Pingyao was my last daytrip before Beijing, and warm, convenient, and comfortable Korea (two months of this hectic, fast-travelling lifestyle had me dreaming of being sedentary for awhile… three months as it turned out). This was by far my smallest stop in China (by Chinese standards, so less than a million people), and the most historically well-preserved. Ping Yao was a small town between the powerhouses of Xi’an and Beijing until it developed the first secured remittance banking system in Chinese history, transforming it into an economic powerhouse throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties, before fading into a poverty that had an unexpected beneficial side effect- the near complete preservation of a traditional Han city.
Walking through the medieval gates and along the stone roads through row and row of wooden, tile-roofed houses really is like stepping back a few centuries in time, ubiquitous, horrifically-translated tourist signage notwithstanding.
To be honest, after a few hours (and I spent a good 8 or 9 wandering the streets and stopping in wherever the one price covers all tourist ticket was accepted) it started to blur together. Still, the boisterously colored Taoist City Temple, with its vivid, imaginative, and incredibly gory tableaux of hell and utterly foreign pantheon of deities was very interesting, especially compared to the more sedate Confucian Temple across the street.
The “Ancient Government Building” was also surprisingly macabre when you found out that the Ministry of Evidence was really a torture chamber doling out preordained justice. Many of these places had second stories offering interesting views of the expanses of rooftops and streets below, as few buildings rose above a second floor.
There were also several iterations of similar museums revolving around the financial trade, especially banks/credit unions and Armed Escort Agencies. The former proved an interesting history of early accounting in China, at least to me, and at least to the extent I could discern what the Google translated signs were trying to say. Most folks, though, would find the latter interesting, with its many edged weapons of every imaginable type and pictures of early martial artists and martial arts techniques, at least a few of which (including “Hong Fu”… Kung Fu?) seem to have been developed particularly for the convoy guards to use on marauding bandits.
By the afternoon, after walking nearly continuously since 6 a.m., except for a lunch of noodles with corned beef-like Pingyao Beef and stick-to-your-sides thick fried dumplings, I was beat, so I made my last stop at the city wall itself, like Xi’an, walking a short way along it and observing the contrast between the preserved city within and the burgeoning modern city without, before heading off to find out how many emails I’d accumulated over three nights of taking night trains across a good chunk of the country.