Inside Hebei: Baoding
For too long, I had been just in the outskirts of Baoding — and never really in the city centre. At times when I was bored (in my mid 20s), I’d often go for a drive on the outskirts of Greater Beijing, but never actually head into Baoding. So it’d be until 2010 when I actually drove into central Baoding.
Like any Chinese city, signposts are often written in both Mandarin Chinese and English, but Baoding’s had serious Chinglish on them. Some were outright hilarious; others, totally confusing. But there was much more to Baoding for me than “wronglish signs”, and I’d actually take a job based in Baoding, which allowed me to explore the city for much longer. As I’d usually get in by 09:00 in the morning, with classes only around 13:30 or so, I’d get four hours of complete freedom of movement in the city.
Baoding: The Square Mile of Hebei
Baoding is like the Square Mile here in London. That’s actually a fairly accurate comparison, as the former provincial capital of Hebei was actually here. This would be “the original” capital — as in the place where the capital of Hebei (also known then as Chihli or Zhili) “grew”, so to speak. (Shijiazhuang — an urban area “grown up” thanks to a huge rail junction — not unlike Clapham Junction — is the modern-day provincial capital, but then there’s nothing too historical about trains in comparison.)
Unlike the more recent capital, Shijiazhuang, Baoding was “born” and became an established settlement of note as early as 295 BC. It was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century, but was rebuilt after the Yuan Dynasty was established. The current name, Baoding, dates from this exact dynasty. From that time onwards, it was the capital of Chihli or Zhili.
Baoding’s status as provincial capital of what would now be Hebei was lost in 1958, but regained in 1966. It lost it permanently, though, in 1970, when Shijiazhuang became the new provincial capital. In spite of this, there is visibly more culture and history here, as it’s been around much longer.
Baoding from the Dynasties Past
The area around Greater Baoding has an impressive 16 cultural relics designated by the Chinese state, which include capital relics of the Yan State, dating back to 475 BC (in nearby Yixian County), the Stele of Lao Zi’s Dao De Jing / Tao Te Ching, the Geyuan, Kaiyuan, Kaishan, and Beiyue temples, and elements form more recent years — underground tunnels during the Second World War, and the historical site of the Baoding Military Academy, established in the final years of the Qing dynasty.
Also worth a look is the Zhili Provincial Governor’s Office, as well as the Mancheng Han Tombs. Of greater note are the Western Qing Tombs, in Yixian County. (The province of Hebei is also home to the Eastern Qing Tombs, in eastern Hebei’s Zunhua.)
Finally, there is also the Great Wall at Zijinguan Pass, further in the suburbs. (Many parts of northern Hebei have many scenic spots where you can see the wall — such as Dajingmen in Zhangjiakou in the northwest, and Jinshanling in the northeast, not too far form Chengde.)
The city of Baoding continues to grow, but one part I am well aware of is the further expansion east. A massive, multi-lane avenue leads away from the city centre to the outskirts of Baoding’s 3rd Ringway, and over the Beijing-Hong Kong Expressway to Baodingdong (Baoding East) Railway Station, which is incredibly busy with high speed railway services to Beijing, Shijiazhuang, and points beyond.
Central Baoding is full of “the usual suspects” in the early 21st century — wifi cafés, pizza places, and shopping centres — much the same in any other part of an urbanised modern Chinese settlement. The city is awaiting the inauguration of train services from Tianjin, which is expected to commence in very late December 2015. Once that’s opened, Tianjin will be less than an hour away. New intercity services are also on the drawing board.
Baoding is an odd mix, at times, of the new and the old — avenues are generally not wider than four lanes (two per direction) in the city centre, whereas they become mini-motorways (or, if you’d like to see it this way, mega-motorways) the further out you move from the city centre. The old city centre still has quite a number of 1960s buildings from the planned economy era; the newer part by the East Railway Station has much more modern skyscrapers.
Finally, if standing at the station square of the East Railway Station makes you feel you’re in the middle of nowhere, remember that the city is growing in the direction of the HSR hub. The improved connections thanks to accelerated development in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region in northern China means that it’s highly unlikely Baoding will miss out on major developments.