Following up on the success of last semester’s trip to Chengde, this month my language program whisked us off to Pingyao for a quick early-summer cultural excursion. Pingyao is perhaps the most famous of China’s “ancient cities,” and it is known in particular for having a remarkably well-preserved set of city walls.
Unfortunately, we discovered that the charms of a Chinese old town are not necessarily well-suited to exploration by tour group. Instead of alternating our rambles with beers from one of Pingyao’s many backpacker cafes, we were shepherded posthaste from the city walls to “China’s original bank,” and from there to an ancient government office, preserved through the Cultural Revolution because it was still in use as the center of government. It’s hard to appreciate the ancient architecture when you’re struggling to stay in earshot of your guide and to resist being swept along with another group of tourists in matching hats.
But we did have plenty of opportunities to sample Shanxi’s traditionally noodle-heavy cuisine, as the province belongs to China’s wheat-eating north. We nibbled noodles in every shape and size, from long ribbons to “cat’s ears” to tubular buckwheat noodles were initially mistaken for offal. By the end of the weekend even this noodle-lover proclaimed herself done with them forever, a resolution that barely lasted two days.
The undisputed highlight of our weekend was a bus trip out to the Wang Family Compound, a miraculously well-preserved Qing-era residential complex that once belonged to a family of Shanxi merchants. Wooden and stone carvings abound in the vast compound, which boasts more than 1000 rooms and 54 courtyards. Best of all, many of the rooms are furnished, so you can actually imagine what it might have been like to live there. This was also where being on a group tour showed its benefits — as the complex lies about an hour’s drive away from Pingyao with no convenient public transportation, I imagine that many independent travelers don’t take the trouble to make it out there. But if you’re in Pingyao, it is absolutely worth the trip, even if you have to hook up with a hostel-organized tour to make it!