Zhangjiakou – terminus of the Mongol trade

For years I have wanted to visit Zhangjiakou.

Sure everyone says they want to go there, but how many people actually do? Wait – what I meant was that nobody says they want to go there. In fact, why don’t you just go ahead and enjoy that first sentence again, since I’m fairly sure that nobody has ever experessed that sentiment before.

Zhangjiakou is a city in the north of Hebei province, way up in the mountains. Back in the 1940s, three intrepid scholars spent months walking the hills of this and a neighboring county, poking into every village, and recording every religious artifact, all while the Chinese civil war raged around them. Their research is what started my interest in Chinese local religion. One of the three was the great Li Shiyu, who many decades later advised my dissertation research in Tianjin.

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Now imagine it without the roads or bridges

Zhangjiakou was also an important point on the caravan trade with the grassland. It’s right on the Great Wall, and some older maps will call it Kalgan, from the word meaning “gate.”

So this is where the frontier started, making it hugely important as a center of commerce. All of the trade firms were represented, not just Chinese but also American, British, Japanese and Russian.

I came up here as part of my research on animal trade. I was hoping just to get a feel for the city, and was amazed to discover these Qing-era buildings still intact. Not just the trade buildings, but the whole walled city center, which is now a neighborhood called Baozili 堡子里.

Chinese cities were traditionally built walled, which restricted their size. A map of walled city would typically look like this.

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Inside the beltway

That’s not everything, just everything that mattered: official buildings, temples and academies. Most ordinary people lived outside the walls.

I have seen this sort of map a hundred times, but never actually seen an old city. Most city walls were destroyed in the 1940s and 50s, and most remaining buildings were lost to development decades ago. You might see a temple or two, but not the actual street grid.

Except here. For whatever reason, most of the old buildings were left standing, and a even a bit of the wall remains where the Jade Emperor Temple sits on top of it. You can easily see the square shape of the old city on a modern map.

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Walking around the old city, you can really appreciate just how close everything was. All of the power players were within a few minutes walk of each other.

Another surprise was that most of these buildings had Maoist-era slogans still visible. In most other places, these slogans would have been assiduously scrubbed off or painted over. But here they were faded but completely legible. So basically, it’s a museum of the 1860s and the 1960s.

Is it worth a trip on its own, maybe not, but definitely worth seeing if you are in the area.

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