Leaving Beijing and pushing deeper into China, we weren't really sure what to expect after getting accustomed to the comforts of the big city but knew the heart of China lay in the countryside. Traveling by long distance train, we found to be pretty cheap and a good way to spend time with the locals. There are three options on the train from cheapest to expensive from a hard seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. Our first ride was on a hard seat, which is not really hard at all, although sleeping is a challenge as there is eating, chatting, and of course snoring going on at all hours. At the train station, we saw everyone carrying huge packaged bowls of noodle soup, so at first were a little perplexed about how they would be consumed, only to learn later that the trains have a ready supply of scalding hot water to make soup and of course tea, which the Chinese drink by the gallon. We caught on soon enough and before long had our own bowls along with hot green tea for the rides.
At any given time, there are approximately 10 million people riding the trains, so buying a train ticket few days in advance is definitely advisable. One thing that can be said of the Chinese for sure is that they love to travel in huge numbers. We had no idea, but pretty much everywhere we went, we saw huge tour groups leading hunderds upon hundreds of locals to sites. The plus side of this situation is that you are pretty much left alone from tourist touts, who know they can always get business from their own and ones who do approach you aren't too pushy and after a few polite no's will let you go your own way.
So, with that, our next stop was Pingyao, a very well preserved walled city about 1,400 years old with much of the rural population still residing within the city walls. Anyway, Pinyao is a beautiful city with hanging lanterns that are lit at night along with lines of stores selling local handicrafts and local restaurants serving up big noodle soups and local sweets. Visiting a village was definitely the highlight with lot of work getting done by donkey carts and old men in blue Mao suits and hats sitting around smoking water pipes. The Zhangbi ancient village lies about an hour away, so taking a taxi was well worth it as the castle, which was built in 617 AD contains underground tunnels, which have three layers, connected by crisscrossing tunnels some as long as 5 kilometers (3 miles).