On this two-day trip to Yu County in Hebei Province you’ll walk the streets of well-preserved Yuxian Ancient Town, visiting the pavilions and pagodas, as well as visiting Jimingyi, the remnants of a Ming Dynasty postal relay center. And, on the first evening, we’ll take in a performance that includes dashuhua, a 300-year old local tradition that translates as ‘making a tree of flaming flowers’ and results in molten iron being flung against the city walls instead of a fireworks display!
Note: we’ll be outside quite a bit, and the weather is sure to be freezing. Bring all the warm clothes you’ve got, and then bring a few extra layers just in case!
During Chinese New Year Beijing empties out as people return to their hometowns to celebrate Spring Festival with their families. With everyone home in Yu County for the holiday it’s sure to be lively, and there will also be extra special shows and performances in the streets of the old towns we visit.
We did some extra scouting for this trip and found a nice and easy two-hour countryside walk to do on the last day, a good way to see what it's like in really rural China.
Yu County and Zhangjiakou
Yu County is part of the larger Zhangjiakou prefecture-level city in Hebei Province. Zhangjiakou is right on the main route to Beijing from the northwest, and has been the site of fortifications and wars since ancient times – notably, the Badger’s Mount Campaign in which Genghis Khan won a huge battle against the Jin Dynasty in 1211. Zhangjiakou used to be known as Kalgan, which is a transliteration of its name in Mongolian: The Gate.
Yuxian Ancient Town
There’s been a town at Yuxian since the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (386-589), with the area at the time being under the control of the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581). The ancient city was rebuilt in 1377, during the Ming Dynasty, and a lot of that construction remains and is well-preserved—some say it’s the closest best-preserved ancient city to Beijing.
The key sights in Yuxian Ancient City are the Jade Emperor Pavilion, the Nan’an Pagoda (Liao Dynasty, 907-1125), and the Buddha temple.
Close by to Yuxian is Nuanquan Town, notable for a site named Xigubao—the West Castle. The castle was around 67,000 square metres in size and surrounded by high walls of rammed earth. Key parts of the walls were strengthened with brick, and the structure followed a defensive pattern known as The Urn, in which attacking enemies could be trapped between inner and outer gates ‘like turtles in an urn.’
As well as the castle, Nuanquan is famous for a tradition of papercutting and lantern-making.
Dashuhua: Fireworks of Molten Iron
Throwing ladles-full of molten iron against tall brick walls creates a fireworks-like sparkle that looks like the canopy of a leafy tree. The Dashuhua (making a tree of flaming flowers) performance has been a local tradition in Nuanquan Town for over 300 years, said to have come about because of the many blacksmiths of the town.
These days, it’s done part of a show that includes a song and dance routine that illustrates a local legend that culminates with swords being melted down to revive a maiden who’d given her life in order to make the swords better, on the advice of a magician.
Whether there are magicians about or not, it’s still a spectacular sight, and the performance is likely to be attended by quite a crowd. For obvious reasons, it’s an outdoor show, and at night, so we’ll need to wrap up warmly so we don’t freeze before all the action. The performance lasts for approximately an hour, and the splashing about of the molten iron should take up 15 minutes of that hour.
White Horse Temple hike
On the second day of the trip we'll do a short and easy hike in the countryside, walking through the hills around a tiny village and taking a look at White Horse Temple—an excellent way to get a look at real life in China's countryside.
The Walled Town of Jimingyi
Jimingyi Ancient Town was a fortified postal relay or staging station, built and used during the Ming Dynasty. The extremely tall and thick walls have a total length of just under two kilometers, and were constructed in the same manner as some of the Great Wall: rammed earth in the middle, with an outer layer of bricks.
In the past, this must have been a very important place. As well as the huge walls, other fortifications include large gates topped by towers, towers on each corner of the main walls, and more outside. Inside the walls, there are five main streets that divided the city into planned and orderly sections—administration in the middle, stables and barns at the north, and other areas for accommodation.