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 Pingyao (平遥) 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? 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 of Pingyao. Pingyao helped them, but the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命) 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.
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 from last two dynasties, the Ming and the Qing. Today the two main streets have been reconstructed; one goes from the west gate to the east gate, and another one from the south gate to the north gate. This street, called Qing-Ming Street (清明街), was 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 山西 province are proof of the changes in this old banking town. Billboards are calling us to come back – slogans like “See you again in Pingyao” are written on nearly every road.
Pingyao is waking up again.
All around the city you can find great architecture. If 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 拉面)” that are common in Shaanxi 陕西 province (Shanxi 山西 and Shaanxi 陕西 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…
Pavel is an interpreter, guide, photographer and blogger. China and Chinese language are his passions since childhood, when he was fifteen years old he started to study Chinese, later he graduated Chinese studies from a University. He first came to China in 2009 and has been living with his Shanghaineese wife in Shanghai since 2012. He writes about China on his personal website www.bamboome.eu, where he also publishes his photography and short documentaries.