Píngyáo is China’s best-preserved ancient walled town and worth a visit if you're spending any time in Shānxī. Anyone with any China mileage under their belt will appreciate the town’s age-old charms; charms squandered away – or forever lost – elsewhere across the Middle Kingdom. While other ‘ancient’ cities in China will rustle together an unconvincing display of old city walls, sporadic temples or the occasional ragged alley thrust beneath an unsightly melange of white-tile architecture and greying apartment blocks, Píngyáo has managed to keep its beguiling narrative largely intact: red-lantern–hung lanes set against night-time silhouettes of imposing town walls, elegant courtyard architecture, ancient towers poking into the north China sky, and an entire brood of creaking temples and old buildings.
Píngyáo is also a living and breathing community where the 30,000-odd locals who reside in the old town hang laundry in courtyards, career down alleyways on bicycles, sun themselves in doorways or chew the fat with neighbours. Sadly, Píngyáo struggles to keep out much of the coal dust that pervades the province. Additionally, cars now throng everywhere but the pedestrian-only centre (radiating roughly one block out from Nan, Dong and Xi Dajie), destroying much of the old-world charm. Still, if you’ve been doing some hard travelling in the hinterlands, it’s a great place to catch your breath and kick back for a few days, while Píngyáo is also a fine base for day trips to the Wang Family Courtyard and Zhāngbì Cūn and its 1400-year-old underground castle.