Pingyao: Walled city hides living history

By Jacqueline Smith

The historic city of Pingyao has so far kept the sprawl of modern China at bay, writes Jacqueline Smith.

The residents of Pingyao didn't always make a living off golf buggy rides and Bob Marley remixes. The walled city in the Shanxi province, sitting astride the ancient trade route between Shanghai and Mongolia, was once the financial hub of China.

Some would say it was not only the location of the town that helped it prosper, but the fact that the 6km-long protective wall traces the outline of a very lucky sea creature, the turtle.

Six hundred years later, the place is still humming, but now it's the tourists who bring trade, hence the street vendors catering to all your gifting needs. But beyond the main commercial street lies the slice of the ancient China you only usually see in movies.

The walled city has flashed its Unesco World Heritage badge since 1997 and it seems the authorities stopped at nothing to earn it. Crumbling homes must be repaired in the original brick. And in a recent, more totalitarian move, 90 per cent of the population was sent packing, presumably to make room for the wide tourists in the narrow alleys.

Whatever happened to those residents our guide didn't seem to know, but there's no denying the city is now very photogenic. The guide leads us through a heavy wooden frame and into the paved, Roman-like courtyard of what was a bank, and is now a museum. This, she says, pointing to the mannequins counting coins in the display, was actually the first bank in China, opened in 1823.

At Government House we see where disobedient children stood to receive their punishment. Comical sculpted figurines in one of the largest Buddhist temples depict the revolting consequences of adultery or acts of violence.

Down the paved alleys live members of the city's ageing population. They squeak past on retro bicycles; some sell painstakingly carved paper stencils, or stacks of steaming mooncakes.

It is surprisingly easy to get lost in the alleys of Pingyao, but that should be top of a visitor's checklist. Your feet will ache after a day treading the stones, but residents have that covered. The city is renowned for its reflexology, or foot massage, and street signs indicate they now cater for foreigners and specialise in "sweaty feet", "smelly feet" and "blackened feet".

Continue losing yourself in the maze of brick walls and you will find chatty people like Peter, who was forced to retire when the local printing press he worked at made him redundant.

He taught himself English from cassette tapes and improved his language by reading newspapers. Now he is happiest when giving visitors a rundown of the region they might not get from an information panel.

He is Catholic, one of 1000 in the region, and spent years hiding in the fields to protect his faith during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Peter is just one of many living history lessons, reminding visitors that until a few decades ago cities like this were not anachronisms.

The view from the top of the wall contrasts Pingyao with the sprawl of what China has become: shabby apartment blocks and smouldering factories, which form the wall's thick, outer crust.

Ten metres of solid, vertical brick has kept that smoggy, frenetic world from seeping in. Almost.

This bird's eye view of Pingyao also reveals the fluorescent solar panels that have been slapped on to the roofs below, but hey, it's better than a web of powerlines and these days Pingyao's residents have televisions - and computers - to fire up.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies daily between Auckland and Hong Kong and, together with sister airline Dragonair, has nine daily flights on to Beijing. China Airways flies daily between Beijing and Taiyuan. Pingyao is just less than 100km from Taiyuan and there are connections by bus and train.

Getting around: Adventure World runs journeys through Shanxi including the five-night Ancient North China tour, which ends in Pingyao.

Jacqueline Smith travelled to China with Cathay Pacific and Adventure World.

- NZ Herald

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