Daily life in China’s ancient city of Pingyao is just as rich as its UNESCO heritage

Click. Click. Click. The shuffling of the mah-jong tiles drowns out the reply to our question, but it doesn’t matter. We are looking for a bicycle repairman and have asked four mah-jong players about him, though they don’t speak English and we have only a few words in Mandarin. One man nods vigorously, ash falling from his cigarette onto his lap, and the three other players point across the street. They seem to confirm that we have, indeed, come to the right spot. But the grey brick shop is closed up tight and the bike in front seems to be more an advertisement for the store than an indication its owner is nearby.

Fellow travel writer Hilary and I are in the ancient city of Pingyao, a 2,700-year-old UNESCO World Heritage city protected by a moat and a thick, 12-metre-high wall, many parts of which are 600 years old. Pingyao is in Shanxi province, sandwiched between Beijing’s Hebei and Shaanxi, home to China’s famous terracotta warriors. We’ve been playing tourist, exploring Shanxi’s fascinating sites including a 1,500-year-old temple suspended from a sheer cliff, the Yungang Grottoes filled with 51,000 Buddha statues and Mount Wutai, one of the four holiest mountains in China.

But we’re here on a quest that goes beyond regular tourist aspirations. Earlier this year, Hilary wrote a story about the city’s bike culture and her goal is to deliver a copy of the story to an 84-year-old bicycle repairman she interviewed, along with a photograph. The challenge? Last time she was here with a friend fluent in Mandarin, this time she must rely on her handful of phrases and a question cut and pasted from Google Translate.

Pingyao is popular with tourists — the ancient city’s population of 30,000 can swell to almost 90,000 during peak travel periods. Most of these are domestic tourists, but westerners are discovering the place, and the city is adapting to them. On busy South Street, which has been Pingyao’s main shopping area for centuries, many speak enough English to help travellers find the perfect souvenir. Handmade cloth shoes are a specialty. Street food carts offer up delicious snacks — the thick, fried pancakes with green onion are my favourite — and, even without Mandarin, it’s easy to order, pay and enjoy. 

Pingyao residents compete in a game of Mahjong. • Photo by Johanna Read/TravelEater.net

Pingyao residents compete in a game of Mahjong. • Photo by Johanna Read/TravelEater.net

English signs tell stories about the walls from the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), the 72 watchtowers that kept Pingyao protected, and how the city became China’s first financial centre. About 20 ancient banks or piaohaos — at one time half those in the entire country — were within the walled city. Most no longer exist, but the first, from 1823 and considered China’s first bank, is now a museum. Visitors can take in the bank’s interior, the tops of the city walls and Pingyao’s other buildings with their elaborate rooftop art with a three-day ticket costing 150 yuan (about $28 Canadian).

Simply wandering Pingyao’s mostly pedestrianized streets is a great way to soak up even more atmosphere. Few visitors, western or domestic, stray far from the tourist path, but they miss out on seeing real local life. Thanks to Pingyao’s high walls enclosing the 1.6-kilometre-square city, it’s tough to get lost. In summer, residents spend the afternoons and evenings on the street, hoping for a whiff of the slight breeze, largely blocked by the walls. Though we encounter next to no spoken English, we are greeted with waves and smiles wherever we go.

Hilary and I had started our search for her photograph’s subject and his bike-repair shop near the wall’s south gate and first approached an old man sitting alone on the street. Through a combination of grins, gestures, a map and the photo of the repairman, we finally communicated our goal and learned that the bike shop was just a few blocks away. Our direction giver seemed to find us highly entertaining: His initial polite smiles hiding his two remaining teeth turn into huge grins as our conversation progressed.

And this is how we arrive at the mah-jong game. There was no answer to our knock on the door of the bike shop, and after a few minutes we decided to ask the players for help. We conclude our conversation confident that we have the right place, though the language barrier means we have no idea when or if the repairman will return. We decide to take a break to pursue our second quest.

While the city is famous for Pingyao beef, Hilary swears this is where to eat the world’s best fried chicken and I’m determined to make this assessment for myself. The chicken shop is near the northwest gate, so that’s where we head.

As we walk past walls of diagonally stacked grey bricks, manicured parks, and buildings dating from the 1300s to 1800s, kids play in the alleys and adults chat over cards and games of chess. It seems as if every courtyard doorway frames the perfect photo.


Pingyao residents delight at Hilary Duff's photos. • Photo by Johanna Read/TravelEater.net

Pingyao residents delight at Hilary Duff’s photos. • Photo by Johanna Read/TravelEater.net

On our way, we pass a wisdom of grandmothers knitting in the street. Returning their wave, Hilary recognizes one of them from her previous trip. Putting the chicken on hold, we hurry to our hotel. Hilary downloads the woman’s photo and we rush back. We greet the knitters with “Nee-how” and begin attempting to explain ourselves. This time the communication is easier. The woman is thrilled with her photo and seems to remember Hilary, too. Neighbours walk over to see what all the fuss is about.  

I hold up my camera and carefully pronounce, “Que yee mah?” (May I?). Not only am I invited to document the scene, but everyone poses for photos and then pours over my camera screen, tickled to get a look at themselves and each other. We’ve made a dozen new friends though we only share a few words in common.

Appetites worked up, we find the chicken shop a few blocks away. We pass our yuan through a circular hole in the front window and a plastic bag of freshly fried chicken is passed back. Hilary is correct. The crispy drumsticks are perfect, piping hot and zippy with a bit of chili added to the batter. I call out, “How t’chu! Sheh-sheh!” (Delicious! Thank you!) to the owner, who grins back at us. She follows us out onto the street to watch as we take photos of her shop in the hopes of finding it again, should we return to Pingyao one day.

And the bike repairman? Hilary locates him on her fourth return to his shop. He’d heard from his neighbours about the two foreign women looking for him, but he was still surprised to see her in the flesh.

It’s a rare treat to be able to thank the people we meet and photograph on our travels. Hilary describes the interaction as being peppered with thank yous in English and Mandarin, while he held his copy of her article as if it was a treasure. 

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