Hebei rarely makes it on the average China traveler's itinerary, outshone as it is by both historic Beijing and trendy Tianjin, which lie within the province geographically, but outside of it administratively. However, playing the bit part of countryside-seen-through-train-windows-on-the-way-to-other-places is a role too low for this province to play, as it hosts several notable gems that shouldn't be missed. If you do happen to have some extra time in Beijing, Tianjin, or even the busy rail-junction city of Shijiazhuang, you should definitely explore.
Southern Hebei is China at its least glamorous. A landscape of flatlands, heavy industry and mining towns, it is home to the majority of the province's seventy million inhabitants. It's the sparsely populated tablelands rising from the Bohai Gulf to the north that are most promising. The oldest parts of the Great Wall of China can be seen here, its easternmost lengths dipping into the sea at Shanhaiguan, a sleepy, little fortress town a day out of Beijing. Not too far off are the beaches of Beidaihe, once exclusive retreat of Communist party bigwigs, and a nice spot to tan in the summertime.
Further north is the province's most notable attraction, the city of Chengde, a massive imperial retreat conceived by eighteenth-century Emperor Kangxi. Larger than both the Forbidden City and Summer Palace combined, Chengde includes massive replicas of the Potala palace and other tributes to major cultures populating the empire, all quite stunning to behold.
You can find a nice hotel in Tianjin, an industrial giant and former concession town. You'll find lots of shoppers plying Tianjin's trendy markets. Take in the unique medley of unkempt nineteenth-century European architecture as you browse the newest fashions and ancient antiques.
Shijiazhuang the provincial capital, isn't the most lively or interesting city, but does serve as launching point for several attractions such as Cangyan Shan Si, the mystical temples perched on cliff faces you see at the end of Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Also, Shijiazhuang plays host to the amazing Wuqiao International Acrobatics Art Festival, a biennial festival held on October 30th of every odd-numbered year.
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