A somewhat anonymous region, Hebei has two great cities at its heart – Beijing and Tianjin – both of which long ago outgrew the province and struck out on their own as separate municipalities. In the south, a landscape of flatlands is spotted with heavy industry and mining towns – China at its least glamorous – which are home to the majority of the province’s seventy million inhabitants. Though most travellers pass through here on their way to or from the capital, few stop. The sparsely populated tableland to the north, rising from the Bohai Gulf, holds more promise. For most of its history this marked China’s northern frontier, and was the setting for numerous battles with invading forces; both the Mongols and the Manchus swept through, leaving their mark in the form of the Great Wall, winding across lonely ridges.
The first sections of the wall were built in the fourth century AD, along the Hebei–Shanxi border, in an effort to fortify its borders against aggressive neighbours. Two centuries later, Qin Shi Huang’s Wall of Ten Thousand Li skirted the northern borders of the province. The parts of the wall visible today, however, are the remains of the much younger and more extensive Ming-dynasty wall, begun in the fourteenth century as a deterrent against the Mongols. You can see the wall where it meets the sea at Shanhaiguan, a fortress town only a few hours by train from Beijing. If you’re in the area, don’t miss the intriguing seaside resort of Beidaihe, along the coast to the south, whose beaches host summer vacationers and dwindling numbers of Communist Party elite. Well north of the wall, the town of Chengde is the province’s most visited attraction, an imperial base set amid the wild terrain of the Hachin Mongols and conceived on a grand scale by the eighteenth-century emperor Kangxi, with temples and monuments to match. All three towns are popular spots with domestic tourists, particularly Beijingers snatching a weekend away from the capital’s bustle and stress. The Chinese like their holiday spots the way they like their restaurants – renao (literally “hot and noisy”) – but it’s easy to beat the crowds and find some great scenery.
Tianjin, an industrial giant and former concession town with a distinctly Western stamp, is worth a day-trip on the super-fast express train from Beijing to see its hodgepodge of colonial architecture and modern skyscrapers.