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Banking on a tortoise (2010-5-27)



                                            Banking on a tortoise

Visiting the ancient walled city of Pingyao is a relaxing journey into the past. 

After getting punched in the face by a foiled pickpocket and charged half the hotel's daily rate for checking out 20 minutes late while in the capital Taiyuan, Shanxi's ancient city of Pingyao was a balm for body and soul.

The pace of life was unhurried, souvenirs were inexpensive and local businesspeople often treated tourists like visiting friends.

Pingyao, established in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), is probably the best-preserved ancient walled city in China. Its layout follows the auspicious pattern of the shell of a mythological tortoise and boasts Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) architecture, giving it the atmosphere of a period-film set.

While some buildings have been converted into museums, hotels and shops, many are still home to people born and bred in Pingyao, including children gleefully holding water-gun fights and elderly couples conscientiously doing their morning exercise.

Pingyao also holds the distinction of having produced the country's first draft banks and some of the wealthiest merchants in the Ming and Qing periods, but its four centuries of prosperity came to an end in the early 20th century. In 1997, the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Five hours from Beijing by train, Pingyao in non-holiday seasons can be a weekend retreat for weary urbanites. Upon entering the city gate, get hold of a map, bike (rental 10 yuan, or $1.5, per day), two-day pass to 20 sites (120 yuan) and a nifty audio guide that automatically switches on at important spots around the city (Chinese audio 20 yuan, English 40 yuan, deposit 100 yuan).

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