Many visitors to China speed directly from Beijing to Xian, where the terracotta army of the country’s first emperor stands to attention in trenches. That is a mistake as, situated halfway between the two, is another treasure: Pingyao.
Lying about 350 miles south-west of Beijing in Shanxi province, Pingyao is one of the only preserved ancient cities in China. It dates from the 14th century, at the height of the Ming dynasty, and is contained within high walls topped with 72 watchtowers. The perimeter’s menacing grandeur is the first sign of the city’s historical importance: first as a trading centre on the silk route; then, from the early 19th century, as the heart of China’s banking industry. It was here, in 1823, that the country’s first clearing house was founded. The banks collapsed along with the Qing dynasty in 1911, and Pingyao fell on hard times. But its poverty proved to be its salvation. Long ignored, it escaped the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.
The Rishengang Draft Bank is still there – one of 4,000 shops, houses and temples that line the cobbled streets – and it shows the city’s architectural charms. Now a museum, it consists of a warren of guard rooms and cashiers’ offices, in which mannequins in silk clothes attend to transactions. These are arranged around a series of small courtyards hung with red-paper lanterns and enclosed by delicate wooden façades. Nearby, visitors can climb the creaky wooden staircase at the imposing City Tower, a four-tiered structure dating from 1370.
There are no cars in Pingyao, so the only way to explore is on foot. The main drag is Ming-Qing Street, where the shops sell gewgaws and artwork. More romantic are the dusty backstreets, where chickens peck and people navigate the rough roads on bicycles. But the city, with its low, swooping, grey-tiled roofs, is best seen from above. For that, walk the 12km route along the top of the city walls, resting in the watchtowers along the way.