Built almost entirely in the 1300-1500s the ancient walled city of Pingyao is the most well preserved ancient towns in China. Walking around it today, the architecture and roads will have much the same feel they did when they were first built. The square mile town is completely walled in and allows almost no car traffic, allowing pedestrians to dominate. UNESCO has protected the city as one of its cultural heritage sites allowing it to maintain its old world charm.
However, within this tiny walled city, there are two completely different worlds. There are 4 major walking streets, lined with shops and packed with tourists. Everyone is taking selfies and group photos, making even the walking traffic come to a halt. Bikes and scooters are weaving through the throngs of people in whatever reckless path they can find. Shops are playing a mix of cultural and western music and shipowners are in the street beckoning you to their store. In their stores you will find a mix of antiques to cheap, bright, plastic masks and swords for the kids. You will catch a whiff of delicious scents from all of the passing restaurants. Looking in the distance, you will see towering temples that arch over the main roads, drawing an even more condensed group of tourists. Groups of 20-30 will pass, being led by a tour guide holding a bright flag to herd their following. The shop fronts are all donned with red traditional lanterns and illegible signs advertising their restaurant or hotel. The atmosphere is alive and the crowds tell you this is the place to be, but this only makes up about 20% of the town. Take your first opportunity to turn off the beaten path and you will find the second world of Pingyao.
As soon as you turn down the back alley, the noise will be cut in half and continue to fade with every step you take. You will soon be able to look around freely, not afraid to be tripping over the tourist in front of you or being run over by a scooter. The loud, colorful tourist shops will slowly turn into little homes selling antiques off their kitchen table. The shop owners will turn into sweet little old men and woman calmly sitting on their front step, just watching the world go by. The lanes will get more and more narrow inviting more intrigue. You may come across the celebration of a local wedding or party, or you may see the sorrow of a family wearing at their deceased families shrine. The brightly colored facades will turn to earth toned, half falling apart home fronts. Groups of old women will be chatting the local gossip, or the old men may be playing their chess, puffing a few cigarettes. The real ancient city, culture, and way of life is preserved through these people and tiny back alleys. This is the real cultural China I always wanted and it did not disappoint.
So when you visit China, make sure you come to its most well preserved ancient city, and after walking the main streets, make sure you dive off deep into the maze of back alleys to find the real China.