The ancient town within the 6km-long (4-mile) city wall is ideal for walking. Take your map, head in any direction, and you're bound to find traditional architectural and cultural gems. Indeed, the town's charm is most alive away from the tourist crowds at the main sights -- heading east along Dong Dajie from Ming Qing Jie and then into the narrow lanes of the southeastern quadrant is a good start. On the way, you'll get to see how some of the 20,000 current residents of Pingyao's old city live. While in the past tickets had to be purchased separately for each site, visitors must now buy a 2-day pass for ¥120 that allows entrance to the town's 20 most popular sites. These sites are open from 8am to 6pm in the summer. Passes are available from the North Gate, the East Gate, the South Gate, Chenghuang Miao, Confucius Temple, Qingxuguan Temple, Ri Sheng Chang, and Xianya Shu. A few lesser-known sites in town still require a separate ticket. English audio guides for the main sites included on the pass are available at all of these locations. They cost ¥40 (plus ¥200 or passport as deposit) and are valid for 2 days. The audio guides are satellite-linked and are prompted into action to give a short introduction to each site as you arrive.

A good first stop is the three-story Shi Lou (Market Building; not included in 2-day pass; ¥5; 8am-7pm) that marks the city center and affords the best view of the old town. The well-preserved Ming dynasty ancient city wall (gu chengqiang), made of rammed earth and bricks, also affords views of the old city and outlying areas. It takes about an hour to walk the circumference of the wall. Near the center of town, Ri Sheng Chang and Bai Chuan Tong -- headquarters of two of 19th-century China's leading money exchanges -- are reminders that this remote town was once the financial center of the Qing government. Both compounds have been transformed into museums that look much more like elegant courtyard residences than banks. Restored and rebuilt, Ri Sheng Chang (Xi Dajie 38) is an engaging museum of three courtyards and almost two dozen halls and rooms. Bai Chuan Tong (Nan Dajie 109) is now a furniture museum consisting of bedrooms, parlors, a kitchen, and a room for taking snuff (and probably opium) -- all furnished and decorated in Ming and Qing styles.

A few blocks southeast of the Market Building on Chenghuang Miao Jie are three Daoist temples in one, the Chenghuang Miao, Caishen Miao, and Zaojun Miao, honoring the City God, the God of Wealth, and the Kitchen God. The separate but connected buildings are meant to imitate the arrangement of the government seat and its offices. Start at the Temple of the City God. At the back, where scriptures would normally be, the walls have trompe l'oeil murals of bookshelves filled with books and scrolls. Turn right (east) to get to the Kitchen God Temple. To get to the less obvious Temple of the God of Wealth, go to the back of the first temple and take the door to the left (west). This Ming dynasty complex burned down twice and was last rebuilt in 1864. Follow Chenghuang Miao Jie west (where it becomes Zhengfu Jie) to visit the Xianya Shu (or Yamen). This was the administrative office that meted out justice, such as it was, during the Ming and Qing dynasties. On the east side, there was a summoning drum (dengwen gu). When someone had a complaint, they beat the drum to call for the Yamen chief, who would then hear the case and make his judgment. You may catch performers in rehearsal for operas and reenactments of trials that are performed here at select times throughout the week. A fine example of a wealthy urban residence, the former home of pioneering banker Lei Lutai, Lei Lutai Guju, Shuyuan Jie, is also worth a visit for its four rows of connecting courtyards, each in a different style. In the front courtyard, a "certified fortuneteller" reads hands, faces, and astrological charts -- alas, only in Chinese.


Out of Town

A Buddhist temple (8am-6pm; ¥20) within biking or driving distance of Pingyao is Zhenguo Si, 12km (7 1/2 miles) northeast of the old town. Its Wanfo Dian (Palace of Ten Thousand Buddhas), from the Tang dynasty, is another of China's oldest timber-frame buildings. Inside, its impressive statuary dates to the Five Dynasties (907-960). One of the pleasures of this less-visited temple is its tranquil atmosphere, due in part to an absence of touts and souvenir stalls.

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