“Daddy, I don’t want to go to Jimingyi”. Why not, I asked my two year old over my shoulder, while dodging trucks on the backroads of Hebei Province. “Because it’s not good to go in there. It’s very dangerous”. I’m not sure how much my kid really knew about the old walled village that once was an important relay post for the Ming Dynasty postal system, but she seemed pretty convinced. Still, it couldn’t possibly be more dangerous than Hebei’s roads. I’d just done lengthy battle with literally hundreds of trucks, and I was about ready to pull in anywhere. With one last blast of a truck horn on my tail sealing the deal, I swung off the road for the final night in the back blocks of Hebei.
Hebei Province is generally best known for heavy industry that causes a lot of Beijing’s smog. It’s also known by Beijing drivers – as though they have any business criticising – as the home of people who don’t know how to drive. Well, on this road trip I had all my near-accidents in Beijing thanks to Beijing-plated cars, and to top it off, returning my car to its carpark in the city the next day I was almost wiped out by a Beijing bus blatantly running a red. So, re Hebei, let’s just go with “heavy industry”.
What’s less well known about Hebei is that it has some incredible natural beauty and a wealth of Imperial Chinese history. There are hundreds of kilometers of Great Wall here, from both the Ming and pre-Ming dynasties, and at least a few hundred forts and fortified villages. Based on my friends’ research, one could spend a week or two just driving from one fortified village to the next within a 50 kilometer radius of where I spent this weekend.
This trip began in my mind way back in 2015. I’d read about Jimingyi, but in October that year on a flight back from Ulan Bator I actually saw it from the air. I resolved there and then to visit it as soon as I could (and with a child, “soon” takes on a loose definition). Meanwhile, much more recently, while looking for the Great Wall from another flight, I saw a very high mountain just beyond the Guanting Reservoir in the same general area as Jimingyi. Searching for it later on Google Earth, I discovered it was the 2,882 meter high Xiao Wutaishan, or Little Wutaishan. I decided I needed to climb that, and given the proximity to Jimingyi, I figured both could be done in a single weekend.
Xiao Wutaishan, or Little Wutai Mountain, is at the northeastern end of the Taihang Mountains, a range which does not actually include the far more famous but scarcely higher Wutai Mountain. Xiao Wutaishan is 2,882 meters high, while its namesake is 3,061. Both have significance for Chinese Buddhism. Little Wutai Mountain is in a nature park, and has a military zone on one side which civilians (especially foreigners) would do well to avoid. Getting into the park at all turned out to waste most of the day. By the time we arrived in the area, having stopped for lunch in a grotty little one street town and been quietly papped by all the patrons, it was already mid afternoon. At both the first villages I tried, the gates were closed. The first place let us walk in to have a look around, but we were forbidden from bringing any equipment, so my original cheeky plan to camp on the lower slope of the mountain was foiled.
I’d bounced my new car over a very rocky, bouldery road to get here (misinterpreting Google Earth, I missed the normal dirt access road…). A sign indicated something about the park being closed, though of course, in true China style, a minivan full of Chinese tourists was allowed to drive in the gate and up the road just minutes after I was told I couldn’t.
We’d been driving for ages so we stretched our legs up that path, and then I decided to try the next village.
The park entry at the second village was locked down even tighter than the first, so as the day waned away I decided to go to the third, furthest village, and recce the situation. Once there, I discovered this was a formal entrance to the park and the next morning, we’d be able to go in. I asked the gate attendant if there was a guesthouse nearby and, again in true China style, the woman standing next to him owned one. I invited her into the car and we drove the few hundred meters to her place. It was basic, clean, and empty. We took it.
The next day, we had an early breakfast of noodles, mantou (steamed buns) and, beneath portraits of Chairman Mao and China’s current President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan, binge-watched Mandarin episodes of Peppa Pig. Like Gangnam Style a few years ago, that pig is everywhere.
The sun was already up high when we got to the entry at 8:30am, paid for our ticket (78元), and went inside. The first part of the park is a glorious gorge with water so clear it was genuinely hard to believe this was a stream in China. It looked good enough to drink, sparkling and gurgling under the blue sky. A soft breeze came down from the mountains, and the very few people around all seemed calm, contented, and, like me, just happy to be there. The little one loved the water, splashed about and had a blast. Slowly but steadily we made our way though the gorge, up to the Golden River Temple (Jinhe Si 金河寺) and onwards up the valley.
Jimingyi Postal Town
Though first set up during the Yuan Dynasty in 1219, Jimingyi came to prominence as a postal town during the later Ming Dynasty. By 1420 it was already important, and in 1472 it gained its enormous defensive walls. The wall was rebuilt in the Qing Dynasty, around 1738, and then finally restored again just in the last few years.
The place was like a truckstop along the highway – somewhere for postal riders to switch horses, rest, deliver and receive orders or news. Jimingyi was one of the larger and more important such places on this route from the capital westwards, and it developed its own collection of temples and even a small opera theater. With its defensive walls it also served to strengthen the security of the nearby region.
Heaven knows there were enough trucks around this area to keep Jimingyi in that general business. They drove heavily all up and down the main road which passed the ancient town, blasting their horns with uncomfortable regularity. I’ve had run-ins with these road monsters before and am especially wary of them because I doubt they are that well maintained, especially their brakes. Their drivers’ understanding of the road rules – other than that universal law of little yields to big – is similarly questionable. When you see and/or hear one coming, you get the hell out of the way.
These days Jimingyi is undergoing some redevelopment. Despite that, it remains, at least in June, a sleepy, dusty little place, the kind you’d expect to see tumbleweeds roll through, or a lonely old vulture. You have to pay to get into the old town – just 40 yuan – and that ticket then allows you into the various official sites. We had very little time, arriving around 6pm and with a planned 6am departure, and when I peeked into the first place and realised it was completely restored, I decided we’d just roam the old streets instead. That, after all, gives a better flavour of real life in Jimingyi than some saccharine reproductions of a Ming era post office. The old residents gathered on the side of the streets, nattering about the concerns and amusements of the day as we passed, laughing as W chased the guesthouse’s dog back and forth in the dust.
We wrapped the trip up with a little treat on the tiny balcony looking over that quiet main street. W enjoyed another banana. Papa enjoyed a second beer. Tomorrow morning would bring a long drive back to the capital. Tomorrow night would bring Mama home from Australia.