Treasures of China’s Heritage:Touring with the Global Heritage Fund (Third in a Seven-part series) Fujian and Shanxi
I recently had the privilege of taking a nine-day trip to China in the company of board members of the Palo Alto-based Global Heritage Fund (GHF)—an organization devoted to supporting underdeveloped rural areas worldwide. Although I’d previously traveled extensively in China, this unusual excursion was uniquely enriching and memorable. It’s my pleasure to share this experience with you in a series of recollections illustrated primarily by my personal photographs. Links to the other installments in this series can be found at the end of this article.
After exploring the port town of Zhangzhou and touring ancient earthen residences called “tulous” in southeast China, we next travelled north to the ancient walled city of Pingyao.
DAY 4: THE ANCIENT CITY OF PINGYAO IN SHANXI
It’s said that to see China 1,000 years ago, go to Beijing; to see China 3,000 years ago, go to Xian; and to see China 5,000 years ago, go to the northern province of Shanxi—our next destination.
THE FILM THAT DREW ME TO PINGYAO
I was so impressed by Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s stunning 1991 movie Raise the Red Lantern, part of which is set in an eighteenth-century courtyard house near Pingyao, that I immediately added that city to my list of “1001 Places to Visit.”
ANCIENT WALLED CITY
Remarkably intact, the ancient walled city of Pingyao was the highlight of the GHF trip for me. Built during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368–1911), it is situated on a former trade route from Beijing to Xi’an, the eastern terminus of the ancient trading route known as the Silk Road.
Shanxi Province in northern China (not to be confused with Shanxxi Province, directly west) is home to thirty-four million people.
A UNESCO SITE
According to GHF founder (and our trip leader) Jeff Morgan, Pingyao remains relatively undiscovered. “It’s the best place in China,” he explained to us, “the cradle of the Han Chinese, an area as big as California. The Great Wall extends along the entire north region, which is comparable to a wall separating Oregon and California.”
Since it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, an increasing number of tourists have come here to climb the old ramparts, amble through the worn cobblestone pedestrian streets, and get a sense of visiting the past.
PINGYAO’S NEW CITY OUTSIDE THE WALLS
THE ANCIENT CITY
Upon arriving at one of the six gates of the walled city, we transferred from our bus to an electric trolley that carried us to our hotel through streets that are off-limits to automobiles.
Although the buildings were crumbling and gray from centuries of accumulated soot, I was in heaven. This is what an eager traveler hopes for—coming upon a place that modernization has barely touched.
ANCIENT COURTYARD HOUSES
Within the black brick walls of the city are some 4,000 family residences known as siheyuan. About 400 of these courtyard dwellings are well-preserved. Viewing the mix of architectural styles that evolved over the six centuries of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, we did indeed feel as if we had stepped back in time.
WALKING THE ANCIENT TOWN
We couldn’t wait to explore the 2,700-year-old streets and we weren’t disappointed.
TOURISM IN PINGYAO
With tourism rising, many worry about the future of the city.
CITY PLANNING IN THE OLD TOWN
Like Florence, all of Pingyao is a museum, with 4,000 Ming and Qing-era courtyard buildings plus historic storefronts, sites, and temples. About 50,000 residents live in the old city, most descended from the original settlers.
While in Pingyao, we stayed at the Jing Residence, a Relais&Châteaux boutique hotel in the heart of Old Town. It was unique and so beautiful that we found it hard to take our leave.
WELCOME DINNER WITH OFFICIALS
GHF hosted a Sunday night dinner at Jing Residence for top local officials, including bureaucrats, scholars, and a minister. We all enjoyed what was surely some of the best food in town.
A MAGICAL EVENING STROLL
In my next post, I share my experiences on Day 5, our second in Pingyao, when we walked the city’s famous walls, enjoyed a typical local meal, and toured China’s first draft bank.