An old Chinese city surrounded by a huge wall and moat, Pingyao, China, was an 18th-century banking center. Today, it has some of the best-preserved buildings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Some of the old bank buildings in Pingyao have been kept as museums, and the architecture reflects a time gone by, with rooms of wooden walls and pierced screen windows. Eaves hung with red lanterns swoop low over courtyards.
By 1900, Pingyao boasted more than 20 different banks with hundreds of branches across the land. But by 1911, with the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the influence of Pingyao had begun to wane, and commercial banking was moving to Hong Kong. The Japanese invasion in the 1930s and the rise of Communism all but ended the city's reign as China's banking capital.
Pingyao was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, but it is still not a well-known tourist destination for non-Chinese visitors.
Located halfway between Beijing and Xi'an, Pingyao sits on a piece of land sandwiched between two rivers. The land supposedly resembles a turtle, which is a symbol of longevity, thus it has the nickname "Turtle City."
To get to Pingyao, visitors can take the one-hour flight from Beijing to the province's capital, Taiyuan, and then take a two-hour car or bus ride to Pingyao. Or for the more adventurous, there's an overnight train from Beijing. A rickshaw ride from the train station to the old city is very inexpensive. The city has a public bus system, and taxis are plentiful and cheap as well.
A visit to Pingyao must start at the city wall, which encloses the old section of narrow stone-plate streets and courtyard homes. The wall, which is 40 ft/12 m high and nearly 4 mi/6 km around, is one of the last intact walls from the old dynasty eras.
Today, the city center is a jumble of small businesses, rickshaw pullers, souvenir hawkers and some surprisingly good restaurants. The cooking is lighter and less oily than some regional cuisine.
Outside the city walls, there are huge mansions, some with their own walls, and a bridge over a moat. One of the smaller and best-known is Qiao Mansion, where Chinese director Zhang Yimou shot some of the 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern. Its 26 courtyards are in the shape of the "double happiness" character, and there is even some furniture from the Forbidden City.
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