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Expatriate Akhil Parashar shares his travel experiences in Pingyao, Shanxi province.

The Old Town of Pingyao (平遥) is an outstanding example of well-preserved Chinese history, spanning two great periods, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Pingyao developed rapidly and became unusually prosperous during the 19th century as a prototype of Wall Street. Pingyao was the premier financial center of its day, with up to 22 exchanges. Visitors today can see the historical business shops and traditional dwellings that bear witnesses to success.

The first thing that caught my eye was the architecture. The Old Town of Pingyao is a compact complex of buildings that includes old fortress walls, streets and lanes, shops, dwellings and temples. The houses are half-covered, with many roofs built as single slopes. Windows facing the street were not opened, perhaps as a defense against the rare sandstorm.

I was astonished to see how well-preserved it all is. The town positively breathes with antiquity. Its layout reflects perfectly the development in architectural style and urban planning of Han cities over more than five centuries.

While walking the streets, visitors will repeatedly catch themselves imagining that they have somehow been transported to 17th century. Many regular buildings in Pingyao are two or three centuries old. The town retains all of its Han features and is of great value for studying the development of social structures, economics, military defense, religious beliefs, traditional thinking, ethics and daily life.

On this trip, one of my first bright impressions came almost immediately upon my arrival with a group of other foreigners as we walked the town's main streets in the afternoon. The weather was bright and sunny. Atop the fortress wall that guards the town I could take in a grand view of this amazing community. Streets and lanes, shops, dwellings and temples could be seen clearly, almost glowing with their ancient and mysterious past.

Beyond the architecture, two other things caught my attention: the number of themed bars and restaurants and the noticeably polite and affable people.

The many cafes can be considered a hallmark. A foreign visitor might be surprised by the number of well-kept bars and massage parlors. Most eating and drinking establishments are individually owned, each with its own unique style and service.

The atmosphere of Pingyao's main streets is cozy, though there are lots of tourists like me dropping in simply to snap a picture.

Advice: If you want to enjoy a beautiful cityscape, climb the wall at sunset. Sitting there with a glass of wine and watching the sun roll behind ancient roofs was a remarkable experience for me.

The people of Pingyao are friendly. You can always count on help, even if you don't know Chinese. A surprising number speak English well — at least enough to direct me where to go and what to see. Even those who didn’t speak any English (mostly older people) still tried to help, using gestures, loud articulation and laughter. It was funny both for me and for them.

But the townspeople of Pingyao don't seem to need any particular reason to smile. Their friendly, open countenances made this visitor feel relaxed and at home.

This was my second visit to Pingyao, but I experienced new and amazing feelings. I would like to visit again and again.


Photos of Pingyao, Shanxi province.  Akhil Parashar / For chinadaily.com.cn

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