Soon after we left Shijiazhuang we entered Shanxi Provence and started climbing. The vegetation became sparse and the landscape was dry and full of eroded gullies with terraces waiting for rain to plant the next crop.
Shanxi is noted for a couple of things: coal and associated power stations and red sorghum used for making Bijou, the local fire water. With the coal and power stations comes pollution. We climbed to around 750m and the air remained hot and dry.
The gully country was dotted with small villages with houses dug into the mountain side to escape the full ravages of the summer heat and for insulation in the winter. These single story dwellings were a marked contrast to wealth we had seen on the coastal plain.
We had 320k drive to our destination Pingyao, the best preserved walled town in China. Again on a World Heritage Register. The Chinese seem to take great pride in the fact that a place or a mountain is on a Heritage Register. I have been wondering whether this is a kickback against all the destruction that took place during the Cultural Revolution.
The ravines gave way to a flat plateau where the intensity of agriculture increased again. We made good time and arrived at Pingyao around 1.00pm leaving the afternoon free for exploring the town. Not only is the 6k long wall of the town well preserved, but a lot of work is going into the preservation of the character of the town. While the main streets are faced with new buildings made in the old style, once you get into the back alleys, the village becomes pretty original to the point of crumbling. As usual there is the dichotomy of the commercialisation of the main street, but it does not take too much scratching of the surface to find old people living in quite spartan and original circumstances.
We were fascinated by the vendors doing the rounds. Not selling to the tourists, but to the shop keepers. A farmer on a tricycle loaded with cabbage and other vegetables, another with a trolley loaded with small dried shrimp calling as he went around, and the shop keepers coming out to inspect. In the mornings, it was a donkey cart navigating the back alleys, collecting the waste. There is no sewerage or running water in many of the older places.
The history of Pingyao goes back a couple of thousand years, but most of the current construction dates from the Qing Dynasty. Despite being an isolated place with no real reason for being there, it holds a special place in Chinese commercial history with a number of banks originating here in the early 1800’s, which established branch networks across China and into India and Russia. There does not seem to be much evidence that these banks created much wealth for the town as there are no grand mansions.
Today, not only does the town make its money from tourism, but its also noted for its vinegar which looks and tastes much like a balsamic. Local green Bijou is also noted, with many shops devoted to its promotion. A small shared bottle is as far as the group ventured.
But it is tourism that will help to rebuild the town. While we saw a couple of other westerners in town, it was crowded with local Chinese tourists mostly on group tours.