xploring and, most importantly, enjoying smaller towns in Chinese provinces can be a daunting task. First off, smaller in China does not mean the usual peace and quiet with narrow curved streets that I envision when contemplating provincial towns, but rather a bustle and buzz of what seems like a big city to most of us, just with more chaos and intertwining storylines than a place like Beijing. Finding your way through endless markets, white goods streets and shopping malls is not what a regular pleasure-seeking tourist might be looking for when traveling around China.
However, that is where the charm comes in as well. Once you do uncover a local gem, be it a church nestled in the inner yard of a clothes market, or a building with bizarre architecture, it makes it just yours to enjoy and admire, sans the usual crowds that surround the famous tourism sights.
Such is the southern part of Hebei, the province that surrounds China’s capital, which most people pass through on the way to more enticing destinations. Rummaging through fields of cabbage and corn which could be shrouded in an all-consuming smog might not seem worth your while that is until the chaos of the urban areas emerges as an expression of freedom, rather than anarchy.
I started my exploration with the capital of Hebei Province, Shijiazhuang. With almost 4.5 million people living in the urban area, Shijiazhuang ranks 12th among China’s cities according to population. It is an unexpected food heaven, with street stalls crowding in the underpasses, back-alley streets, and even busy crossings.
A truly unusual sight for someone residing in Beijing since the police officers stationed nearby don’t seem to mind the crowds gathered around sizzling oil woks and tossed noodle bowls. Shijiazhuang also surprised with the variety of dishes available. Besides the usual pancakes or fried noodles, you can opt for shredded potato pancakes with fresh spring onion and chili sprinkled on top that more resembles Eastern European cuisine than Chinese, lacking only a generous scoop of sour cream to make the feast even more so. Fresh bread and pancakes are plentiful in the fruit and food markets that dot the city. I headed to one semi-outdoor bazaar after a visit to the Hebei Provincial Museum. The lady behind the stall cuts up a pancake the diameter of a large watermelon and packs a bag of chili oil for dipping. She has lived here for more than 20 years but says she has never visited the museum, just 20 meters away. “Not my field of interest,” she claimed. The food vendors are warm and interested in chatting even if you don’t intend to buy their produce.
The visit to the museum is a must for anyone stopping by Shijiazhuang. The grand stone structure looms over the square in front of it, maintaining the majestic claim of the city. As usual for any national or provincial museums around China, if you are really committed to going through all the halls, it might take up a whole day, and you should certainly save some time for eating. The provincial museum boasts a collection of jade burial suits, a truly impressive sight, with explanations and history available in English. The suits consist of either square or round tiles sewn together with gold, bronze, or silver thread, depending on the status that the deceased held. Besides the jade suits, the museum holds a grand collection of pottery from various dynasties, a large part of it from the porcelain capital of China, Jingdezhen.
It is worth being selective about the exhibition halls you want to visit, since some of them feature early history and fauna of Hebei, with poor taxidermy work and stereotyped minority costumes with a facsimile of their typical housing.
About 75 kilometers from Shijiazhuang are the green cliffs of Mount Cangyan in Jingxing County. After roaming around the flatlands of South Hebei, heading to Mount Cangyan promises more adventurous times. The mountainous area is impressive, but visitors flock there for the temple complex that has been erected through different dynasties. The Fortune Celebration Temple can be explored in about three hours and requires climbing up a fair few stairs to reach all the corners. It was first erected during the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and was the place where Princess Nan Yang, the daughter of the Sui Emperor Yang, practiced Buddhism.
The most famous part of the complex is Bridge-Tower Hall, which is suspended between two rocks and is visible from the foot of the mountain as you climb the narrow stairs sandwiched by rocks. The area has been used to shoot scenes for movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and even The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
Since Mount Cangyan does not offer accommodation to foreigners, you’ll be better off exploring it from Shijiazhuang and returning to the provincial capital for a nightcap. The next day, I headed out to Quyang, an obscure town north of Shijiazhuang that locals suggested was worth a visit. Quyang is a hotspot for stone carvings and sculpture which are exported throughout China and even abroad. The street with the factories is on the southern side of the city, around Quxin Lu and Nanhuan Lu. Once you get into the sculpture town, it will be obvious you’ve reached your goal. If unsure, ask the locals where the sculpting (diaosu) goes on. The factories of all sizes display their grand works in the front yards, and it’s quite common to see 40 or 50 statues of Mao towering 10 meters above the street.
The factory receptionists are eager to show you around and might even let you enter the working studios, with stone dust clouding the air and half-finished sculptures dotting the floor. The town is particularly famous for China’s trademark marble statues of lions and Buddhist figurines, and boasts a tradition of craftsmanship dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), later developing Ding porcelain in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Artisans from Quying have been involved in constructions from the very important – the Great Hall of the People in Beijing – to the humble. It was quite a revelation when I realized that all the arches and gates that mark the entry to the villages around China are handmade, and assembling them is not as easy as it looks.