City of Smoke and Smiles

Written by Mar 26, 2007 23:03
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First Impressions

Before I moved to Shijiazhuang for my first experience living and working in China, I looked the city up in a certain popular China guidebook, which told me the only things I had to look foward to there were factories and pollution. It told me there was nothing of cultural significance there, no history. Still, I'd never been to China before and thought it'd probably be fine.

I flew into China in the evening and, since Shijiazhuang is just two or three hours south of Beijing, was driven to my new home straight from the airport. My first impression of China during that drive was that it wasn't all that different from back home. At least, it didn't seem as different as I'd been expecting. We were still on what looked like an interstate, passing fields and cities. My first morning in China felt surreal. The university where I was working was on the outskirts of the city, so there was an actual field out the back gate. Out the front gate were street vendors of all kinds, small shops, and a scene that looked exactly like it might have in a movie. I walked with my friends down the road outside our gate as far as the nearest "eat street," an alley lined with stalls of people cooking food, selling food, and eating food. People were sat at tiny tables on tiny chairs, slurping bowls of noodles that were just made from dough by people who could've been doing that all their lives from the looks of it.

On the One Hand

Shijiazhuang is not a city that has many "attractions". It doesn't have a long history, either. About a hundred years ago, it was nothing more than a village of a few hundred people. Today, it's a metropolis of 8 or 9 million people and the capitol of Hebei province. What I've been told happened was that it began as nothing more than an out-of-the-way place for factories to set up. But of course, with factories come people, and with people come families. Shijiazhuang has no hutongs. You're not going to see many old-style buildings there. Everything there is new.

There's a lot of coal mining in Shijiazhuang. Recently I rode a bus through there on my way somewhere, and seeing the piles of black coal lining the road made me a little homesick for living there. I remember one day, I took a walk from my apartment away from the middle of town, more toward the outskirts, and after an hour or two of walking, I got home to find my white socks with a new black stripe from where they were exposed to the air. One of the first things I learned from my students at school was never to sit down outside without first wiping the spot clean with kleenex or laying out a newspaper to sit on. This was because every day, a fine layer of black dust would settle all over things. It would get into our apartments, too, even when we left the windows closed. Even the day after mopping the floor, going barefoot in your apartment would lead to black feet before bed.

But on the Other Hand

All of that being said, I was really glad I'd decided to teach in Shijiazhuang. It wasn't touristy at all, and it felt more "Chinese" than cities like Beijing and Shanghai sometimes. After all, I would tell myself, if I was looking to live someplace with lots of access to Western culture, then why did I bother come to China? In Beijing, we would be chased by street vendors, and it felt like everyone saw the color of our skin and immediately wrote us off in some way or another. In ShiJiazhuang, you constantly got the feeling that you were the first foreigner this person had ever actually talked to. Restaurants gave you special deals, special rooms, special treatment. People would take all day to try to help you get what you needed if that was what it took. Now I live in Jinan, which is cleaner and has more attractions, but I still find myself missing Shijiazhuang sometimes. This is very possibly because Shijiazhuang felt more rural and I'm from a rural background, but I do miss the smalltown feel that my area of the huge city had.

Of course, I'd be short-changing the city not to mention that it has a temple that's very nice, and a museum that I enjoyed a lot more than I expected to. It has its fair share of McDonalds and KFCs, as well as a good Indian restaurant and some upscale hotels with good western food options.

For My Money

So I guess Shijiazhuang is a great place to visit or live, if that's the kind of experience you're looking for. If you're looking to rub shoulders with huge groups of other westerners in upscale bars, if you're looking for rebuilt Tang Dynasty archetecture, if you're looking for a sky filled with stars at night, then Shijiazhuang is going to be a letdown. But for my money, Shijiazhuang is an accurate look at China today, for all its strengths and weaknesses. It's poor, it's rich, it's polluted, it's overwhelmingly friendly, it's foreign, it's familiar, and it's always China. And in my mind, the strengths will always outweigh the rest.

 More Shijiazhuang Travel Reviews
Comments (3)


Mar 27, 2007 06:35 Reply


Well, you sold me.

I've been past Shijiazhuang many times, never stopped there, but the way you describe it makes it seem like definitely the kind of place that deserves a look around, at the very least.

Feb 28, 2012 02:56



Jan 4, 2012 06:36 Reply

Ms.JULI from United Kingdom said:

Your blog certainly took me back, thankyou. I taught English in the City in 1999/2000 and I went back for a visit whilst in Beijing in 2005 but so much had changed. I'm assuming it has changed even more in the 6 years since then and I was very sad that my fave restaurant (known fondly as the 147) had disappered (the best beef with coriander in the whole of Hebei). Luckily, although I lived right opposire the college furnace, my apartment stayed coal dust free but the pollution wasn't have as bad as Beijing in 2005. Hope you're enjoying Jinan - but can understand why you miss Shijiazhuang; it does get a hold of you. ChrisWaughBJ - worth a stop off to experience the less touristy side of China.


Sep 15, 2011 03:00 Reply


The goods here are cheaper than Beijing or Shanghai, including renting apartments, taxi.....
And environment , air is seriously polluted you are right. I live here and know this very well.

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