Pingyao is a UNESCO protected town in Shanxi province, which is in an industrial and agricultural area in the middle of nowhere about four hours on the fast train from Beijing. Mind you, I suppose if you’re from Shanxi you could say the same about Birmingham. What I mean is that if you’re not going to Pingyao I can’t see too many reasons to venture into this neck of the woods. Having said that it’s a good option for a close to Beijing escape that you can do on a reasonable budget, which is what we did.
We went with whole crew plus three visiting Ecuadorians, Papi Juan (not his real name), Auntie Hilda and Cousin Mayerly, so it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs minus Snow White (and Papi Juan is a bit tall for a dwarf to be honest). I’m not sure whether to have my rant about the Chinese trains system now or later? (A bit rich from a Brit I know and I have waxed lyrically about Chinese trains elsewhere, but I have travelled by train several times and, rant time). You know what? Every time we catch a train they manage to get something wrong, invent an extra charge or at the very least shout at you through a megaphone 1984 style. On this trip they managed all three, charging Mayerly an extra fee because she was over 1.50 metres, but only on the return leg of the journey and despite me buying the tickets online through WeChat which didn’t mention the anti-tall person rule. Then on the way back there was much confusion and shouting into megaphones as we figured which one was our train was and much stress was had by all.
Anyway, back to Pingyao. Top tip. Don’t go at the weekend. There was a big difference between the crowds on Thursday when we arrived and the Saturday crowds. I know that’s probably obvious but the difference was massive, to the point that it was so busy that me and father-in-law gave up on looking for a beer and went back to the hotel instead, which I can tell you is unheard of. By the way the Lonely Planet link to Pingyao must be another Pingyao. The entry for the town claims there are 30,000 people living and working in the old town. What it doesn’t mention is they are all working in the tourist industry which is ONLY thing in the old town apart from a couple of construction workers. Really some people will say anything to flog a book.
Pingyao itself is basically Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, (I think they actually filmed part of it here), but replacing the tigers and dragons with gift shops. There are photo ops aplenty and you can visit the museums and city walls if you want to pay 20 odd dollars a pop to be shouted at in Chinese and squint at labels all in Chinese, which we decided against. It was enough for us to wander, there were lots of pointless things to spend our money on and generally take in the ambiance.
We stayed at the Harmony Hotel, which on the whole was pretty harmonious, unless you count our Chinese co-guests who were playing a game of, who-can-smoke-the-most-while-other-people-are-eating. The English speaking owners were friendly and they did only slightly dubious pancakes, but the main attraction of the hotel is that it is really nice and cheap. We slept boys in one room and girls in another, which meant four of us in one bed. But what a bed! It was broad rather than long and we had plenty of wiggle room at night, all for about $12US apiece a night.
We also did a side trip to Mian Mountain, which was another quintessential Chinese experience. Let me try to paint a picture. Imagine the monastery from Kung Fu Panda, set in a massive gorge in picturesque mountains. Add some other ancient temples hanging precariously on to the cliff face, all spread along at least five miles along the gorge. Got it? Now add a wax works museum, an ‘ice fantasy land’ some carnival rides, a couple of massive occupancy restaurants and then about two million tour groups and you get the picture. They do it every time. I know it’s too much to expect a place to be quiet in China, but really? A wax works museum?
Still our ignorance paid dividends. We got off the bus at the first stop (not realising there were about seven stops in total) and happily it was the quietest spot. Auntie Hilda was feeling a bit off colour so she stayed in the van (which our hotel host arranged) and it was walking shoes all round. Uphill and down dale we went and round and round the mulberry bush as well. We went up a cable car and came down by the grace of the maker. Then it was back on the bus to see where all the other Chinese tourist were going and it was then that we discovered fantasy island.
Lorena and Mayerly gave up at this point but the four boys soldiered on to another random stop, which turned out to be the highlight of the trip. It was Kung Fu Panda’s house, school and temple all rolled into one and stuck on the side of a cliff. And there was hardly anybody there (they were all at the wax museum). Brilliant! Was it worth the trip, defo. Get off at the right bus stop? A must.