It was by accident that I learnt about the little town of Xingcheng. I was browsing Googlemaps, looking for cities I could potentially go and visit during the Spring Festival in February, when I saw the city of Huludao. It is the next city east of Qinhuangdao, just a across the border in Liaoning Province. Searching for it on Trip Advisor, I was disappointed to find not much there, but mention was made of an apparent ancient city. With a little more research I found Xingcheng, roped some friends into going with me, and purchased our K-train tickets for our day trip!
We weren’t so lucky with the weather. As it usually is in this area of China during the winter months, the air was heavy with smog, so bad in fact that we climbed the escalator to the station, where you have a fabulous view of Yingbin Lu below, we actually couldn’t see the station until we were almost at the door. The world was white, and we all made sure that we had our face masks firmly secured. The hour and a half journey went by fast as we sat amongst other travellers, playing cards and taking photos and chatting excitedly. We had made it out of QHD!
Now part of the city of Huludao, Xingcheng was originally part of the city Ningyuan, which was a place of great importance in this part of China at the time. In the early 1400’s the city walls were constructed and it thus became a place of pivotal importance during the Battle of Ningyuan in 1626, when the Ming defeated the Manchu army. Today it stands as one of four best preserved ancient cities because the city walls are intact and contains an array of Ming Dynasty architecture and artefacts. I was very excited to get to see such a place.
The city walls are just a short walk from the train station, and we only had to walk about ten minutes before spotting them. The huge wall towered above us, and a temple sat atop the entrance archway, opening up the way to the cobbled streets of the ancient city.
Now, before I came to China I had so many images of it in my mind of what it was going to be like. Ancient cities surrounded by tall walls, temples on every corner, red lanterns hanging on lamp posts, higgledy-piggledy lanes lined with crazy shops… what I wasn’t expecting was the wide roads and the huge glass buildings everywhere and the new apartment blocks and the lack of all the things I had envisioned. Sure, you can find those places, but the chances are you won’t be living in them if you move to China.
So I was delighted with Xingcheng. It was exactly what I was looking for. Small one-two storey buildings with pointed rooftops, goods piled high in front of them, and the eaves of the buildings fabulously decorated in the traditional Chinese style. Some of the roofs had grass growing out the top of them. The streets were uneven and in every direction you could see the city wall. Motorbikes zoomed around, and there was barely a car in sight. Women and men stood outside their tiny shops, enticing you inside, and more stood behind little carts, selling street food. Meats, porridge, and nutty candies among other goodies. The best bit? Xingcheng isn’t well known and therefore doesn’t receive as many visitors as other far more famous places. We were the only foreigners there, and some of the only visitors. I could not stop smiling. This was the authentic ancient China that I had always hoped to see.
We followed the street in a straight line to the very centre of the ancient city – a huge drum tower that marked the middle, and from where you could fan out in a big square to see the whole place. It’s like one big complex. The drum tower is in the centre, and there are four streets coming off of it. All streets lead to the wall, so you can either follow the street to the end and return to the drum tower to find the next street, or go to the end and follow the wall around in a huge square. We decided to do the latter option, but first we paid for our tickets and climbed the stairs to the drum tower.
It had obviously been renovated and repainted, but it was great to see the huge drum, decorated with the traditional Chinese dragons, their flame-like tails arching around the circular instrument. The view over the city was amazing too. You can look out straight down all four streets that lead from the drum tower to the outer walls, and the symmetry is pretty cool to see!
The ticket to the ancient town doubles up as a map, showing the locations of all the places of interest. There were many, and we knew we wouldn’t have time to see them all, so picked the ones whose photos looked the best. Then we chose a route around and set off!
The first one took us down a street almost to the wall, and off down a tiny dirt track past dilapidated houses and fields of corn. On the right, looking rather nondescript, was a big grey wall, and the entranceway to a temple. The entrance way wasn’t as grand as most are, but it had the quaint pointed roof and the closed tube-like things lining it, following it down to the edge to create the look of an ancient building. Two circular windows with patterned grates over them sat either side of a doorway, over which hung a sign in golden Chinese script, and above that multi-coloured prayer flags. I like prayer flags. They give me a feeling of excitement and adventure somehow and I’ve found that my favourite temples all have Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags hanging from every available tree and roof. In front of the doorway, standing guard with a menacing growl on his face, sat a stone lion, and we patted his head respectfully as we walked past him and in through the doorway.
It was a strange place. Quite a large courtyard surrounded by the grey wall, and multiple small buildings with the same design as the entranceway. Nearby stood a tree, one of those old banyan trees that stand for hundreds of years and get coated on every inch with red ribbons, put there by visitors making wishes or prayers or writing the names of loved ones on it. The tree was completely red with ribbons, stringing between the branches and some had been so long that the tree was growing back around it.
We wandered around the tree, glancing around us at the courtyard. It was deserted. Never had I been to a deserted temple in China. It was pretty exciting.
We went into the first temple. Despite the outside looking fairly ordinary, the inside was incredible. In the centre sat a giant statue, presumably some kind of religious figure, with a stern moustache and serious, staring eyes, and an orange cloak wrapped around him. In front of him was a trough full of half burnt incense sticks, as well as newly lit pink ones letting out sweet smelling swirls of smoke. All around him were gold and silver vases holding bunches of bright, coloured flowers, and plates of offerings to the figure. Two golden pillars were either side of him, with Chinese writing reading down the pillars not across. Above him was a reddish-brown sign with more writing on it, and tiny flags dripping from it. The whole room was amazing and there was something very special about it. It was the kind of room that demanded silence, so that in place of words you can simply feel the atmosphere the temple emitted.
It was soon after this temple that we met an elderly man. Later we would joke about how strange the whole place was – the old man, wandering around in some kind of robes, lighting incense and manning the temples. It was like he had been there forever, like the place was frozen in time. The man spoke no English and we spoke even littler Chinese but somehow he taught us a lot about those temples. Using mostly hand gestures and numbers, he told us that the main temple in the complex was over 500 years old. We stepped into it, following his lead, and he watched as we gazed around at the spiritual figures towering above us, everything gleaming gold, and I felt so lucky to be standing there at that moment. The man was delighted to lead us around the place and enjoyed our curiosity about everything. I indicated with gestures and asked if I could take photos, to which he responded enthusiastically. Usually in temples photos are forbidden – it is said that taking a picture of the gods or the Buddha seeps away some of their power.
Inside the one we found a strange tower that looked vaguely like a varnished post box with lots of drawers. Intrigued, we gestured towards it and the man happily showed us how to work it. In the top of the tower was a bowl of long sticks. At random, you take a stick and read the number on the bottom of it. Then you find the numbered drawer that matches the stick. Inside are stacks of paper slips. You take one and on it is written your fortune. It was all in Chinese but the old man managed to give us hints about them. Basically the three of us would be happy! It was an interesting experience and as always it amazed me how well you can converse with people even when you don’t speak the same language.
We chose our next place on the tiny map and set off past rows of shops and people selling candied nuts on the side of the road. We stopped to buy a box of candies peanut bars which were as solid and rocks and kept us busy with our teeth glued together for quite some time! They’re delicious though and I recommend trying some!
Our next destination was an interesting one – an old court room.
From the outside it looked pretty much the same as most temples I’ve been to, though with a blue theme to the patterning and a slightly grander exterior to the previous temple. This place was much bigger too. After showing our tickets we followed signs to go into the courtyard. The first place we came to was completely unexpected – an old prison. Mannequins had been put in the cells, which all contained rather horrific looking devices of torture, and though I know it hasn’t been used for a very long time, it was still pretty creepy. I also can’t imagine how cold it must have been, with nothing but a stone floor and a bit of straw to sleep on. I was wrapped up in tights under jeans, a thick jumper, my winter coat, a scarf, hat, gloves and a face mask, but I doubt the prisoners of this place had such luxuries.
We walked quite quickly through, coming next to a garden, recently done up to look like a typical traditional Chinese style garden, but unfinished. A little bridge arched over a waterless stream, and we sat for a while on a bench overlooking the place. I could see that once finished it would look very pretty.
The court was interesting. Again mannequins depicted what a scene from the old days might have looked like, and in all honesty it seemed similar to what I imagine court rooms to be like today. The most interesting part for me were the two buildings either side of the courtroom. Inside each one were example of army uniforms, one from the Ming Dynasty, one from the Qing Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty began in 1368 and ended in 1644, and their army uniforms were simple designs. It was more robe-like, with a collar around the neck, patterned sleeve edges and a big square patch in the chest. The patch had a different design and informed of ones rank within the army. The Qing Dynasty began in 1644 until 1912, and their uniforms were much brighter, more complex robes with gold studs and no embroidery on it. I was much more fascinated by the ones from the Ming Dynasty – I liked the patch in the centre.
After this we decided to have some lunch, though I don’t recommend doing what we did – we waited until after 2pm to find somewhere to eat, and of course everywhere was closed. We ended up in the only place still open and had a rather gross lunch of intestinal soup, fatty dumplings and celery. I’m not certain if you’ve ever tried intestines, with their carpet-like texture and octopus-tentacle appearance but I really can’t say I enjoyed the experience! We left still hungry and snacked on our peanut candies while we went off to find the next place. If ever you come to China, please remember that lunch time is between 12 and 2pm, and after this everywhere closes. Unless you like eating intestines…
It took a while to locate the next temple but eventually we found it and learnt that it was closing. We had to literally run around the Confucius temple and as such I can’t remember much of it. I do remember the calligraphy graveyard though. We assumed it was a graveyard at first but upon closer inspection it was a piece of art. Each stone was engraved with words I cannot read, in different styles of Chinese writing. It was really beautiful, and I genuinely hadn’t realised that Chinese can be written in so many different ways.
Back on the street we knew that we had to leave the ancient city because it was closing around us. We found our way back to one of the four main streets and were delighted to come across the double arches that stretch over the street. They’re less arches as such, but they are truly amazing. The designs on the stone are incredible and it was cool to look through the middle of the first one to see the second one in the background and the drum tower in the centre in the distance.
Everything about Xingcheng delighted me. It was an interesting part of Chinese history to see and learn a bit about, especially in a place that was so important in northeast China at that period of time. I love going to place such as this, places that not many people know about and therefore maintain more of their integrity and realness instead of pandering to tourists and renovating everything almost beyond original recognition. If you’re in the area I definitely recommend taking a day trip there, and hopefully find it as fascinating and beautiful as I did.
How to get there:
Huludao is the nearest city and you can get to Xingcheng very easily from there. There’s many train that run between them. However, I bought K-train tickets from Qinhuangdao and they were super cheap, for just under 20 yuan.
From Beijing you can get directly to Xingcheng in between 5 and 8 hours on the K-train though I wouldn’t recommend doing that. I would take a D- or G-train to Huludao and then go to Xingcheng from there.
The tickets to get into the city are about 100 yuan per person and there’s a lot to see for that money. Also bring spending money because there’s some nice shops selling traditional Chinese things that make nice gifts (either for family and friends or for yourself!).
All day. We spent from 10.30am till 5.30pm wandering around and we didn’t see everything. We took our time though and really soaked it all in, but there’s a lot to see in this wonderful place.