Way back at the beginning of April, one of our best Chinese friends graciously invited Boyfriend and me to his hometown for a long weekend. He is from Gaobeidian (高碑店), a “city” about two hours from Beijing by bus in the neighboring province of Hebei. I say “city” because even though my friend says it has a population of about 700,000 — about the same as Boston — the atmosphere there feels something more like my hometown, which has a population more than 10 times smaller.
Fun fact: The only movie theater in town closed a few years ago because not enough of the 700,000 residents went, and until very recently, there was not a single McDonald’s (there were at least two KFCs, though).
Gaobeidian, which should not be confused with the Beijing neighborhood sharing the same name, is a typical Chinese city made up of wide, dusty streets, nondescript buildings, and no discernible identity. It has one main drag lined with small local businesses and multilevel shopping centers filled with Chinese brands. Of course, on the holiday weekend we were there, these malls were a hubbub of activity, with cars trying to cram into their parking lots and loud music blaring from storefronts.
Fun fact: One of Gaobeidian’s main products is instant noodles (at least, it has a major instant noodle factory). It also produces windows and doors, and when we went, it was getting ready for the second annual window and door festival hosted by the local manufacturer.
But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a lazy weekend spent eating delicious home cooking. My friend’s mother made us dumplings filled with lamb and noodles with different sauces — eggplant, egg and tomato, and my favorite, zha jiang, while one of his cousins barbecued chuanr (Xinjiang-style kebabs) for us another night. My friend’s aunt is what people would call “newly rich Chinese” — apparently my friend’s cousins have done rather well for themselves. She drives an Audi and lives in this gated compound with a two-story house and giant yard, where they have two fish ponds and a vegetable garden. It was definitely an interesting change from the usual apartment high-rises that everyone in China lives in these days, or even the old-style siheyuan courtyard houses. We also spent a day in Baoding (保定), the former provincial capital that was the most important outpost during imperial times.
Fun fact: A two-hour bus ride from Beijing to Gaobeidian is cheaper (RMB 11) than a one-hour bus ride from Gaobeidian to Baoding (RMB 18).
In Baoding, we checked out the Zhili Provincial Governor’s Office (直隶总督署, Zhili Zongdu Shu), which is the only Qing Dynasty government office to be so lovingly well-preserved, and the Ancient Lotus Pond (古莲花池, Gu Lianhua Chi), which to my friend’s dismay has been not-so-tastefully restored to its former glory before British troops burned it to the ground during some war or another. I still quite enjoyed the latter; first built during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368), it is one of the oldest classical gardens in China and one of the only ones in northern China (the rest are in and around Suzhou). It was also the former site of an academy for classical learning and thus houses a ton of calligraphy tablets and steles from different historical periods. My friend, who is really into Chinese calligraphy, was fascinated by them. I could make neither head nor tail out of any of them, but this guy has a lot more info (and pictures!) on them from a very academic perspective.
Fun fact: Baoding’s local specialty is the donkey sandwich (驴肉火烧), which we managed to find up a small alley just before we had to go. I can’t say they were any better than the ones we have in Beijing, but they certainly weren’t any worse.
All in all, it was a nice weekend getaway from Beijing. Even though we were just a couple of hours from the city, we were able to get a glimpse of a China stripped of foreign elements — a sight so rare in Beijing that I often forget how cosmopolitan the city actually is. Gaobeidian, on the other hand, with its mundane ordinariness, is just another Chinese town waking up to the modern century.
Bonus fun fact: The bus ride back to Beijing took more than three hours because of heavy holiday traffic. My friend had brought along several cans of beer, which he and Boyfriend unwisely drank. After almost an hour of extreme discomfort, and after Boyfriend had already surreptitiously peed into an empty Coke bottle that was lying around, my friend made his way up to the front of the bus and asked the bus operator if he could go for a bathroom break. About a dozen other guys immediately jumped up and followed suit.