International hotel chains in China’s massively large cities tend to look somewhat alike, with their vast lobbies, cookie-cutter guest rooms and buffet-style breakfasts (one might as well be in Cleveland).
On my most recent trip, I wanted something different and more authentic. I found it in Pingyao, a city of just 500,000 in central Shanxi province about 715 km southwest of Beijing (and reached easily by train or airplane). No megachain hotels in sight.
During the Qing Dynasty, Pingyao was a leading financial center of China, and its historic core (still sheltered within ancient city walls) retains some of the flavor of that prosperous past. Founded in the 14th century, it’s one of China’s best-preserved old cities and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I stayed at the Pingyao Yiguan Folk Custom Inn, 33 Xihujing St, Pingyao, Jinzhong, Shanxi, China — a traditional Chinese hostelry remodeled from a wealthy merchant’s historic compound within the city walls. (It’s sometimes listed as Yiguan Folklore Inn — make sure the address is the same.)
It has just 24 rooms but there’s a clerk at the desk 24/7, and they’ll store luggage if your scheduled departure is after you need to check out. The owners have managed to keep a traditional ambiance — with the necessary additions of free WiFi, a flat screen television and en suite bathrooms with showers.
They offer a family-style breakfast, either Western or Chinese. I opted for the latter, and it was both lavish and tasty. Rates are low by Western standards, I paid about $45 a night — great value for the money.
A word about beds: traditional Chinese hotels don’t have Western-style beds (although they do — almost always — have Western-style toilets). One sleeps on a thick pad atop a wooden platform. There’s a quilt for warmth but the biggest difference is the pillow. At the Pingyao Yiguan as elsewhere, it’s stuffed not with feathers or foam but buckwheat hulls. Sounds awful, but it’s not, really. You can’t puff it up, but you can shape it into a comfortable hollow to lay your head.
(Photos and review by Susan McKee, who visited Pingyao while on assignment for another publication.)