Pingyao is also known as Turtle City. The south and north gates represent a turtle's head and tail, and the four gates on the east and west represent four legs, the two wells just beyond southern gate are the eyes. A web of alleys links the main streets in such a way that even the layout of the town resembles the markings on a turtle shell.
Slipping into the city, you feel as if you're entering the movie set of an elaborate Chinese period drama production. Elegant Ming and Qing architecture line the quaint streets. Like in the good old days, there are no cars in Pingyao's winding alleys; pedestrians and bicycles crowd the lanes, and a rickshaw rider scurries past. You might want to hop on for fun, but going slow on foot can be a visually rewarding feast. The ancient abodes of the commoners are fascinating cultural relics. Most of the compounds are arranged in quadrangles, where the houses are built around a square courtyard. There are 3,797 such residences, with over 400 in immaculate condition. They're in such pristine condition partly because of Shanxi's arid climate and also because they weren't destroyed by wars.
There are so many mansions, temples, museums, inns and shops–where do you start exploring? Chances are that you will put up at a hotel near Ming Qing Jie also known as Nan Da Jie, the main downtown thoroughfare. This street has undergone major restoration and its attractions now include hotels offering traditional brick-oven beds, restaurants serving Pingyao's famous beef and shops hawking an astonishing array of art wares such as antiques, furniture, ancient coins, Chinese paintings, jadeware, lacquerware and traditional folk clothing. In the old days, over 700 shops peppered this same street and several remain exactly as they have for centuries. On this lively street, just shouting to be climbed, is the 18.5m high Town Tower –the tallest structure in town. Don't start your ascent without your camera: you'll want to catch the view of inundating tiled roofs of the entire city when you reach the top.
You can find many notable museums along Ming Qing Street. Tongxinggong Armed Escort Company Museum offers an eye-opening insight into the significant role played by armed escorts in promoting commerce. The economic boom under the two dynasties meant a lot of cash moving from one area to the next. To thwart thieving hands, Pingyao's ever-resourceful and pragmatic merchants left their cash cows in the professional hands of security escorts. Wang Zhenqing, a martial arts exponent, set up the first armed escort firm to provide this crucial service, which was instrumental to the speedy development of Chinese trade.
The Temple of the City God on Nan Da Jie hails from the Northern Song dynasty. Visitors enter through a double-eave, triple-gate wooden archway. It has a theater hall, where one can catch operatic shows during the annual temple fair on May 27, with six large urns positioned to amplify the performer's voices.
On the eastern end of Xi Da Jie is Rishengchang, meaning "sunrise prosperity," China's first bank. What started out as a single businessman's efforts to safely manage the accounts of his widely spread company, became a private banking enterprise that caught on like wildfire – a similar phenomenon occurred in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. Now converted into a museum, the head office was on this same site during the Qing dynasty. There are 21 buildings surrounding three courtyards. On either side of the front yard are the counters, main banking activities were carried out in the middle courtyard house, which functioned as an exchange center.
Hop onto a motorcycle taxi to reach the best preserved mansions outside Pingyao, the Qiao Family Courtyard House and the Wang Family Courtyard House.
The Qiao Family Courtyard House was the home of a powerful trading family with significant commercial influence even beyond Shanxi, as they were in the trade sector, a nationwide business. It was in this mansion that award-winning Chinese director Zhang Yimou set interior scenes for his film.
Located some 20km north of Pingyao, the compound is fortified behind a 10m high wall with battlements. A watchtower perches from each of the four corners. The main entrance opens east into a spacious compound that covers 8,724m², with 313 rooms, six major courtyards and 20 smaller ones. An 80m passageway divides the complex into half. The inner courtyards and corridors follow the Chinese character for the words "double happiness". The roof styles are varied, from dramatically sloping to curved or terraced eaves. In classical Qing style, roof ridges are decorated with floral and fauna patterns. There are some 140 chimneys, each carrying a distinctive design. The Ancestral Temple of the Qiao Family is found at the western end.
The original name of the manor was Zhai ZhongTang, which roughly translates as "being fair in all dealings." The Qiao family's philosophy, "Descendants be righteous, brothers show mutual care so the family may prosper," is inscribed on each side of the main door. Besieged by invading forces, Empress Dowager Cixi passed through the manor while escaping Beijing for Xi'an. The Qiao family gave her money and as a token of her appreciation, Empress Cixi issued an imperial edict to send the Qiaos an inscription, which now hangs above the main gate. Beyond the gate is a screen wall on which is carved Chinese characters evoking the theme of longevity. In 1937, when Japanese troops invaded China, the Qiao family fled this residence forever.
The Wang Family Courtyard House was the Wangclan's private residence and is four timeslarger than Qiao's, with 54 courtyards and1,052 rooms. The mansion took more thanhalf a century to build and is located on ahilly area. This rambling complex was hometo the first Wang family in 1312. The Wangshad a rags-to-riches story, starting out asfarmers and bean curd sellers, beforeentering business and politics. Some 300family members later became officials.
The interior is divided into three complexes, the East Courtyards is spread over terraces on the mountain terrain and includes 13 cave dwellings; the Red Gate Castle has only one gate, the door of which is painted red, and Ancestral Temples. The streets in the compound form a pattern similar to the Chinese character "Wang" for the family name. The buildings of Wang compound have an eye-popping array of sculptures and carvings on wood, brick and stone.
After 600 years, the family fortunes started to decline, and several residences within the compound were sold outside the family. When the Japanese forces came, the owner Wang Yirang sold off all the family shops and moved out. Since then, several houses in the compound have been lived in by non-Wangs or converted into showpieces. Shuanglin Temple, a musty monastery 7km south of Pingyao, has traditional paintings and some 2,000 terracotta figurines dating back to the Song and Yuan dynasties. Other temples include Zhenguo Temple 15km north of Pingyao, which features Buddha figures and Dacheng Hall, located southeast of Pingyao. It's the only Confucian temple built during the Song dynasty and has an 800-year history.