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There are no modern buildings in this medieval town located in the heart of Shanxi province. Void of big gas guzzlers overtaking China’s other cities, it’s easy to feel like time has stopped as you enter Pingyao, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.
Once hailed as “The Wall Street of China,” China’s first financial capital is now virtually car-free. The city is only accessible by rickshaw, bikes and the occasional local vehicle seen traversing the narrow alleys that date back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911). One of the last remaining intact walled cities in China, visitors can stay in a traditional guesthouse and feel as if they have traveled back in time. Most properties offer complimentary transfers from the train station, which is located only a few minutes away by car. Otherwise, visitors can take a mini-cart, which costs about $1.60.
For an Old China setting, the Pingyao Yide Hotel (from $60 per night) looks like a movie set, but is actually the former residence of a rich banker from the Qing Dynasty. The Chinoiserie-styled rooms face courtyards festooned in hanging red lanterns. Stone sculptures and elegant wood latticework add to the charming atmosphere. Breakfast features traditional fare, and the reception staff speaks English.
For sightseeing, the city boasts nearly 4,000 shops and dwellings. Guests can purchase a city pass ticket for about $24, which includes most of the attractions and museums.
Pingyao’s defining characteristic is its 40-foot-high wall with six fortified gates and 72 enormous bastions. A Chinese legend says that the nearly four-square-mile city walls create a turtle shape (in China, the turtle symbolizes longevity), and Pingyao is often referred to as Turtle City. Visitors should head to one of the gates for a panoramic view or visit the South Gate to see the turtle’s head.
Afterward, continue on South Street, also known as Ming-Qing Street, to see a melange of traditional shops selling antiques, Chairman Mao’s little red books and exquisite handmade black lacquerware, another Pingyao claim to fame. Watch craftsmen outside make grooming accessories such as combs and shaving brushes or fine handmade paper cut-outs.
Escort and bodyguard services were once hugely important to Pingyao. To thwart marauders, bodyguards were employed by Pingyao’s rich merchants to escort precious goods, such as gold and silver, in carts overnight. At the China Escort Museum, visitors can discover a warren of rooms and a courtyard once used as a training-ground by martial arts experts.
Another point of interest, Rishengchang Exchange Shop, is China’s first private bank and was previously a dye house. The impresario of China’s modern banking system held a previous stint working at a dye-house-turned-casino. Be sure to check out the party room, an opium den used to serve prospective clients.