THE Chinese port city of Qinhuagdao is a lovely place with conspicuous Russian influence.
While there on a recent visit, I felt a strong tug at the heartstrings to be in the Eurasian nation of Russia – vicariously at least with the spectacle of the World Cup exerting a particularly strong pull.
We were walking along a road lined with trees and shops towards a beach resort. The foreign-looking boutiques were enticing my fellow travellers and I to buy some suitable light feathery summer clothes. A little walk further on took us to the beach where tourists and locals were already enjoying an early morning break.
May is a lovely time to visit Qinhuangdao, a booming city in Hebei, a northern province near Beijing, named after the First Emperor of China, Qing Shi Huang Ti.
It wasn’t very hot during our visit. Night temperatures dipped to a low 15 degrees Celsius, while it was no higher than 28 degrees during the day. People were out – smiling and enjoying life.
Although named ‘Island of the Qin Emperor’, Qinhuagdao is not exactly an island but more of a small peninsular. It sits on the northwest coast of the Bohai Sea and borders Tangshan to the southwest, Chengde to the northwest, and Liaoning to the northeast.
The sea and the mountains are so close together that this juxtaposition of water and land is as good a reason as any for a visit. It will be worth your while – you won’t regret it.
Qinghuangdao as a port
Accompanying us on the bus outing was a local Zhangjiakou woman, who pointed out all the lovely and important spots and introduced them to us.
She told us Qinhuangdao is the chief port of Hebei. Actually, we didn’t know this historical and tourist spot is a strategically important port as well as the largest coal shipping port from where much of it is shipped to power plants elsewhere in China.
China is the world’s third largest coal exporter and Qinhuangdao handles much of the nation’s coal exports.
Rail links from Shanxi province, China’s largest coal producer, to Qinhuangdao Port are being upgraded. Here, the railways only serve the coal industry. This coastal city is expected to grow increasingly in importance as a port.
The East Wind
Qinhuangdao shot to international fame when the Summer Olympics 2008 used its Olympic Sports Centre Stadium as a competition venue. Football games were played there.
Many locals, including our Zhangjiakao friends, were delighted that Qinghuangdao had played host to Olympic events. They believe this brought a great deal of blessings to the people, especially in infrastructural development such as new buildings, good roads, and hotels. In fact, some buildings were completed within a year.
The Chinese have a special metaphor to describe their luck, that the Olympics brought them the East Wind, which they rode on and gathered blessings.
Roads and new buildings were constructed, new buses brought in, new facilities introduced, utilities upgraded, gardens designed, schools and universities given facelifts, and flowers planted everywhere within a year.
Old Dragon Head
For many of us, the memorable highlights of the trip included a first-ever visit to the 10,000-mile long Great Wall of China, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
We joined thousands of tourists in climbing the stone stairs at Lao Long Tou or the Old Dragon Head, not too far from our hotel in Qinghuangdao.
Does the Great Wall of China have a starting point? Yes – at the Old Dragon Head. This eastern most end of the Great Wall extends 23 metres into the Bohai Sea ‘like a dragon drinking water’, hence its name.
The Old Dragon Head was built in the Ming Dynasty during the seventh year of Wanli reign (1579). It served as a military fort and a strategic defence from both land and sea attacks and was largely repaired in the seventh year of Kangxi’s reign during the Qing Dynasty (1668).
Walking to the Old Dragon Head, we saw the Great Wall, which is still in good condition. Our friend also showed us the original wall, preserved and encased in glass cabinets.
From the exhibit, we saw how magnificent the ancient concrete wall was. I was told it was made of a mixture of glutinous rice syrup, earth, sand, and lime.
Although we saw a lot of newly-renovated walls, we were amazed that the ‘concrete’ could still be there – solid and bearing witness to the incredible legacy of ancient Chinese builders.
The Old Dragon Head actually includes a complex of towers and fortifications, extending into the Bohai Sea. The stone wall stands 9.2 metres above sea level. We were told to place our hands on the dragon’s forehead and make a wish.
Stone sculptures of soldiers, cannons, inner courtyards, and archery fields make this spot a special treat for history buffs.
Two horses were tethered in the courtyard for rent and ride. Tourists could also just stroll along the beach but rain kept us away from all these extra activities.
The sudden change in weather was unexpected although we did see some grey clouds earlier. A drizzle blew in with rain-laden clouds from the sea. Tourists rushed helter-skelter into the various shelters for cover.
Many people have told us visiting Qinhuangdao in winter would be a special experience but then we might not have enjoyed the cold winter winds from Siberia.
Spring and summer will be rather mild with moderate temperatures. Autumn, when the leaves turn golden, is actually a special time for shutterbugs to visit.
First Pass under Heaven
Our tour included a visit to the first pass along the Great Wall of China in the east. This is called the ‘First Pass under Heaven’ because in ancient times, it stood at a strategic location, easy to hold but hard to attack, and protected the central plain from invasions by northern nomadic tribes.
It was a solid military defence during the Ming Dynasty. Within the pass, we visited the military camp with authentic kitchen exhibits. Two horses were also tied at the courtyard for rent and ride.
The pass is roughly a square with a total length of 4.5 miles, a three-mile long wall, and a barbican. The wall of the pass is about 46 feet high and 23 feet wide. We had no trouble climbing it.
The Great Wall of China was built in the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) when the Manchus took power in Beijing after storming through the 6,700km long wall.
Some claim the Hebei section of the Great Wall is the most magnificent as the bricks and stones used are majestic. In other places, most of the wall is made of mud and earth.
For 17 years, Qi Jiguang (1528 to 1588) supervised the upgrading of the Great Wall – from Beijing to Shanhaiguan. The Hebei part of the Great Wall is famous for hiking and running.
Beidaihe Summer Resort
We stayed a day and a night at the Beidaihe Residential District of Qinhuangdao. This residential district used to be a favourite getaway for Communist Party top officials. Now, it’s a popular retreat for everyone.
The Bohai Sea is calm with soothing sea breezes.
Beidaihe has a large number of hotels, upscale retreats, parks and flower gardens. Russian signs are quite common as lots of visitors from the north come here for their holidays and do business.
Everyone was well-dressed in their latest late spring and early summer attire. The shops selling hats, clothes, and swimwear were already open early in the morning.
Other places of interest
Today, Qinhuangdao is well publicised and promoted by China tourism agencies. Places like the Tiger Stone Marine Park, Lianfeng Mountain Park, Biluo Park, and many others for children are all worth visiting for a relaxing week.
In the warm summer days, foreign tourists can sunbathe here or enjoy a walk around the place with their children and shop.
According to legend, the Qin Emperor, who was famous for the seeking of immortality, actually tried to find the Elixir of Life on an island in the Haigang District but did not find it. Maybe while in Qinhuangdao, you too could try to find this mythical cocktail.