Bright sunshine. Daytime highs just below freezing. Beautiful, ancient walled city, with many small lantern-hung alleyways and old buildings to explore. Feeling tired after a morning of exploring. Want a nice cup of tea and a sit down. But every restaurant we see looks exactly the same: same picture menu, same food on offer, same wooden benches for seating. Oh Pingyao, isn’t there anywhere cozy to sit and watch the world go by???
Pingyao is China’s best-preserved ancient walled city. The town was established in 827 BC (!), and the current city walls were built in 1370. The city is gorgeous. Especially in the middle of winter when there are few tourists (and absolutely no Westerners – 99% of tourists are mainland Chinese.)
But our two days here have me perplexed. I wish I had a Chinese friend to ask. Don’t the Chinese people like ‘cozy’ places in cold weather? Where do they hang out when they’re too tired to walk around? Why aren’t there any cafes or tea houses? Why does every restaurant in town have the exact same menu with the same pictures?! Why do all the restaurants have uncomfortable wooden benches for seating?! And where does everyone go in the evenings? (We see some other tourists during the day, but in the evenings it’s just empty! Just the two of us, wandering the streets, looking for a warm, toasty bar for a drink and then dinner…)
Aside from these perplexing questions – Pingyao is amazing. I read online that it gets quite touristy in the summer months, but in February it’s deserted, and like really stepping back in time.
We’re staying in a guest house which is a traditional ancient Chinese residence, with rooms off an internal courtyard. Even the sleeping arrangements are traditional. Our room has a huge wooden platform bed, which has a futon-style mattress on it, and buckwheat pillows. There’s a small table that sits on the bed during the day. The bed is your main seating area, so during the day you recline on the bed and use the table like a coffee table. At night just put the table on the floor, and roll out the duvet on the bed and go to sleep. The bed is VERY firm, but we’ve slept pretty well. I especially like the buckwheat pillows, they’re really supportive (though no fluffy at all!)
I’d read on TripAdvisor that this guest house had a really traditional breakfast. So I was disappointed the first morning when they presented us with a sad-looking English breakfast (they really tried to make it right – but 2 pieces of toasted wonderbread, not-right bacon, a hotdog-like sausage and a fried egg … just depressed me! However Zak just put everything between the two slices of toast and ate it as a breakfast sandwich! I’d much rather try the local breakfast, so that afternoon we talked with the English-speaking hotel manager, and asked if they could give us local Chinese breakfast the next morning. He looked skeptical and said OK but that “it might not be to our taste…”
That’s our local Chinese breakfast: Two hard-boiled eggs, a bowl of soup, 5 steamed buns!, and then 3 different veg dishes (a hot spicy shredded turnip, something with sprouts, and a really tasty shredded zucchini with sesame.) I was much happier with this, and we noticed the cook kept watching us to see if we’d actually eat it – maybe they’ve had problems with previous guests? Even if it’s a bit unusual, in general if you get the local food it’s going to be fresher and better-prepared because the ingredients are readily available, lots of people are eating it, and the cook is very familiar with how to make it. Expecting a Chinese woman to prepare an English breakfast (which she’s probably never eaten) with ingredients that just aren’t authentic is never going to taste good. When at all possible – eat local!
We did so much sightseeing. The first day we walked around half of the city wall, from the North Gate to the South Gate. And then explored some of the 20+ museums and historic houses/buildings. (You buy one tourist ticket which lasts for 3 days and covers all of the Pingyao attractions, just scan a barcode when you enter – one entry at each attraction allowed.)
After a full day of sightseeing, we were tired. We just want a place to sit down and relax, drink a beer, rehash our day, before finding a dinner restaurant.
And we found … nothing! We walked the major streets, and every restaurant looked exactly the same, same food, same picture menu on the wall, same uncomfortable bench seating, and few people.
In frustration, I say to Zak “Why is there not just a cozy cafe or bar where we can just get warm and have a drink?!”
And (I am not making this up), 2 minutes walk further down the road, we stumble upon…
Clearly a sign from the universe. Or my manifesting skills are getting really good 🙂
So Cozy Bar becomes our local hangout. It’s fantastic, a real traveler bar (with only us there, of course, since it’s low-low-season). Classic rock, previous visitors writing on the walls in Sharpie, and best yet – cushioned seating areas around hot radiators where we could just be cozy and warm and enjoy ourselves! Plus, the manager speaks amazing English and is really friendly. We loved this place. An oasis of Cozy in a town of wooden benches…
We did ask the manager what was up with all the restaurants in town. He laughed and agreed – same exact menus, just different people cooking them! It seems like many of the tourists are day-trippers, so they just arrive by bus in the morning, spend the day, and then leave before dinner, which explains the empty streets and restaurants in the evening…
Apart from the stone wall, the majority of Pingyao is built from wood. So we noticed fire prevention messages everywhere – and fire-fighting equipment regularly available. Smart move since their whole economy here seems built on the tourists visiting these ancient wooden buildings.
You can tell this town is really touristy – but it doesn’t feel that way in the winter. So I’d suggest that winter is the time to visit! There are a lot of souvenir shops selling the same thing, and even two virtual-reality stores (which seem totally out of place – in an ancient building, with a VR machine just stuck in an empty room trying to get tourists to ‘ride a virtual rollercoaster’ etc. Yuck!
But apart from the touristy bits, it was definitely the city wall experience we had hoped to have in Xi’an. It really feels like an old city, and a proper city wall. The houses and internal buildings are beautifully well-preserved. Unfortunately most of the tourist information is in Chinese, as they don’t get many Western tourists, but I really do think Pingyao is a worth a stopover for travellers between Beijing and Xi’an – especially when you can stay in a classic guest house like this one – and venture out in the morning and evenings when the day-trippers aren’t around!
Next up, we’re heading to Harbin, one of the coldest places in China (!) to see the Ice and Snow Festival. So we’ll have two days of pretty unexciting train travel ahead of us. And then it’ll be time to break out the toe warmers (we only brought 10 pairs, so are rationing them for the very coldest days – I think Harbin is going to be one of them!)