PINGYAO (RE) VISITED
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
The Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan)
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.
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.
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.
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).