In April 2011, we had a short holiday for China’s Tomb Sweeping Day. Known as Qing Ming in Chinese, this festival is a day for people to honor their ancestors by visiting tombs to clean and make offerings. One custom associated with this is the burning of paper money; it is believed that burning the money will make it available for use in the afterlife. As such, people have also taken to burning paper and cardboard cars, houses, and even iPads. You know, so great great great Grandpa Zhou can play Angry Birds.
With just a few short days, we opted to travel somewhere near Beijing. As Rachel had a friend living in Taiyuan, we decided to go there first and then travel together to the ancient town of Pingyao. A 6-hour train ride brought us from the ‘Jing to Taiyuan, which is the capital city of Shanxi province. To be honest, we can’t say much about Taiyuan beyond the fact that it’s a dirty, and actually pretty shitty, Chinese city. This is due to the fact that it is primarily a coal city, which is obvious in the grey hazy air. We stayed there long enough to grab some lunch and catch up with Doug, and then we got a bus to Pingyao.
The ancient town of Pingyao is a UNESCO site and is famous for being one of the best-preserved walled cities in the world. As such, it attracts a fair amount of visitors, especially around holidays. That being said, it was easy for us to buy bus tickets in Taiyuan, and we were also able to find a decent hostel for pretty cheap. The owner was also nice enough to let us stay despite the fact that my dumb ass had forgotten my passport back in Beijing.
Inside of the ancient city, cars are not allowed, so you’re free to walk or cycle around the cobblestone streets without the usual cacophony of horns that comes with traveling in China. Bicycles can be rented all over the place for just a few kuai per hour, and you can even be super cool and cruise around on a tandem. Of course, it being a popular tourist site, you will have plenty of touts selling knick-knacks and all around useless crap everywhere you go.
As it is an ancient walled city, the old City Wall is still intact here. We bought tickets and strolled along the length of the wall, taking in the view from above. With the ancient city on one side and the quickly developing side on the other, this gives you a glimpse into China’s past, present, and future at the same time.
Explore the ancient city, including a stroll on the city wall.
The buildings within the walled city are almost all from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, so walking through these streets feels somewhat like going back in time to Imperial China. In terms of sights and attractions, you can just buy one ticket for about 150 RMB that gets you into around 30 museums, temples, and so on. We wandered around the old city, dropping into any place that was included in the ticket and also stopping for any street food that looked tasty.
Of course, we couldn’t go one China trip without doing some ridiculous and silly stuff. With street beers in hand, we played a few carny games on the side of the road, and then proceeded to pose for some awesome photos with ancient weapons.
We do some temple hopping and then goof around in the second Pingyao video.
Being in Shanxi, we had to try the noodles. In Pingayo, the special dish is called “cat ears”, as the funny shape of the noodles are said to resemble just that. We also tried out a dish called Beggar’s Chicken and the famous Pingyao beef. There’s not much to do late night in Pingyao aside from sitting outside, grabbing some BBQ and cold beers, and just hanging out. It was a nice, short, and easy trip from Beijing, and we’d highly recommend checking Pingyao out if you have extra time while traveling in China or if you should find yourself living in Beijing as we did.
Transportation: You can take a train from Beijing to Taiyuan, and then take a bus (total time ~8 hours), or you can take one of four direct trains from Beijing to Pingyao (ranging in time from 9 to 14 hours).
Get Around: The walled city is very small, so it’s all walkable. You can rent a bicycle for a few RMB as well. For getting to/from bus and train stations, you can easily find a cab.
Accommodation: There are plenty of guesthouses and hostels in the old city. We stayed in the Zhengjia Hostel, which was nice, cheap, and conveniently located. A bed in a 4-person room was only 25 RMB/night each.
Activities: Just buy the entrance ticket to the ancient city, rent a bicycle, and cruise around the old cobblestone streets checking out temples, museums, and more. Also, go for a walk on the old City Wall to take in the view.
Food and Drink: Shanxi is famous for noodles, so you’ve got to try those. Pingyao’s specialty is the Pingyao beef, which is quite tasty, too. You’re basically limited to luke-warm Chinese beer and horrendous bai jiu in terms of booze here.
Recommended Time: Two days is really all you need to take in all of Pingyao, as the ancient city is quite small and there’s not much of interest in the actual city.