The Great Wall (of Pingyao?)

When you think of walls and you think of China, the Pingyao Ancient City Wall probably isn’t what comes to mind. Nevertheless, the ancient city of Pingyao, located about 600 kilometers from Beijing, remains one of China’s best hidden treasures – a place not many visitors to China have the opportunity to travel to, but one that we in the Davidson in China program are very grateful to have witnessed for ourselves.

The wonderfully preserved walls of Pingyao that we see today date all the way back to the Xizhou Dynasty, placing their construction at about 2,700 years ago. Originally built to shield the city from invaders from Eastern Mongolia, the ancient city walls have survived the test of time (and, most incredibly, evaded the destruction of the Cultural Revolution) to capture its current status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The wall encloses the city inside in a square, and measures 10 meters high (for reference, that is very high) and is over 6,000 meters long (likewise, that is very long).

The drive from the train station to one of the wall’s main gates (we stayed at an inn within the walls interior) feels like a drive through time. Outside the walls, you see western clothes stores, McDonalds, and newly constructed buildings lit up in different colors. But as you approach the wall, you walk through the main gate and it feels like you are walking into another century. No western clothes stores, no McDonalds, no towering buildings. Instead, small shops selling Shanxi Province specialty dishes and sweets line the cobblestone streets – the only reminder of the country’s rapid climb to modernization while perhaps leaving its thousands of years of history and traditions behind can be seen in a knock-off Starbucks coffeeshop, seemingly attuned to the tastes of the few foreigners who make it inside the city.

The next day, we walked along the top of the wall, overlooking the roofs of the houses and hundreds of years of history below. Later that night, we walked through the very bustling streets of Pingyao’s ancient city, trying the local snacks (fried cookies with brown sugar inside!!), looking through souvenir shops, watching what the people were doing to see what makes the city so popular with tourists from all around China.

All in all, if you happen to be in China, I think all of us Wildcats would definitely recommend getting off the beaten path and taking a trip to Pingyao!!

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