Ancient Cities: Xi’an to Pingyao

Ancient Cities: Xi’an to Pingyao

After an excruciatingly long train journey from Dunhuang I finally arrived in Xi’an around 7am. I was tired, cranky, and in no mood for talking; I just wanted to get to my hostel, have some breakfast, and have a free day of relaxation.

I intended on staying in Xi’an for maybe a week, then moving on to a smaller city called Pingyao, which lies between Xi’an and Beijing and is one of the oldest and best preserved walled cities in the country. Now, given that Xi’an is a giant, sprawling city with its own walled old city, I thought that the contrast between a more modern city and its ancient counterpart would be interesting enough (and would break up my journey to Beijing).

The wall keeps out the more modern, over-developed side of the city.

Xi’an is in two parts really: you have the old city, which is within the ancient wall boundaries, and is filled with some older streets and buildings (though few seem to be much older than the 20th century), and you have the modern, outer side to the city, which is made up of buildings with glass facades, bright lights, and multiple lane carriageways. My hostel was located on one of the older streets within the old city called Tangfang street. I heard that this street is nicknamed ‘art street’, though I’ve never had it confirmed.

One of the art streets.

The street is filled with shops selling paint and ink brushes, canvases, ink books, lanterns, and pretty much any other material you need for your artistic needs, you can spend a good couple of hours wandering around this street and its offshoot alleyways finding bargains, or just passing the time in a different part of the city.

Monastery in the North West corner of the old city.

One thing I would suggest doing if you’ve got a couple of hours spare is climbing onto the wall and either walking the perimeter or renting a bike, either way you get to see the old and new city in a different way from a fair height, and can imagine how daunting it must have been to approach the city back from the 14th century onwards (even though it has been renovated many times since).

Even in the centre of the old city the smog is visible…

If you plan on walking the entire wall (as I did) then you need to give yourself at least 3 hours to take it all in, and if you’re cycling I’d say maybe 2 hours at most. Though not the most exciting thing to do, seeing the layout of the old city from a 12m height is more interesting than seeing a lot of the city by foot, and is far more peaceful (plus you get to see firsthand what a blanket of smog looks like when you look outwards).

Gardens in the Great Mosque…

Having always being interested in architecture, I headed into the Muslim quarter to the Great Mosque which, among other things, is known for being the largest Mosque in China; its multiple acre gardens and buildings being guarded from the crowded streets by a 3m wall. As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, I’m not particularly religious, but I always find religious buildings interesting because they’re usually designed with a lot more thought than most other buildings. The gardens themselves were seemingly designed with peace in mind and, given that the complex was built and added to in a time period of over 500 years, I’d say that it’s one of the more beautiful religious complexes I’ve seen so far.

A quieter backstreet in the Muslim Quarter.

In contrast to the peaceful gardens of the Great Mosque, a 2min walk will lead you into the heart of the Muslim quarter, an area teeming with bargain markets, cheeky street sellers, delicious street food, and cheap drink. Yes, if you want to see the real hustle and bustle of the old city then head here any time of day (though it really kicks off after sundown), try some fried squid, and wash it down a with a beer or two. Here you will find yourself stuck in a crowd on streets illuminated by dusty neon lights, and won’t be able to hear yourself think over the shouting of street sellers attempting to entice people to buy their wares; it is amazing.


Of course, being in Xi’an, I had to visit the Terracotta army which, after 8yuan and an hour on a bus, turned out to be a pretty decent place to visit. The army has the same effect on opinions as other famous landmarks: some say it’s overrated, some can’t say enough about it. To me, well, it was pretty damn interesting. It didn’t cost too much to enter, and knowing I could spend all day there was appealing, even if the place was sadly also home to a KFC, a Subway, and other poor choices of food outlets. Once again, as I’ve seen many times, amazing landmarks and areas are turned into giant tourist attractions with the most inappropriate facilities (oh how the first Emperor of China must be delighted that people are stuffing their faces with fast, heart attack encouraging food just metres from his army of the afterlife!).


However, globalization aside, the army itself is simply breathtaking in my opinion. Just the fact that the hundreds of individually designed terracotta soldiers, horses, chariots etc are 1700yrs old and in such good condition is astonishing. Having an increasing interest in centuries old lore and myths, I found the funerary art captivating; the idea of creating an 8000 strong army to guard an Emperor in the afterlife is just intriguing, and taking the time to notice the uniqueness of the soldiers, I can only say I was beyond impressed. I can only acknowledge in despair at how modern life has become stale in terms of people’s beliefs and imaginations…

The area just outside the old wall makes for a peaceful stroll…

Infuriatingly, my time in Xi’an ended up lasting nearly two weeks due to my passport being held onto by the government whilst they sorted an extension out (they had given me other documents so I could leave the city and come back, but for some reason no one would accept them). Xi’an is a nice city, but not two weeks worth of nice! Anyway, after a relatively short journey I ended up in the smaller and seemingly better preserved city of Pingyao.

All of the buildings within the walls are low built, but don’t be fooled; the streets are busy!

Now, only taking 30mins to walk from wall to wall, the city isn’t too big. However, don’t be fooled; the masses of small streets and alleyways are home to hidden gems in the form of restaurants, bars and, surprisingly, open homes of famous people from times gone by (you can buy a day ticket which allows you to see them all). Also, as with Xi’an, the perimeter wall is walkable, and offers far better views over the inside city as the wall actually towers over the majority of the buildings.

The not-so-central part of the city…

The main streets in the city pretty much line up north to south, east to west, with a main, 14th century tower standing near the centre. I must admit that though I was only in Pingyao for a few days, I really fell in love with the place. It seems that in China, the smaller, more ancient places are really catching my heart, whereas the larger, more modern cities, though interesting, aren’t overly special. The old architecture of Pingyao is most evident in the smaller details rather than in overbearing, superfluous design and, though interesting enough to sketch, it was something else that made me fall for the place; no, it wasn’t the food, or the people, but something far simpler: the setting.


Though surrounded by a modern, industrial type city, the inside of the walls are completely different; if you woke up in the centre you wouldn’t be aware of the outside world at all, you’d only be blissfully happy in a low lying, intricately designed maze of tea houses and market shops. I remember that the night that did it for me was a night when the sky turned vanilla, and I just noticed the red lanterns of the streets light up; the streets came alive and the city changed. I could only think back to a time when the streets were filled with horses rather than bikes, when the only sounds to be heard were sellers bargaining with neighbours, and there was an actual respect for the city itself.

The Vanilla sky slowly turns shade…

Again, these qualities seemed to be gone now; there is no interest in preservation anymore, only commercialisation, and I imagine it’ll only be a few years before some golden arches are seen within the ancient walls of a once great city…


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