Pingyao 平遥 2001

About the Photos: these pictures were taken on an old cheap instamatic camera using a very cheap Chinese black and white film. The rain in Pingyao was torrential. That is why everything looks so grainy.


We first visited Pingyao 平遥in the late summer of 2001, on our second attempt. On the 18th of August we found ourselves in Taiyuan太原, looking for a bus to Pingyao. However, it was raining so heavily that we had a drastic change of heart and caught an afternoon train to sunny and warm Chengdu 成都 instead (Same day hard sleeper tickets!).

Precisely one month later, on the 18th of September, we were back for a second try … unfortunately, it was raining just as much!

It’s a long time ago and it’s hard to remember all the details, but we do remember the rain, which was incessant.

Ticket to Visit the City Wall Pingyao 2001

We also remember the main street, which was more commercial and tacky than I’d expected, awash with the sound of blaring loudspeakers and crowded with Chinese tour groups, shopping, snacking and posing for photos, dressed- up in period costumes.

Old hole in the wall restaurant Pingyao: not many exist these days

As it happened, our visit coincided with the first edition of the Pingyao International Photography Festival!

During this increasingly popular annual event (19 -25 September), which brings together professional and amateur photographers from over 50 countries around the world, the whole of Pingyao is turned into one great, open-air photo gallery, with many exhibits and activities taking place all over town. No wonder we felt a bit crushed!

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A busy Pingyao street 2001

We trudged down the narrow streets, pushed our way through the crowds, popped into the Rishengchang Financial House Museum and had a little look around.

There were very few visitors inside the actual sights, but it was hard to take pictures because of the rain.

Pingyao main drag 2001

One thing we really enjoyed, but which unfortunately isn’t allowed any more, was climbing the City Tower, the tallest building in the old city, from where there were great views over the gracefully sloping, tiled roofs.

A rainy Pingyao 2001

Eventually, we donned our rain capes and set off on a long walk along the City Walls, leaving the crowds behind. The rain kept lashing at us and there was soot and dirt in the air; tangible reminders of Shanxi’s over 3,000 coal mines!

Old courtyard houses Pingyao 2001

From the height of the Walls we got a good view of the city’s backstreets and alleys, the humble, run-down little houses and messy backyards, the vegetable plots… all covered in coal dust.

We could see people carrying pails down the street, vendors peddling their wares, old men on wobbly bicycles; in short, ordinary people, going about their business.

On the other side of the Wall, we noticed a kind of farmers’ market, with farmers selling vegetables and other produce from the back of hand carts, and several stalls with clothes and household goods.

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Impromtu market outside Pingyao walls

You won’t find these impromtu markets outside Pingyao’s walls now.

The moat was still filled with water; there was no park, nothing remotely touristy on the other side yet.

We stayed in one of those atmospheric, romantic courtyard hotels; it was authentic alright, but also rather cold and damp!

Adam on his kang 2001

We remember being given two stamp-sized towels and a tiny bar of soap, by way of toiletries. Fortunately, accommodation options have come a long way since then!

Old unrestored Pingyao courtyards

The Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan)

Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan)location of  the film ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (大红灯笼高高挂; 1991) With a new colour film

The next day, on the way back to Taiyuan, we stopped at the Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan), the 18th century home of a wealthy merchants’ family, but perhaps most famous for being the chief location of  the film ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (大红灯笼高高挂; 1991), directed by Zhang Yimou and starring the gorgeous Gongli. 

Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan)location of  the film ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (大红灯笼高高挂; 1991)

As this was the first really large mansion we’d visited and as we’d loved the film, we were very taken by the place. Of course, the over 300- room compound is bedecked with romantic red lanterns, but it also houses many interesting exhibits of Ming and Qing furniture, as well as Shanxi opera costumes.

About the photos. These pictures were taken on a cheap instamatic camera with a very cheap Chinese black and white film. The rain in Pingyao was torrential and that is why they look a little grainy or older than they should.
Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan)location of  the film ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (大红灯笼高高挂; 1991) My last black and white photo.

Unfortunately,in recent years, the site has become massively popular with Chinese tour groups, which is probably why it has been dropped from many guide books such as Lonely Planet, or the Rough Guide.   


Pingyao Ally 2001

If you have your own transport, the Qiao Family Compound makes a good stopover between Pingyao and Taiyuan. Otherwise, you can get there by bus; you can catch any bus going to Qíxiàn (祁县; ¥25, 1½ hours) from Taiyuan’s Jiànnán bus station and ask to be dropped off at the site.

You can also take a bus from Pingyao (¥15, 45 minutes, every 30 minutes to 6.40pm).

Extra Photos Below and more info below

Pingyao Introduction 平遥

This is the introduction to a series of articles about our 3 visits to Pingyao, the historic city in China’s Shanxi Province.



Pingyao, a World Heritage Site since 1997, is renowned for being one of the best- preserved ancient walled cities in China, as well as its earliest banking centre.

The wonderful City Wall spans the entire old city: it’s a 6- kilometre long, 10- metre high, crenellated structure with 72 watch towers, set at fifty- metre intervals. The construction has a brick and stone exterior, with many of the bricks still showing the distinctive stamps of their makers, with rammed earth inside.

Already a thriving merchant city in the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), Pingyao reached its hey-day during the Qing dynasty (1644 y 1912), when merchants created the first banks in the country.

Old Banks In Pingyao

These so-called piaohao (票号), ‘draft banks’ or ‘remittance shops’, provided remittance services and bank drafts to move money from one city to another, in order to finance trade. In 1823, the Rishengchang, or ‘Sunrise Prosperity’, became the first such draft bank to open its doors in Pingyao.

Old Banks in Pingya0

Later on, it established 43 branches in key cities around China and abroad, in countries like Japan, Singapore, and Russia. As a result, Pingyao became the center of China’s banking industry, with over half of the country’s piaohao -about 22 banking firms in charge of a further network of 404 branches – headquartered inside Pingyao’s City Walls.

The original Rishengchang survived for 108 years, before finally collapsing in 1932.

Since then, the Rishengchang, as well as a number of other piaohao and merchants’ residences have been restored and opened to the public, alongside a whole string of other sights, such as temples, halls and museums.

Moreover, Pingyao makes a great base for excursions to some out-of-the-way places, such as the village of  Zhangbi Cun.

Zhangbi Cun

Even today, as you stroll the cobblestoned streets of the perfectly preserved old city, you won’t find any high-rises, or ugly white-tiled buildings. Just don’t expect to have the place to yourself: Pingyao is firmly on the – mainly Chinese – tourist track and connected to Beijing by high speed trains! But don’t despair; the tour groups mostly stick to the ‘big sites’ and, as there are so many places to visit, you can easily get away from the crowds.

Quiet street in Pingyao

The best way to enjoy Pingyao is to dive into the back alleys and explore. And make sure to book yourself into one of those atmospheric courtyard hotels that Pingyao does so well.

Skewers Skewers and More Skewers at Taiyuan’s Food Street

Photo of the week presents:
Join the crowds and pig out on great snacks at Taiyuan’s Food Street 太原食品街

Taiyuan Food Street 太原食品街

Passing through Taiyuan for a night or two? Taiyuan’s food street 太原食品街 is a great way to spend the evening. Great snacks, cheap beer and tasty desserts await the adventurous.

Taiyuan Food Street 太原食品街

You won’t have it all to yourself; most of Taiyuan’s population will be there with you.

Taiyuan Food Street 太原食品街

Our favorite: Grilled Squid in a spicy chili sauce.

Taiyuan Food Street 太原食品街

To drink: Cold draft beer by the litre.

Taiyuan Food Street 太原食品街

Zhangbi Cun 张壁村 / Zhangbi village: Photo of the Week


Zhangbi Cun 张壁村 / Shanxi Province 山西省

Zhangbi cun 张壁村 Shanxi Province 山西省

Zhangbi cun 张壁村 is a tiny, beautiful, bucolic village in rural Shanxi Province.  The village is famous for its underground castle, Zhangbi Gubao张壁古堡, a labyrinth of tunnels dating back to the Tang Dynasty (more than 1400 years).

Zhangbi cun 张壁村 Shanxi Province 山西省

Here are a few of the photos we took. There will be more on Zhangbi Village and its underground castle in the coming weeks.

Zhangbi cun 张壁村 Shanxi Province 山西省

Zhangbi Village can be easily visited on a day trip from the ancient walled city of Pingyao 平遥.

Zhangbi cun 张壁村 Shanxi Province 山西省

The best way to get to Zhangbi Village is to hire a car and driver. You can also take in the Wang family courtyard 王家大院 on the same excursion. It all makes for a great day out from Pingyao. We paid 400 yuan and which also included stopping at Shuanglin Temple 双林寺 8 kilometers outside Pingyao。

Praying Didn’t Improve My Photos: Jingesi (金阁寺)Wutaishan Shanxi Province

Jinge Temple 金阁寺

Wutaishan 五台山

Shanxi Province

Wutaishan 五台山 Jinge Temple 金阁寺

From Our Diary

‘ Adam asks the monk if he can take a picture of the statues, the monk gives a long speech, at the end of which we understand: “Yes you can, if you pay your respects to the Buddha”. Adam takes this to mean that he has to ‘kow-tow’ and starts doing so – accompanied by the sound of the monk hitting the alms bowl. He donates 10 yuan.  He`ll do anything for a good picture’.

The Luohan / Arhat Hall

Wutaishan 五台山 Jinge Temple 金阁寺

The Jinge temple 金阁寺 is a riot of colours, a kind of Buddhist Disneyland,  in which the most outrageous arhats or luohan 罗汉 – in Buddhism, a perfected person, one who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved nirvana (spiritual enlightenment) – we have ever seen are cavorting!

Wutaishan 五台山 Jinge Temple 金阁寺

One of our favorites is a luohan in a colorful patchwork robe who is doing the splits in the air – with his feet on two rocks – while joining his hand in prayer Another swings on a tree trunk. There are luohans swinging off the ceiling by one hand, a luohan that looks like a Continue reading “Praying Didn’t Improve My Photos: Jingesi (金阁寺)Wutaishan Shanxi Province”

Xiangyu Castle Shanxi Province Qin River: 湘峪古堡

Xiangyu Castle

Shanxi Province

Qin River


(Xiangyu Gubao)

Xiangyu Castle 湘峪古堡

Our driver had to ask for directions to get to Xiangyu Castle 湘峪古堡.  He seemed a bit lost, as there was a new road and he had only ever been there on the bad old one. As we were getting close, he stopped to ask a young woman waiting by the roadside for final directions. She confirmed that he was nearly there and then, with a cheeky grin, asked for a lift to the village and hopped in. When we got there, she jumped out of the car and, in good English, bade us ‘goodbye auntie’ and ‘goodbye uncles’.

Xiangyu Castle 湘峪古堡

In front of us, as we got out of the car, was the extremely impressive castle of Xiangyu Castle 湘峪古堡.

Xiangyu Castle 湘峪古堡

From the outside, the castle looks like an impregnable fortress with its crenelated walls and dozens of enormous watchtowers. The river that flows in front of the walls and the hills in the background,  only add to the castle’s splendor.

Xiangyu Castle 湘峪古堡

It really makes for quite a spectacular sight. Yet, at the same time, the view is somewhat deceptive, because Xiangyu is actually a large, fortified village, rather Continue reading “Xiangyu Castle Shanxi Province Qin River: 湘峪古堡”

HaihuiTemple 海会寺: Shanxi Province 山西省




Haihui Temple 海会寺

The Buddhist Haihui temple 海会寺where Minister Chen studied is just a short ride away from the castle and Guoyu village. However, our driver – even though he’s a local – has never been there and isn’t sure what it’s all about.

Haihui Temple 海会寺

As we approach the complex, along a mostly empty road, and stop at a grand but rather abandoned-looking entrance area, neither are we. Should we fork out another 30 Yuan each, just to see two pagodas? Fortunately, we decide to go for it.

Haihui Temple 海会寺

As the two pagodas come into view, at the back of a landscaped garden, we can see that they are truly magnificent. The shorter one, the 20-metre high and 1100-year-old Sheli Ta 舍利塔, is a harmonious, but Continue reading “HaihuiTemple 海会寺: Shanxi Province 山西省”

The Ancient Town of Guo Yu 郭峪古城: Shanxi Province

The Ancient Town of Guo Yu


Shanxi Province 山西省

Guoyu Ancient Town 郭峪古城

Just a ten minute stroll from the magnificent Minister Chen’s Castle, the peaceful, ancient, walled village of Guo Yu 郭峪古城 is that elusive old China you have been looking for, but of which you have only caught the odd glimpse.

Guoyu Ancient Town 郭峪古城

Even these days, Guoyu is still dominated by its enormous and forbidding watchtower; so much so that nearly all the narrow flagstone alleys and secluded courtyards fall under its all-pervasive shadow. The fortified city walls and secret underground passage leading out from the watchtower point to a more turbulent past.

Guoyu Ancient Town 郭峪古城 Tunnel Under the Village

In more recent history, Guoyu also played an important part. It was used as a base for the 8th route army of the Chinese communists in the war against Japan and there is a memorial square to celebrate this fact.

Guoyu Ancient Town 郭峪古城

Nowadays, however, all is peace and quiet. You can find plenty of Ming and Qing dynasty houses still occupied by local residents. Continue reading “The Ancient Town of Guo Yu 郭峪古城: Shanxi Province”

Prime Minister Chen’s Castle: Huangcheng Xiangfu: 皇城相府

Prime Minister Chen’s Castle

Huangcheng Xiangfu: 皇城相府

What to see and do around Jincheng晋城 Shanxi Province Part One

Prime Minister Chen’s Castle: Huangcheng Xiangfu: 皇城相府

The southern Shanxi city of Jincheng 晋城 will never win any prizes for beauty or charm. It’s a typical medium sized Chinese City, dominated by the ubiquitous white tiled buildings, interspersed with an occasional glitzy glass tower. The only attraction in town is a recently built temple complex with a Ming Dynasty  pagoda.

Prime Minister Chen’s Castle: Huangcheng Xiangfu: 皇城相府

So why go there? Well, if you like unspoilt Chinese towns where time seems to have stood still, incredible vernacular architecture, walled castles and ancient pagodas, then Jincheng is the perfect base from which to explore them.  Jincheng also has a fantastic Huoguo restaurant, a decent hotel and friendly cab drivers.

We spent two nights in Jincheng; it was enough to see what we had planned to visit. However, there are a lot more sights to visit than appear in any guidebook.

We visited four places:

Prime Minister Chen’s Castle: Huangcheng Xiangfu: 皇城相府

 Guoyu Village: Guoyu Gucheng: 郭峪古城

The Haihui  Temple and Pagoda complex: Haihui Si: 海会寺

Xiangfu Castle: Xiangyu Gubao 湘峪古保

Part One:

Prime Minister Chen’s Castle: Huangcheng Xiangfu: 皇城相府

Prime Minister Chen’s Castle: Huangcheng Xiangfu: 皇城相府

Ask anybody if they have ever heard of Prime Minister Chen’s Castle and you’ll probably get a shrug of the shoulders and a look of ‘what are you on about?’ However, in China, Continue reading “Prime Minister Chen’s Castle: Huangcheng Xiangfu: 皇城相府”