Old Money

Part two of the trip, back to Pingyao!  I had been there previously with my mom and sister when they visited me in 2013.  It’s just 15 minutes from Qixian, and is probably the best preserved ancient city in China (most of the buildings date from the end of the Qing Dynasty).  Hilariously enough, the only reason it survived the cultural revolution was because the local government didn’t have the money to tear it down.  Gotta love that.  Anyway, the entire 2.2 sq km old city became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997, and it’s turned into a massive source of income for the city, packing it with tourists from January to October.  When I went in 2013 it was December, so the place was practically a ghost town.  We stayed in one of the probably hundreds of guesthouses that are old converted courtyard homes (amazing), and had run of the entire city pretty much.

This time though, it was a sea of people on the pedestrian sections, and terribly aggravating shuttles on the narrow roads that honked at you even if you weren’t in their way.  While I hated that, the red lanterns everywhere for the new year and the sheer press of people gave it an enjoyable festive vibe, and probably gave a better impression of the bustling center of commerce it used to be.  Pingyao was home to many, many banks back in the day that did business all over the world, into Mongolia, India, and Russia.  It’s been the subject of several movies and shows, and damn did they have stacks.  For those stacks, they also started the industry of armed escort services in China, which were cool to learn about.


Here’s a few more shots of the kind of places these people lived in.  Most houses are a series of courtyards with two buildings on each side, and a third at the back that may or may not have a back door leading further in. Some had side yards as well, and in observance of Fengshui, you have to have some sort of wall in front of the front door door, so that the front door and the door to the rear building don’t meet (bad luck).  As I said though, it was Qing dynasty, not Tang, so not only were most of the upper-class women dealing with bound feat, if their husband went elsewhere to do business (which took anywhere from 15 to 30 years), they would live in one of the bank’s courtyards until he came back and couldn’t leave.  As nice and lavish as these homes were, I don’t think I’d want to be trapped in one for 20 years.

The second time around, I got to eat a lot more of the local stuff, including this sampler plate (sorry about the blurry photo).  Local specialties include a type of tea made with roasted flower and filled with sugar, sesame, peanuts, and a bunch of other stuff.  Also famous is Pingyao beef, which is cured and a little like pastrami.  Then there’s kao lao lao which are buckwheat cylinders either steamed or stir fried.  Also noodles and various other tasty things such as vinegar for drinking, booze, and dumplings.

Having been before, I let Helen and Pabs set the pace.  Helen being super into traditional Chinese culture/Chinese history and Pabs being a very anti-modernist architecture student, they were both in love, but in no rush to get out the door each day.  Combined with Helen’s ability to rattle off volumes of interesting information about anything we came across, be it a famous person’s residence, calligraphy, furniture, or really anything, we made slow progress, but still managed to see about half of the famous sites.  Highlights were the Confucian temple, the city temple, the city wall, and the money escort service.  Also the weapons museum which I hadn’t been to before and kind of nerded out over, check out the pretties. Worth noting is the piece in the first picture, which seems to be a Chinese army sword, done in the style of a western cavalry saber with traditional Chinese motifs.  Odd choice for the Cultural Revolution.  Or I may have gotten the date wrong.


Other fun things include helping out two Icelanders, running into a couple of people from Barcelona, and doing karaoke at a random bar.  Also this really cute cat with a Charlie Chaplin moustache。

Pabs didn’t come back to Pingyao with us, so when I got back to Xi’an I spent a two days seeing friends and my host family from last year.  My host brother’s voice dropped which was hilarious and had a wonderful time being wined and dined.  Below are some of the things I ate (delicious ice cream from local ingredients: red date, green tea, almond-black sesame, and ginger-sweet potato with brown sugar).  Also a water show we happened on, and the Muslim quarter.  For those that weren’t reading when I lived in Xi’an, it was the capital of the Tang dynasty among many others, with the Tang being regarded as the peak of ancient Chinese civilization (Silk road in full swing, huge international diversity, pretty good gender equality, the best poems etc.) So naturally people there like to play up it’s history with good reason.  It’s also home to the Terracotta warriors, who guard the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first guy to unify China 2,200 odd years ago.  My hostel was in the Muslim quarter, which is actually called the Hui people quarter, one of China’s two main Muslim minorities (the others being the Uighurs).  It’s home to more than just Hui though, and halal goodies are everywhere to be found in its many streets.

Now I’m getting back to work.  Over halfway through “The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy”, gonna redraft my article, and do more reading before class starts.


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