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We woke at Taiyuan station at 6am after a pretty good nights sleep – although we almost fell out of our bunks every time the train stopped. We arrived in Pingyao on time at 7:31 and got off with all the other foreigners that were on the train – about 20 in all and a hundred or so Chinese. The hotel had sent a taxi to pick us up, and somebody with a Dutch sounding name who evidently wasn't on the train.

It was the first time we were up so early whilst in China, and it felt much colder than Beijing. We drove through a pretty drub part of town before reaching the walled city and then through some very narrow streets before reaching the hotel - the Tianyuankui Hotel. We were given a very warm welcome at the hotel - there seemed to be Chinese waitresses and check-in people everywhere. We were shown to our room, through small courtyards and passageways. We had two interconnected rooms - ours with a massive bed that filled 75% of the room and Yanmei and Daji with two single beds. This was going to be the first time that Yanmei and Daji slept in their own room and we were interested to see how it went.

We breakfasted - pancakes, fruit and tea seemed to be the normal breakfast. The waitresses took an immediate interest in Yanmei and Daji and asked lots of questions. They helped us plan our day and told us where we could could buy tickets to see the city - in Pingyao you buy a single ticket covering all the sights. The ticket costs 120 RMB for adults and 60 RMB for children, and can be used over 2 days - as long as one remembers to tell them it's for two days, which they write on the ticket, otherwise it's only for one day.

Pingyao is situated in Shanxi province and is designated by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site in 1997 due to its many historical buildings where the shop fronts and buildings largely retain their historical appearance; and not least the 6,5km wall surrounding the city, built in 1370. As the city prospered and it became unsafe to transport money banks were set to enable customers to pay locally, instead of sending money with for example a courier. The Rishengchang Bank in Pingyao is considered as the first bank in China.

The Old Town of Pingyao was constructed according to the traditional planning and building style of the Han ethnic group, and was designed according to the functions of its different parts. Four large streets, eight smaller ones, and 72 lanes make a neat grid. The city is also known as the Turtle City. The south and north gates represent a turtle’s head and tail, and the four gates on the east and west represent four legs, the two wells just beyond southern gate are the eyes. A web of alleys links the main streets in such a way that even the layout of the town resembles the markings on a turtle shell. Symmetrically arranged along an axis, the private houses were constructed either in the style of courtyard houses or in the style of manmade-cave houses, all with local features. Today, Pingyao still has 3,797 courtyard houses, 400 of them especially well preserved. There are no cars in Pingyao’s winding alleys; pedestrians and bicycles crowd the lanes.

We left the hotel at around 10am, it was still cold with a light cloud and of course the narrow streets meant that we primarily walked in the shade - which was probably great in summer, but not just now. The city was coming to life as we walked along Southern Main St. and then Western Main St. We found the ticket booth, and helped by a hopeful tourist guide, purchased the necessary tickets.

We started our visit to the many sights - the Rishengchang Bank was our first stop - the first bank in China and now a museum for banking. Covering an area of 1,400 square meters and established in 1823, it has twenty-one buildings around three courtyards on a north-south central axis. The counters are arranged on either side of the front yard. The three rooms in the middle courtyard house the exchange centre, where primary operations were carried out. Guest rooms are to be found in the wings beside the main hall. In the rear court there are five main halls. As an important financial institution, Rishengchang devised many initiatives for its banking system. For example, just opposite the door hangs a tablet inscribed with a few lines of poetry. In actual fact they are some of the earliest cryptograph characters that, like Morse code, represent a series of corresponding numbers. The cipher was constantly changed so as to restrict its interpretation to just a privileged few. Moreover, other security techniques, such as seals, watermarks, and handwriting of certain styles, were applied to the drafts issued by the bank. For almost more than a century, Rishengchang thrived with increased deposits until it went out of business in the early years of the Chinese Republic.

As the banking business thrived in Pingyao - at one time more than 20 banks had their main offices here, so did the armed escort business, with many of the residences being the head offices of the companies that escorted the money throughout China.

To the untrained eye, as ours, the residences we visited with buildings surrounding courtyards, looked fairly similar. We decided to focus on the temples which usually are more colourful. As we walked along the streets we could see the different building with their wood fronts and engravings. Along the central street there were over 220 banks, inns, pawn shops, Chinese herb shops, silk shops, tea stores, antique stores and restaurants at that glorious time - during Pingyao's prime period. Today many are turned into tourist shops, hotels, bars and restaurants, as Pingyao is a city that attracts many tourists - mostly Chinese, but also a fair few foreigners. We were greeted by many shouts of “come look here” as we walked by – but just as many stares, mouth dropping and pointed fingers as we walked past with Yanmei and Daji.

In April Pingyao is grey and dusty, it would be nice with a few more flowers and trees, and probably a shower or two to wask the dust and dirt away. We stopped for coffee and hot chocolate at a western bar – the bar was decorated like a western ranch. Lots of Chinese took pictures on the outside, but few ventured in – even though I think the idea was more addressed the Chinese than Westerners, it was more or less only Westerners that went inside.

In the afternoon we visited the The Ancient Government Building which housed a prison and a number of barbaric torture instruments and stocks, as well as the site where public trials took place. The complex contained other government buildings for tax collection and the judges quarters. Not least the torture instruments interested Daji. We also visited the The Former Residence of Lei Lutai built during the end of 18th century and the beginning of 19th century and consisting of four courtyards and associated buildings. Lei Lutai was a business tycoon in Qing Dynasty because he was one of the founders of Rishengchang and was a major figure in China's financial history.

Our last stop was the Confucian Temple, once also a school where bureaucrats studied before taking their exams. There are 87 sculptures of Confucius and his disciples at the site, which is the largest number in any temple. Confucius is regarded as the forefather of Chinese culture during the past 2,500 plus years and temples worshipping him are found throughout ancient China. The temple consists of 112 buildings, the main building built in 1163. After seeing the grey streets and dark residences, it was nice to see some grass, trees and colour, that one always finds in Chinese temples.

We were back at the hotel around 5pm tired and a bit cold, so we eat at the hotel – where the food turned out to be excellent – and Yanmei and Daji got even more attention. Lene played cards with Yanmei and Daji, Steven updated our diary and answered a couple of mails. We slept early and long – Yanmei and Daji sleeping alone in a hotel for the first time.

NEXT DAY (3rd)