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Shanxi Province, 616km (383 miles) SW of Beijing, 100km (62 miles) S of Taiyuan, 540km (335 miles) NE of Xi'an

The great majority of Chinese cities have histories extending back hundreds and often thousands of years, but few have anything outside of a museum to show for it. The central Shanxi city of Pingyao is an exception. This 2,700-year-old city had its heyday during the late Ming and Qing dynasties, and the walled city that survives today was largely built then, though a few Yuan dynasty structures also survive. Chinese and overseas travelers come to this area to see some of the best-preserved traditional architecture in China: gray-brick courtyard homes (siheyuan), extravagant family mansions (one of which was the set for Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern), a Ming city wall, Daoist and Buddhist temples, and China's earliest commercial banks. Visitors also get to stay in restored courtyards, sleep on a kang (heated brick bed), and eat wonderful Shanxi cuisine, which for some reason has yet to catch on in the West.

But Pingyao isn't all quaintness and old-world charm. Like any place in China dependent on tourism, it has an overabundance of vehicles of every kind, fake antiques, touts, and, well, tourists. Visitors on foot will have to avoid the speedy electric buggies which cart Chinese tourists around and as more residents of the old city are moved to modern apartments with modern plumbing, this World Heritage city faces the threat of becoming an over-precious imitation of itself. However, for now, Pingyao still has the vitality of a thriving town behind the veneer of an ancient one.