China’s Unknown Temple Town
Zhengding 正定 was known as the town of ´nine buildings, four pagodas, eight great temples and 24 archways’.
Zhengding 正定 / Hebei Province 河北省
On our way to Beijing’s colossal West station, the taxi driver asked us where we were going. When I told him, “Shijiazhuang“, his reaction was one of bewilderment: “Why? You could go to Chengde.” “Been there”, I replied. “Beidaihe is also nice”, he continued. “Been there too”, I repeated. “Anywhere but Shijiazhuang“, the driver insisted, “meiyou kekan de dongxi 没有可看的东西” (there is nothing worth seeing), he sentenced. I extolled the virtues of the places we were going to see around Shijiazhuang, such as Zhengding or Cangyan Shan, hoping for a more favourable reaction. The driver just waved his hand dismissively, probably thinking stupid “laowai ” (foreigner), and just dropped the subject. It was too late anyway, since we had already bought the tickets.
Shijiazhuang should come with a government health warning and when we alighted at the train station and inhaled the first whiff of some vile eggie sulphuric gas that seemed to be hanging over the city and then looked up at the yellowish sky, I did wonder whether I shouldn’t have taken the taxi driver’s advice.
So what can you do if you find yourself In Shijiazhuang? The first thought that might come to mind is, just catch the next train out. Or you might also like to carry out a scientific experiment and try and see how much pollution your body is able to absorb, before you turn Day-Glo. Alternatively and less drastic, you could get out of the city and explore the interesting sites that lie nearby. And that’s what we did.
In fact, there are a couple of days of interesting sightseeing near Shijiazhuang and, following this brief introduction, it won’t come as a total surprise that you’ll have most of those sites almost to yourself.
The first place to head for is Zhengding, a dusty town whose old quarter is littered with pagodas, temples, mansions and remnants of ancient city walls. Zhengding’s skyline of temples and pagodas is a reminder of what old China must have looked like.
Getting there, it’s an easy 45 minutes to one hour on bus 201 from outside Shijiazhuang’s Train Station, all the way to Zhengding’s chaotic bus station. From there, a bus number one will take you to the enormous Dafo Si, or Big Buddha Temple, which is a fitting starting point for four to five hours of rigorous sightseeing.
A 60-Yuan, multi-entrance ticket allows you to visit all the sights, except the Linji Monastery. On the back of the ticket there is a map that outlines the route you have to follow to take in all the sights. Bear in mind that the scale of the map is somewhat askew and you’ll probably end up walking much more than you’d have expected.
Dafo Si is the main sight and comprises a huge complex with many halls containing frescoes and statues. The halls get bigger and more interesting the further in you go, finally culminating in the grand and spectacular Dabei Ge, or Pavilion of Great Mercy. Inside this pavilion is a giant, 21- metre- high, bronze statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. The hall housing the statue has been rebuilt, using techniques taken from Song dynasty manuals.
Illustrative photos and detailed descriptions of how this extraordinary restoration work was carried out can be viewed in the neighbouring exhibition rooms. The best part of the pavilion is the possibility to climb right up to the top, stopping at various platforms to enjoy different perspectives of this immense statue.
Of the many other temples and pagodas in Zhengding, our favourite was the Kaiyuan Temple, with its austere Tang Dynasty Xumi Pagoda and its gargantuan and amazing stone Bixi, a mythical tortoise-like creature, that had been dug up in the very centre of town.
Last but not least, there was also the Guangghui Temple, whose remarkable pagoda, decorated with lions, elephants and sea creatures, bears more similarity to a South- Indian temple than a Northern Chinese one.
Climbing the Changle Gate at the Southern end of Zhengding gives you an idea of what the entire city wall must have been like when it was first built in the Northern Zhou Dynasty, as well as some good views over the restored Zhengding Lishi Wenhua Jie, or Zhengding Historical Culture Street.
Unfortunately, this street of (fake) traditional houses and small artisan shops (mostly closed) seems to have been built on the hopes of a tourist boom that never materialised and consequently looks a little sad. In the late afternoon, just when the tourists are leaving, the area seems to come into its own, with little food stalls being set up – some wonderful steamed dumplings – and impromptu games of cards and Mah-jong starting up.
Buses number 4 or 5 will take you back to the bus station from here (Zhengding Lishi Wenhua Jie) for 1 Yuan.