The Yun Jin Cheng hotel’s inner courtyard in Pingyao

There’s more to China than Beijing

One of the most interesting things we saw during our recent trip to China was a UNESCO World Heritage site that is actually an entire city. The old city of Pingyao, located about 715km southwest of Beijing.

It is an exceptionally well preserved example of a traditional Han Chinese city. It was founded in the 14th century and still today is surrounded by its original wall, built in the Ming Dynasty. This incredible wall is 10 metres high, extends for over 6km around Pingyao and is 3 to 5 metres wide up on top. The 72 watch towers and 3,000 crenelations (for archers) represent the 72 disciples and 3,000 students of Confucious.

From 1823 AD, when the Rishengchang was established as the first bank in China during the Qing Dynasty, until the early 20th century, Pingyao was the financial capital of China. In fact, the Rishengchang itself controlled almost half of China’s economy at its peak.

We stayed in a beautiful old Chinese hotel named Yun Jin Cheng in the heart of old Pingyao. Everything about this special place was realistic, including the huge, but very hard, wall-to-wall built-in Chinese bed. Fortunately the staff obligingly put several folded up duvets under us and we slept well.

Pingyao itself is very picturesque, and one of the more interesting things to do was visit the head office of the Rishengchang, now a museum, to learn how money was transferred from one to another of the bank’s 20 branches in the 19th century via coded drafts.

It was also most worthwhile to go up on the wall and view the city from above. Unlike almost every modern Chinese city, there are no ugly high-rise apartment blocks inside Pingyao’s walls to detract from this glimpse back into Chinese history.

About 525km southwest of Pingyao lies the large metropolis of Xi’an (8.3 million people). It is the oldest of the four great ancient capitals of China. Although Xi’an was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and, like Pingyao, it’s interior old city is surrounded by a huge wall, the most interesting feature of Xi’an lies about 10km east of the city – the famous Terracotta Warriors, another Chinese World Heritage site.

The Terracotta army, dating from approximately the 3rd century BC, was discovered in March 1974, by farmers trying to dig a well. To date three pits have been uncovered, holding about 8,000 soldiers (infantry and cavalry), war chariots and just under 700 horses. They were originally buried with the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BC, and were meant to protect him in his afterlife.

The figures are life-sized, but vary in height, uniform and hair style according to their rank. Their facial features are all different. Although originally brightly coloured and fully armed with the various weapons of the time, the warriors today are uniformly grey and rather drab-looking and their weapons have disappeared, either looted or rotted away.

Our voyage of discovery next took us 1,400km southeast to Shanghai, a huge metropolis of 23 million which features some of the most breathtaking modern commercial architecture in the world – but none of China’s 50 World Heritage sites. However, there are three sites located relatively near Shanghai that we did visit.

In Hangzhou, which is about 175km south of Shanghai, lies the southern terminus of the Grand Canal, which originates in Beijing. It is the longest canal or artificial waterway in the world and is a World Heritage site. But much more interesting to us was the other World Heritage site in Hangzhou – The West Lake.

This freshwater lake has influenced and inspired poets and painters since the 9th century AD with its natural beauty. There are numerous temples, pagodas, gardens, ornamental trees, causeways and artificial islands within the lake site. The West Lake has also influenced garden design in China, Japan and Korea over the centuries as it reflects the cultural tradition of creating a series of vistas to give an idealised fusion between humans and nature.

Just over 150km west of Shanghai lies Suzhou, a city of 4.3 million people known for its canals (it is called the “Venice of the East”), bridges and, above all, its classical gardens, which collectively are a World Heritage site. The two best known examples are The Humble Administrator’s garden and the Lingering garden, representing the styles of the Ming and Qing dynasties respectively, but there are a number of other beautiful gardens in Suzhou as well.

After a lovely four-day cruise on the Yangtze River, ending in Chongqing, we travelled 270km northwest to Chengdu to see another World Heritage site – the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuary, home to over 30% of the world’s population of this highly endangered bear species.

Bamboo, which is not very nutritious, accounts for virtually their entire diet, but they only digest about a fifth of what they eat, so they have to eat fast and eat a lot. They are also expert tree climbers. We were fortunate enough to see a large number of these iconic animals. As we were in a special breeding centre, they were mostly cubs of various ages with their mothers.

From Chengdu we flew 1,100km south-east to Guilin and, after a day spent cruising on the Li River and viewing the strange and beautiful limestone karst mountains (also a World Heritage site), we flew 510km to Hong Kong, where our voyage ended.

In 23 days we had traversed much of China by plane and bullet train and, although we hardly scratched the surface of what this amazing country has to offer, we saw enough to give us a strong and very favourable impression of an energetic, dynamic and, in many parts, beautiful China.

By Larry Hampton

The Yun Jin Cheng hotel’s inner courtyard in Pingyao
A segment of the Pingyao city wall
A typical street scene in Pingyao, showing the Bell Tower in the background
The Terracotta Army in Pit 1, showing the infantry
The southern gate of the Xi’an city wall
A view of “Lotus in the Breeze at the Winding Courtyard” in West Lake, Hangzhou
A view in the Lingering Garden in Suzhou
Four giant panda cubs at play