Héběi is Běijīng’s forgotten cousin from the countryside: she’s got less money, wears last year’s fashions and can catch a chicken faster than a taxi, but hey, she’s still family. But while cuisine, language and favourite opera songs may overlap, the similarities end there. The capital is slick, modern and cosmopolitan; the province has more of a rough-edged charm comprised of grazing sheep, brown earth and fields of corn and wheat.
Don’t let those tattered edges put you off though; Héběi is more than just one big stretch of farmland. It first put itself on the world map in the 1920s, when dragon bones uncovered in Zhōukǒudiàn (southwest of Běijīng) turned out not to belong to some mythical creature, but instead to Homo erectus, the precursor to modern humans. At the time, the remains – which may date back as far as 500, 000 years – gave rise to a short-lived theory that humankind originated in Asia. (This has since been refuted.)
And even if it’s not the cradle of civilisation, Héběi is hardly disappointing – especially as there are a number of sights that can be done as a weekend getaway from the capital. Chief among them is Chéngdé, the majestic 18th-century summer retreat of the Qing emperors. Twentieth-century rulers preferred seaside Běidàihé, but much more impressive is the Great Wall, whose serpentine roller-coaster ride begins nearby at the sea’s edge and continues across the province’s rugged northern Yanshan Mountains. What you may remember most though are trips to low-key towns like Yújiācūn and Jīmíngyì, where you’ll be rewarded with overwhelming hospitality and a glimpse into the hard-working lives of China’s many farmers.