Backyard Travel GM Maeve recently made a trip to China and was fortunate to find time amidst a busy schedule to visit Pingyao. We asked Maeve to share her reflections and write a little about her time in the historic city:
I’ve always held a romantic image of China in my heart, despite my head warning me against such expectation. I developed my picture of the vast wonderland mainly through cinema and art. In particular, I’ve always been partial to the films of Zhang Yimou, the iconic movie-maker responsible for Hero, House of Flying Daggers and the classic Raise the Red Lantern.
I sincerely wanted to believe that Yimou’s vision of China still existed, and that grand courtyards and cobbled hutongs were still illuminated nightly by delicate red lanterns. Of course, the scenery his films displays are generally from an age long ago, before development and progress morphed the nation into what it is today.
While I was planning a recent trip however, I was determined to search out the closest representation of the romantic version that consumed my imagination. I eventually decided to visit Pingyao in the Shanxi Province some 700km west of Beijing.
Pingyao is widely regarded as the most perfect existing example of a preserved medieval city in China and the UNESCO World Heritage Site is lined with paved alleyways and traditional courtyard-style homes lit with red lanterns.
Formerly the financial center of China, Pingyao’s history dates back some 2,700 years and is credited with being the birthplace of the first bank. Now with a population of around 50,000 residents, the city has avoided mass development and is encircled by a beautifully preserved ancient wall.
It was with great expectation then that I arrived, optimistically hoping to discover Zhang Yimou’s China. I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed.
The town, which is off-limits to cars and motorbikes, is a popular destination for domestic tourists who, like me, yearn to experience the cultural side of their nation.
What I found remarkable however is how much the city genuinely did look like a movie. Despite the authentic appearance, just by straying away from the main streets you understand Pingyao truly isn’t a film set.
Families – perhaps who’ve been there for generations – not actors make up the population and real life goes on down every hutong. Nor is Pingyao a museum that has been built to preserve architectural relics, it’s simply an ordinary group of people living in an extraordinary place.
I stayed overnight at an old family compound which has been converted into a boutique hotel with traditional (hard yet comfortable) beds which oddly complemented the entire old-world experience.
During my visit I was able to visit the breathtaking Jing Residence Hotel, possibly one of the most elegant accommodations I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.
I was also lucky enough to take a day trip to The Wang Family Residence, which was quite a remarkable experience. The imposing 45,000-sq-meter labyrinth of courtyards exudes an aura of stately wealth despite its maturity.
It was easy to imagine opulent scenes unfold here in eras past as I wandered through the maze of stone; indeed the term ‘residence’ seems too small a word for such an extravagant compound with 1,118 rooms – though I’ll be honest I didn’t have time to confirm or deny that staggering number!
Although my time in Pingyao was sadly short, I’m overjoyed to have discovered that my imagined version of China does exist. My appetite is certainly whetted and I hope to discover more soon.
If you’ve always dreamed of experiencing the traditional side of China, our expert Beijing-based Travel Specialists can plan a tailor-made authentic experience just for you.