Have you ever been in two minds about somewhere? Liked and not liked a place at the same time? That’s what happened to us in Pingyao. Do you want to know why?
We purposely didn’t plan our trip to China. We wanted it to be a challenge, an adventure. We knew it would be hard to communicate; so we decided not to take any smartphones or electronic translators, just a phrasebook, pen and paper.
We didn’t have a guidebook and decided our itinerary day by day, following our whims, the weather and other people’s advice. We Couchsurfed and slept in stations, buses and on a Kang-style bed. Most of the times we ordered food at random, not knowing what we’d actually eat.
We didn’t expect to be blown away by China. Our friends didn’t like it. We loved it. The food, the sights, the people. And the challenge. But, however you put it, China makes you think. Development is running fast. Cities are born, cities die. The old is thrown away to make way for the new. Sometimes the old is preserved: but only when it brings money.
Our dear friend Luca Vasconi said, in his guest post for us “Places and heritage that can be used to spread the message of a Greater China are preserved, enhanced, sponsored for tourism and economic development.”
Pingyao is one of such places. History of this town in Shanxi province dates back 2.700 years; as old as Rome. It’s very well preserved, and cars are forbidden to enter the historical centre. Pingyao looks straight out of a period film; imagine old shophouses with floating eaves, Taoist temples and landscaped gardens, city walls in the shape of a turtle and an ancient market tower.
Early in the morning, shoppers and shopkeepers zip around the historic centre on bicycles laden with fruit and vegetables. By 10am, the crowd changes completely. Crowds of tourists in matching hats take over the streets, pushing and shoving to get that perfect picture on their iPads. The ancient shophouses open their doors to reveal mountains of tourist tack and fake antiquities.
Wherever you go in China, you’ll never be alone. This is definitely true in Pingyao. From 10 am to 6 pm, you can’t move. The ancient town looks like a film set. The ancient China that we’ve all pictured at some point in our minds. Real but unreal at the same time. Real, as the city walls were built in 1370, while many of the houses date back to the Qing dynasty, and are still inhabited. But it just looks fake. A theme park, where the few surviving memories of Old China to have escaped the Cultural Revolution are polished up, prettified and served on the (Western and Chinese) tourist plate.
But there are still some authentic corners in Pingyao. Get out of the main thoroughfare lined with cheap shops with paper lanterns and restaurants with English-language menus, and head out to the backstreets, where men play mahjong in the street and slurp bowls of handmade cat’s ear noodles, a Shanxi delicacy. The paving stones are cracked, the paint on the walls faded. Shops sell giant vats of vinegar and sellers hawk homemade beancurd from the back of bicycles.
Have a good look around, because it may be gone soon.