First light in Shanxi. The carriage window reveals a horizon broken by enormous red, blue and white characters on low brick hamlets. The fields are dusty and devoid of tractors; the air is perfumed by the Lao Chen Vinegar brewery. As the train nears the city of Pingyao, the groggy tourist from Beijing feels that she is journeying back in time –or to a China of the imagination.
Indeed, Pingyao embodies what many foreigners hope to find in China. It’s a jewel of Ming and Qing architecture with elegant courtyard homes, stellar temples and a complete city wall. This physical beauty is the fruit of Pingyao’s eventful history. Strategically located at the crossroads of the Han heartland, the town grew wealthy in imperial times through commerce and banking. In 1824, native son Lei Lutai opened China’s first draft bank, the Sunrise Prosperity Draft Bank. The city was China’s financial capital during the 19th century –local bankers even provided loans to the Dowager Empress Cixi. Pingyao’s fortunes collapsed in the early 20th century when the banking industry migrated to Shanghai.
This decline seems fortuitous today since it allowed the city to survive the upheavals of the 20th century relatively unscathed. While most city walls in China were torn down as “feudal remnants” after 1949, Pingyao’s massive ramparts survived intact because, the story goes, the city was so impoverished that it couldn’t afford to demolish them. So the wall seemingly buffered “progress”: The old city’s low, tiled eaves, clanging wooden shutters and tortuous winding alleyways were unaltered –the white tile craze was confined to the modern quarters outside the walls. Pingyao slept inside its walled cocoon until 1997, when UNESCO declared it a “World Heritage Site” and the city was reborn as a tourist mecca Pingyao is perfect for ambling. The spectacular city wall ranges from six to ten meters in height and three to five meters in width. Over six kilometers in length, it sports 72 watchtowers and 3,000 parapets that give it a “tortoise” shape. Walking the wall provides sweeping views of the fields outside the city and the teeming streets. Likewise, the inner city is best discovered on foot. The Ming dynasty courtyard homes –many of them transformed into guesthouses and restaurants –sport beautiful carved wooden facades and painted signs. The Taoist and Confucian temples are hard to miss –less so the fascinating Catholic church on a somnolent back alley. Shoppers will flock with delight to the innumerable piles of handmade souvenirs, notably folk crafts from the countryside.