, sat down in the beautiful yard of our small hotel, an ancient building. I took out my travel tea set, opened the freshly bought Tieguanyin tea, and I was listening to the sounds of the city that was just waking up. Birds started to fly around and sing. I could hear the first voices coming to me from the streets and sounds of the kitchen and boiling water. I could hear that somewhere close somebody was cutting the “knife cut noodles”. Early cold and loneliness, which surrounded me, painted the grey walls around me in color…
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