WHERE WALL MEETS SEA: Laolongtou, or the Dragon's Head, reaches out into the Bohai Sea. This section of the Great Wall is one of many tourist attractions that provide a nice alternative to the sights of Beijing (BRANDON TAYLOR)
When it comes to culture and tourism, Hebei Province can't compete with the imperial palaces, temples, summer resorts and other ancient landmarks of Beijing. The province is also missing the museums and monuments to the people's heroes. But what it lacks in epic tourist attractions Hebei makes up for with smaller, quainter sights that provide a pleasant respite from the busy city life and crowded tourist hotspots of the Chinese capital.
Tangshan, a two-hour drive east of Beijing, provides ample opportunities for the avid history buff to delve into China's modern times. Kailuan National Mine Park, the nation's first mine, is a living fossil showcasing China's coming of age as an industrial nation. The park's grounds feature a number of rust-coated buildings that attempt to recreate the mining facility as it was in the late 1800s. A large stone statue of several miners honors the men who toiled away underground over the last century in search of coal. Beneath the park, the mines are still active as miners chisel away at the earth looking for the black rock still used to fuel China's industry.
The memorial park for the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 is a sobering reminder to nature's destructiveness and unpredictability. A few toppled buildings and bare steel frames have been left untouched since the disaster. A long, marble wall stretching roughly the length of a football field—a solemn attempt to put the death toll of 240,000 into perspective—has the names of the victims etched onto its black, reflective surface.
One of Tangshan's more impressive sights, if only because of its back story, is Nanhu Ecological Park. Prior to becoming the eco-haven it is, with 1,300 hectares dedicated to all things eco-friendly and green, the park was a massive compost pile following the earthquake in 1976. In the late 1990s, the local government stepped in, re-beautifying the area and turning it into a pristine ecological park with waters that rival the West Lake in Hangzhou and a variety of wild flora and fauna.
Tourism in Luanzhou, a smaller city under Tangshan's jurisdiction, is still in its infancy. The city currently lacks the necessary infrastructure to sustain large crowds of tourists. But plans are in motion to boost the city's tourist industry. Restoration work was recently wrapped up on Wanfeng Tower, an ancient pagoda built in 947, but partially destroyed by the Tangshan earthquake.
In 2010, construction began on a monumental project: an entire ancient city park being built adjacent to modern Luanzhou. Covering around 130 hectares, the new ancient city will incorporate architectural styles from ancient Luanzhou and act as the centerpiece of the county's tourist revitalization efforts.
Tea and jade jewelry shops along the city park's avenues adhere to Luanzhou's traditional charm, while cafes, bars, clubs and restaurants add a touch of modernity. For a sizeable fee, special courtyard flats can be purchased or rented, completing the feel of living in ancient times, albeit with the conveniences of running water and heating.
Once officially completed in 2014—although parts of the city are already open and ready for tourists—the ancient city park will add new confidence to the city's cultural industry and efforts to turn Luanzhou into a hotspot tourist destination.
Hebei's coastal areas, aside from being the focus of the Central Government's efforts to turn the region in a massive economic rim, also feature relaxing locales for tourists and urbanites alike.
Near Qinhuangdao in the northeastern tip of the province, the beaches and streets of Beidaihe provide everything that can be expected of a small, coastal town: sand, water and seafood restaurants aplenty. Walks along the sandy shores give visitors the chance to breathe in fresh air—or at least a breeze that's slightly less industrially tainted. Buildings around the town mimic European architectural designs, a result of that continent's influence throughout Beidaihe's history. And like any beach town, merchants desperately try to peddle the usual beach souvenirs: seashell necklaces, decorated turtle shells, crab claws, pieces of carved driftwood, and the occasionally polished rock.
Sizeable stretches of the Great Wall also work their way through Hebei, with the notable Jinshanling section drawing large crowds of tourists. While these ranges in the ancient wall provide stunning views of the ancient structure as it works its way over rolling mountains, an equally great section of the wall can be found in Shanhaiguan, just north of Qinhuangdao.
The Shanhaiguan section is the wall's easternmost reach—it's beginning or end—where is meets the sea. Coined Old Dragon's Head (Laolongtou), the wall looks like a dragon drinking from or about to dive into the sea. The original wall is long gone, destroyed during China's tumultuous history in the earlier half of the 20th century, but reconstruction efforts in the 1980s have returned the Old Dragon's Head to its former glory. A few of the original stones were used in the reconstructed wall, but for the most part it's 100 percent replica.