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Remnants of a prosperous past echo in Pingyao

Pingyao's market tower looms large over Mingqing Street.
Pingyao's market tower looms large over Mingqing Street. (Scott Moskowitz for The Boston Globe)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scott Moskowitz
Globe Correspondent / June 15, 2008

PINGYAO, China - During the summer doldrums, fierce humidity settles into Beijing, mixing with smog from heavy traffic and dust from construction to create an oppressive atmosphere. For superstitious officials, 08/08/08 may seem like an auspicious date to begin the Olympic Games, but by August, those of us who live in the capital year-round are often desperate to escape.

Last summer I headed for Pingyao, a once prominent financial capital along the fabled Silk Road, where China's last intact city wall surrounds a world largely insulated from the country's frenzied struggle to modernize.

Home to China's first modern banks, Pingyao was the Middle Kingdom's richest city before sea travel displaced the Silk Road as Asia's main economic highway, and financial centers shifted toward the eastern seaboard. Today, Pingyao is known for architecture and city planning that have remained largely unchanged since its imperial heyday.

Although the government once sought to dismantle private financial institutions, the banks that made Pingyao famous have been reopened as shrines to China's former affluence. Far more interesting to most Western tourists are the multistory courtyard homes of Pingyao's bankers, Imperial China's economic elite.

Away from the refurbished estates, Pingyao is a living museum. On dusty side streets old men preparing for market crush red peppers with giant mortars and pestles. Little girls with new pink backpacks scamper out of crumbling former manses on their way to school.

Pingyao's status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has spared it much of the unfortunate makeovers bestowed on other cultural attractions. Numerous minority villages have become ethnic theme parks - not be confused with the Ethnic Minorities Park just across the street from Beijing's Olympic Village - and even the Forbidden City, the greatest architectural manifestation of Imperial China, until recently housed a Starbucks within its gates.

Pingyao is an overnight train ride or one-hour flight from Beijing and about two hours by bus from the provincial capital, Taiyuan. On the comfortable overnight train ride to Taiyuan, I munched sunflower seeds and chatted with a local family who advised me on the prices in Pingyao. Bargaining is a must when traveling in China, especially outside large cities, where a barter economy remains predominant, and foreigners often receive exaggerated initial prices for goods and services.

The obvious place to start a tour of Pingyao is the city wall, which dates to the Ming Dynasty in its present incarnation. The wall rises fortress-like amid the brown plains and scraggly towns of Shanxi, a province better known for coal mining than tourism.

After Mao came to power, city walls, which once surrounded nearly every Han city, were torn down as barriers to progress. Pingyao's wall avoided this fate when residents rallied around the barrier. Visitors can climb on top of the wall after purchasing a $17 ticket, which includes access to most museums and restored homes in town. The tickets are sold by the Pingyao Tourism Bureau at every site where they are required for entry.

My companion and I climbed up through the South Tower. On one side of the wall we surveyed the old city's ordered layout and the tiled eaves of the shops on South Street, better known as Mingqing Street, Pingyao's main drag. On the other side the view was more chaotic. Construction crews were ripping into the earth. I wondered how much longer this wall could protect Pingyao.

The top of the wall is broad enough for a horse cart - no longer allowed - and the 3 3/4-mile circuit is worth the walk, especially in nice weather. Elevated pedestrians are able to peek into residents' courtyards as they hang laundry or shoot pool.

After climbing down from the wall, we headed for the Confucian temple complex, where black-robed monks moved in and out of study halls. The temple itself bustled with activity. Before wooden statues of Confucian luminaries, monks taught the proper rites to inexperienced visitors, who learned to bow with hands clasped and thumbs out.

In the temple's courtyard, visitors paid to burn large sticks of incense. Nine dollars bought "wealth and luck," while $14 bought "peace for your entire household." Forty-three dollars bought "kuixing," highest marks on the Confucian imperial exams. Modern customers were probably hoping the charm was transferable to the "gaokao," China's college entrance exam, which, like its imperial predecessor, largely determines entrance into elite society.

Outside the temple, we rented bicycles, which for less than a dollar a day opened up access to the city's less congested sections. With a free English language tourist map we sought out the homes of Pingyao's bankers.

In the southeast quarter, Lei Lutai's mansion was included in the price of the tourist bureau ticket. In 1824 Lei founded Ri Sheng Chang (Prosperous Rising Sun), China's first draft bank. From the entrance, low slung rooms flanking a narrow central courtyard obscured the sloping roof of the two-story main hall, creating an impressive sense of scale.

Although Shanxi is cooler and drier than Beijing in summer, the early afternoons were still hot, and we headed back to recuperate in the shaded courtyard of the Guangyu Hotel, where a double room cost $22 for two nights, after bargaining. Guest houses with pleasant courtyards line Mingqing Street, and many offer imperial-style rooms starting around $12 a night. Ours had stone floors and a large "kang," a traditional platform bed that is heated in winter. Authenticity was tempered by amenities like air conditioning and a hot shower.

Walking down Mingqing Street was ideal in the later afternoon, when many of the day trippers began to depart. Vendors hawked the usual fake antiques and communist propaganda, and disturbingly realistic looking tiger pelts. The ornate market tower offered a good view of the action, although entrance required an additional 72 cents.

The best values on Mingqing Street were the cheap and tasty snacks, far lighter than the oily, doughy treats in Beijing. With slotted spoons, vendors carved slippery tofu noodles from quivering white mounds. The refreshing noodles were served cold, with vinegar and garlic for about a dollar. For 14 cents, "yuebing," or moon cakes, were light and flaky with just a hint of red bean jam that tasted like strawberry jelly.

"Jiangmi," lightly sweetened cookies of puffed rice, resembled giant versions of Puffins cereal. Crunchy "shitou bing," or pebble cakes, were crinkly, salted wafers cooked by covering thin sheets of dough with black stones heated in a wok. "Pingyao snacks are delicious, aren't they?" a shirtless old man on a stool called to me as I munched shitou bing.

As for restaurants, the choices in Pingyao are repetitive, but not unenjoyable. Many guest houses have attached restaurants with courtyard seating, which makes for a pleasant dining experience on a warm night. A number of these serve the uninventive but comforting Western fare found all over the backpacker circuit. Sakura guest house, with its prime location at the intersection of North, South, East, and West streets, seems to pick up the bulk of this business. A large selection of coffees and an English-language library - mostly travel guides, but a few novels - justify a visit.

Local fare is abundant as well. As Chinese food goes, Shanxi cooking is more rustic than Beijing's rich, imperial cuisine. Dishes generally consist of thick chewy noodles served in vinegar gravy, with a bit of meat. Those unfamiliar with the regional variations of Chinese cooking may be surprised to find that many restaurants don't offer rice. (Shanxi is far from the terraced rice fields of the warm, damp south.)

At Harmony Guesthouse, near the south end of Mingqing Street, I ordered the hongshao tudou niurou, red-braised beef with potatoes, for $5. The meat was tender and the sauce garlicky and lightly sweet. The meal with beer and tangy "cats ear" noodles came to just over $7 for two. Dinner included free Internet access, and we stayed a while, checking our e-mail and chatting with the affable proprietor.

After dinner, we strolled back along Mingqing Street. In the distance, the towers of the city wall were lighted like a Christmas tree, but most streets away from the town center were dark. After so many months in Beijing, the darkness and the quiet were startling, but not threatening.

In Beijing it is often impossible to avoid signs of China's tumultuous attempts to transform itself into a prosperous nation. Pingyao offers a pleasant reminder of the prosperous nation China once was.

Scott Moskowitz can be reached at scottm149@gmail.com.

Related

If You Go

How to get there

Most visitors arrive in Pingyao bus from Taiyuan, Shanxi's provincial capital. Buses leave regularly from Jiannan Station and cost less than $4. They take two to three hours depending on road conditions, and drop you just outside town, where open-air taxis will ferry you to a guesthouse run by their family members or business partners. Negotiate a fare ahead of time. You should pay less than $3.
Daily flights depart Beijing for Taiyuan and take about an hour. Fares can be as low as $50 when purchased in China.

While most package tourists avoid the rails, locals primarily travel by train. Overnight trains to Taiyuan depart Beijing Zhan at 9:30 p.m., and take about 10 hours. A "hard-sleeper" birth costs about $19, while a "soft-sleeper" is $31.

Where to stay

Most guesthouses in Pingyao are refurbished courtyard homes. Many are presided over by the families that have lived there for generations. Less than $12 should get a basic double room in any of the numerous hotels that line Mingqing Street.

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