Most tourists are still in bed and the souvenir shops are tightly shuttered; at 6am you can immerse yourself in seven centuries of history with few distractions. This is Pingyao, said to be the only city in China with its ancient walls still intact and low-rise buildings undiluted by modern structures. But this is no sterile theme park; Pingyao is very much a living entity, a real city inhabited by real people. Authentic local life, with characteristic sights, sounds and smells, flows around the visitor.
The light is pearly, hiding Pingyao's wrinkles better than any coat of paint. The coal seller and his briquette-laden pony cart is a familiar sight. Pingyao is at the heart of Shanxi, the nation's coal-mining province. This fuel is cheap and readily available for cooking (and heating in winter). At times the wind blows a thin film of black dust over everything. Hold your breath as you hurry past the 'honey cart', where the man with the city's worst job is ladling the overnight accumulation of human excrement into his pony-drawn tanker. The city has running water and electricity, and there's talk of main drainage, but for the moment at least, the unmistakable smells provide a reality check.
Walk along two sides of the six-kilometre square formed by the city's walls for a bird's-eye view of the roofs of Pingyao's single-storey yellow mud-brick houses, which blend into the surrounding loess plateau of central Shanxi. The tops of the walls are closed until 8am, so the morning is the time for exploration at ground level. Early light is best for viewing the fine carvings of wood and stone and the ceramic decorations on the shopfronts, mute testimony to the prosperity of local silk merchants and bankers in former times. These days their descendants still live in the interlocking courtyards behind the shop, but they run small museums, guest houses and souvenir shops.
An open-sided electric vehicle hums to a stop beside me and the driver convinces me that 20 yuan (HK$23) is a fair price for an hour's ride. Some of Pingyao's streets are no more than a metre wide - even the main thoroughfares barely have space for two pony carts - but my driver is a native and zooms nonchalantly from one historic landmark to another, including Pingyao's best well, the Town God's Temple, the Taoist temple and the Catholic church (all firmly bolted and barred at this hour of the day). He stops at every photogenic spot.
Pingyao noodles are famous. They come in many colours according to the grain from which the flour is made and which vegetables are mixed into the dough. Early risers queue at the shop selling bowls of what locals call 'cat's ears', tiny lumps of pasta boiled with portions of the famous Pingyao beef that is stewed for days to concentrate its flavour. A pavement vegetable market is doing good business but by mid-morning the cabbages and tomatoes make way for antiques and knick knacks. Outside the South Gate, neighbours catch up on the day's news while they practise tai chi under the shadow of the city walls. One woman calls out to the driver that he should demonstrate his prowess in the martial arts: he does not take much encouragement to strike a few graceful poses.
Here it's easy to see how the crenellated walls were constructed. From a base about 10 metres thick they taper inwards as they rise to a height of 10 metres. As earth was dug out for the core of the wall, a moat was formed around the perimeter to provide further protection for the inhabitants. Historians tell us that Pingyao already had walls of tamped earth long before the start of the Ming dynasty (AD1368) when reinforcements and fired brick facings were added. Watch towers, battlements and gatehouses sprouted over the years, some of them to honour the visit of a high official.
Seven centuries ago, Pingyao was a giant strongbox. The reinforced walls enclosed this remote little city and enabled it to flourish as a base for trade far beyond the borders of China. Almost two centuries later Pingyao reinvented itself as the unlikely setting for the rise and rise of modern banking. Land around Pingyao is poor and commerce was early recognised as the only route to prosperity. Silk was Pingyao's first speciality and that gave rise to trade in dyestuffs. Business boomed and Pingyao stored ever more silver ingots in its underground vaults. Looking at the bleak surrounding landscape it is easy to imagine the hazards and high costs involved in transporting large sums of cash between buyers and sellers.
In 1823 a Pingyao merchant, owner of Rishenchang bank, had a brainwave. He drew up a piaohao or paper remittance. Within three years Rishenchang branches did brisk piaohao business, circulating their cash all over China and soon as far away as Russia, Korea and Japan. Other Pingyao companies followed suit and, until the emergence of Shanghai and other coastal commercial cities at the end of the Qing dynasty, Pingyao boomed beyond anyone's wildest dreams.
After 1911 Pingyao sank into obscurity and poverty, which undoubtedly saved its walls and chess-board lanes of courtyard houses from unsympathetic restorers or the terminal attention of bulldozers. While virtually every other Chinese city has long since lost its walls, it seems no one was interested in changing Pingyao. There were a few narrow escapes from well-meaning modernisers along the way, but, in 1997, Unesco's World Heritage Commission listed the city alongside some of China's best known cultural and natural sites. The citation emphasised that the place offers more than its walls, impressive though they are, as Pingyao '...reveals a picture of unusual cultural, social, economic and religious development...'
The Unesco listing did not exactly bring overnight fame to Pingyao, but it has put it on the itinerary for a growing number of domestic tour groups and adventurous foreign visitors. These days the more enterprising small cafes have signs in French and German and their menus include muesli and pancakes, coffee and smoothies. Tourism has generated its own trade in more or less antique souvenirs. But it has also brought new demand for traditional products like embroidered cloth shoes. Most tourists take home a packet of the unique Pingyao spiced peanuts and some of the delicious local black dates. Few people stay more than one night in Pingyao, but the city merits a few days to savour its special charms. It is a good base for the exploration of other cultural sites of this richly endowed but little known province, including the gravity-defying Xuankongsi (Hanging Temple) and the 26-courtyard Qiaojia Dayuan, setting for Zhang Yimou's film, Raise the Red Lantern.
Getting There: Take Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) to Beijing then the express train to Taiyuan (capital of Shanxi province), about 90 kilometres north of Pingyao, then connect with the train to Xian, which stops in Pingyao.