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Pingyao, Shanxi

Heading farther north in China, we find the ancient town of Pingyao. The nearest airport is in Taiyuan, approximately 55 miles away, but there are many connections via train, bus or taxi (and some hotels even offer airport pick-up if you book in advance).

Pingyao ancient city was founded approximately 2,800 years ago in the traditional Han style. It is located in Shanxi Province and surrounded by a massive wall that is considered to be the best-preserved ancient city wall in China. Pingyao served as the financial center of China in the 19th century, and the government offices, shops and residences from that time still stand next to their older cousins from antiquity. Though Pingyao is very much an ancient town, it is slowly opening up to the outside world after it was named to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. The architectural style of Pingyao and the staid city planning – four main streets, eight avenues, 72 crisscrossing lanes – remain as well, a relic of Imperial China. The discerning visitor will notice the roofs of residences are in different colors to dictate what class of citizens lived there: yellow and green roofs for government officers and temples, gray roofs for commoners.

Pingyao is only one square mile, so walking is an excellent way to get around. There are some golf carts for hire, as well as bicycle rentals, but exploring the cobbled streets on foot is quite doable and likely preferable (it’s free, after all, and allows you to fully appreciate the city’s history at a leisurely pace). The city walls were built up over thousands of years from dirt, stone and bricks, plus additional gates, watchtowers and a moat that were added over time. Visitors to Pingyao today can walk along the top of the wall, exploring the ramparts, parapets, and crenulations; this is accessible from the North and South gates and surprisingly uncrowded. Once off the wall and in the city, Ming-Qing Street (named for the dynasties) is the main commercial area in Pingyao. Here you’ll find hundreds of shops, one-story houses, and vendors selling food. Ming-Qing (sometimes also call South Street or the Chinese “Nanda Jie”) is also where you’ll find the City Tower, the tallest structure in Pingyao. Climb up the historic tower for views of the city down below, and see how North, East, and West Streets span out from its spot on South Street. Other notable spots to explore are Shuangling Temple, which houses more than 2,000 painted sculptures, and Zhenguo Temple, which dates back to the Five Dynasties and is one of China’s earliest timber buildings in existence.