Meeting Pingyao – A Hidden City in China


It took 6.5 hours from Beijing West Station to Datong, Shanxi on a hard bed train, and another 4 hours from Datong to the old county of Pingyao. The one and only piece of information I had about Pingyao was given by a 57-year-old man on the train from Datong, that it was famous for its beef.

Big buses were not allowed to enter the town, so transfered to a small bus that looked like golf carts but could fit approximately 15 people. At first, we couldn’t see anything as we drove through dark alleys to reach town center, where our guesthouse was located. As we were closer to the center, we could occasionally see faces of local people, mostly topless men frowning due to headlights. The sides of the car were open; the air was much fresher than that of Beijing. Amid darkness, my other senses were magnified. I smelled the scent of old brick walls, heard voices of people chatting on the streets, felt the breeze touching my cheeks.

Then, in a split second, we took a curve and entered the main street, full of lights. It was a Saturday night and streets was lively, full of people drinking beer outside while eating broiled lambs and red lanterns rose up above their heads. For two minutes, my eyes didn’t know how to process the sight of such overabundance of lights and livelihood. In the next moment, one of them was readily placed on the viewfinder of my camera. I started to collect pieces of this little town that I could take.

The next day, two old ladies chatted about what they saw on TV last night. A group of four kids appeared our of nowhere, with a little black puppy following their steps. One of the ladies asked if the puppy was theirs; none answered, and their faces clearly revealed they had already lost interest in the animal. The old lady chuckled with her hand patting the puppy and her eyes set on faces of the small humans of Pingyao. It was the prettiest smile I have ever seen from a stranger, and it took 2 seconds to precisely capture it with my camera.

The entire town of Pingyao has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, mainly for well-preserved brick buildings and the city wall from the Qing Dyansty. I almost instantly fell in love with the town as I arrived late the previous night. Red lanterns lit up here and there, glimmering over aged grey buildings, the smell of beef kabobs and smoke coming from cigarettes of youngsters hopping onto a wooden cart led an outsider into a fantasy that she has become a part of a movie scene.

But after the sunrise, what caught my mind was not the buildings nor the city wall; it was the faces of the people – to put it simply, I never had a chance to take a picture of someone yawning on the street in any of the cities I had been to. I learned the basics of photography on busy streets of Seoul where I took pictures for a street fashion website.  Since then, I had often been in search of the hippest and the prettiest people on the streets. The people of Pingyao had nothing in common with my regular “models.” Yet I felt, for the first time, that I was taking pictures of people whose smiles I truly hoped to remember for a long time – smiles that I hardly saw in the rat-racers of Beijing.

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