The tiny town of PINGYAO (平遥, píngyáo) has steadily become an understated travel favourite in recent times, and for good reason – not only does it form a logical stopover point between Beijing and Xi’an, but its wall-bound core – almost entirely filled with traditional eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings – provides something of a step back in time. This is one of the most authentic old towns in China, and provides travellers with the chance to sleep on traditional Shanxi beds (kang) raised up on platforms – in charismatic old courtyard mansions. Things have changed recently thanks to the soft wrecking ball of domestic tourism, but take a few steps away from the restaurants and souvenir stands of the (pedestrianized) main streets, and you’re in another world. Throw in a couple of fine rural temples and some impressive fortified clan villages, all within day-trip distance, and staying overnight becomes a pleasurable necessity, rather than a possibility.
Pingyao reached its zenith in the Ming dynasty, when it was a prosperous banking centre, one of the first in China, and its wealthy residents constructed luxurious mansions, adding city walls to defend them. In the course of the twentieth century, however, the town slid rapidly into provincial obscurity, which kept it largely unmodernized. Inside the town walls, Pingyao’s narrow streets, lined with elegant Qing architecture – no neon, no white tile, no cars – are a revelation, harking back to the town’s nineteenth-century heyday. Few buildings are higher than two storeys; most are small shops much more interesting for their appearance than their wares, with ornate wood-and-painted-glass lanterns hanging outside, and intricate wooden latticework holding paper rather than glass across the windows.