The surprisingly pleasant northern face of Shijiazhuang
When you hear the sounds ‘shi’, ‘jia’ and ‘zhuang’, the first three syllables that come to mind are probably ‘poll’, ‘u’ and ‘ted’. You wouldn’t be totally wrong – Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei, is often far ahead of Beijing in the AQI race to the top, and tourists are generally advised to steer well clear.
A short drive away from the city centre, however, lies Zhengding, a provincial county with temples, authentic local food and north China’s premier Ping-Pong academy.
The borders of Zhengding are marked by towering and ornately painted archways, which serve as gates between the ancient religious centre and the outside world. Zhengding was the founding place of many schools of Zen Buddhism, and as such has plenty of pretty spectacular temples that have survived historical assaults and have been restored to their former glory.
The most impressive of these is Longxing Temple. For a 50RMB entrance fee (half price for concessions), visitors can while away at least an hour wandering through the sprawling prayer halls, gardens and pagodas. There’s even a tranquil lake, perfect for a Mulan moment of reflective contemplation, and right at the back of the complex there’s a very nice hill from which you can gaze back over the picturesque grounds.
It’s worth taking the time to check out all the artwork on display in the temple. Intricately carved Buddhas and a huge bronze statue of Guan Yin, known as the Goddess of Mercy, are just two of the many impressive artefacts. Once you’ve had your fill of ancient religious spiritualism, we recommend slurping down a bowl of hearty lamian at the small shop opposite, which will set you back a princely 8RMB.
Also in Zhengding is the Zhengding Table Tennis Association, a training base for Chinese and foreign athletes. When we visited, the school was empty but open for having a look around, and is worth checking out for the slightly haunting feeling that only hundreds of abandoned Ping-Pong tables can provoke.
Getting there From Beijing West Railway Station, take the high-speed train to Shijiazhuang. From there you can get a taxi to Zhengding.
Travel time One hour from Beijing to Shijiazhuang; 40 minutes from Shijiazhuang to Zhengding.
Cost Train tickets are 125.8RMB each way, and the taxi should cost around 50RMB.