By Joseph Giovannini
July 11, 2014

You expect Marco Polo to round the corner at any moment. Pingyao is the very rare Chinese city, perhaps the last of the country’s great walled towns, to have escaped the successive waves of modernization that have swept China over the past 100 years—the 1911 Chinese Revolution, the 1949 Communist Revolution, the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, and the rampant industrialization and globalization of the last generation. Its 72 watchtowers look out over a turbulent sea of tiled roofs, with curving eaves tipped with ceramic dragons. Red paper lanterns float over the pedestrian streets like so many autumn moons. The city is a time machine into the Chinese past and traditional Han culture. It’s all here, Pompeii before Vesuvius, a fine-grained, highly detailed, movie-set-perfect microcosm of traditional China, built during a seminal and flourishing period. The nearly one-square-mile town includes the ornate, tiered, three-story City Tower and numerous large Confucian and Taoist temple complexes, all part of one of the world’s best-preserved ancient cities.

Pingyao is 400 miles southwest of Beijing and accessible via train. The closest airport is Taiyuan.