The Rise of Tangshan
Uncovering the turbulent tale of Tangshan, a city that has moved beyond its past in search of a glorious future.
China’s Brave City, as it is known, is a prosperous urban centre of over three million people, less than an hour by train to Beijing and close to the port cities of Tianjin and Qinhuangdao.
One of the most beguiling tourist draws to the Chinese capital of Beijing is its ancient warren of hutong alleyways that crisscross the city’s historic centre. Within these tree-shaded lanes are thousands of grand quadrangle courtyard homes called siheyuan which are composed of decorative Chinese buildings spaced around a large central garden. At least, they used to be, but for a tragedy that unfolded in a small city 100 miles away to the east. In the wake of the earthquake that struck the city of Tangshan on 27 July 1976, Beijing ordered the infilling of the decorative siheyuan gardens with shacks, shelters and makeshift housing to shelter and re-house refugees that drifted towards the capital. These would eventually evolve into homes, changing the look of the capital city’s old hutong areas forever.
From Tragedy to Triumph
Today, Tangshan has emerged bigger, stronger and more confident than ever before. “China’s Brave City”, as it is known, is a prosperous urban centre of over three million people, less than an hour by train to Beijing and close to the port cities of Tianjin and Qinhuangdao. The city has come to terms with its tragic recent past by fashioning the moving and spectacular Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Park in the south of the city.
A former factory zone, it was elected that the twisted skeletons of the destroyed locomotive sheds, including warped and bent railway tracks, should be left in situ and the memorial built around it. It was a peaceful, sombre experience, with towering marble slabs surrounding the site bearing the names of every victim, while glass panels on the floor reveal objects like children’s toys that were discovered buried under rubble during the park’s construction.
Despite this, Tangshan is keen to invite visitors to discover the glories of its less recent history, like the Eastern Qing Tombs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the emperors, empresses and concubines of the Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, lie buried. An hour’s drive outside the city, the complex stretches over 30 square miles of pristine woodland landscape inset with burial mounds, palaces and the statue-lined ‘spirit way’. Here is where notorious Empress Cixi was buried, the de facto ruler of China for 45 years, though she never actually ascended the throne. The most splendid tomb belongs to the Qianlong Emperor, the fourth of the dynasty, whose royal chamber is laid out over a series of nine vaults separated by solid marble doors over 50 metres underground.
The Yan Mountains, rising above the North China plain over Tangshan, are home to an equally stunning cultural treasure fortified in the previous dynasty. The Eastern portion of the Ming Great Wall, the greatest era of China’s wall-building, soars across the high ridgelines of these dramatic mountains. Built from sturdy granite and brick, its battlements have endured far better than the tamped earthwork walls further west. A number of sites have been restored and opened to visitors along this route. More isolated than the famous battlements of Beijing, though no less spectacular, visitors can expect to have the Tangshan Great Wall all to themselves.
Baiyangyu (White Sheep Valley) is one of the most visually arresting stretches of Great Wall and also known as the “marble Great Wall” due to the way it has been constructed across seams of white rock that burst through the sheer ridgelines of mountains. Engineered by Qi Jiguang, a celebrated Ming general, the imposing watchtowers along this stretch, equipped with unique defensive features, are some of the mightiest across the whole Great Wall.
Nearby, Panjiakou Great Wall, a strategically important pass, was once the site of a well-fortified Ming Dynasty fortress. In 1975, the Luanhe River was dammed and the Panjiakou Reservoir created, submerging parts of the wall and creating a unique local tourist attraction, the Underwater Great Wall. Sino Scuba offers guided diving trips that explore the murky depths to present a vision of China’s “stone dragon” in the most unlikely of settings.
Back on dry land, the newest addition to the Tangshan landscape is undoubtedly Shangri-La Hotel, Tangshan, the finest hotel in the city offering 301 elegant guestrooms and suites for the contemporary traveller. Drawing inspiration from the cultural achievements of Tangshan, including a decorative nod to the city’s heritage as a northern centre of porcelain production, the hotel also celebrates some unique food traditions in this part of China. The chefs at Tang Huang Ge roast a wonderfully crisp-skinned Peking Duck alongside a range of classic and modern regional Chinese dishes. Roasted over fruit wood, carved tableside according to tradition and served with accoutrements, including Steamed Wheat Pancakes and Plum Sauce, Tang Huang Ge’s Peking Duck is easily the rival of any from the ovens of Beijing.
For those seeking a more international experience, Café Shang offers an all-day gastronomic journey through the world’s most celebrated cuisines, as well as playing host to the hotel’s generous buffet breakfast. Guests staying in the Horizon rooms can enjoy their morning coffee and croissant from the Horizon Club Lounge on the 23rd floor, as well as complimentary cocktails and canapés every evening. Offering stunning views of the new city skyline through floor-to-ceiling windows, you might feel inspired to take a moment and marvel at the rebirth of this proud city. Clearly, Tangshan has worked tirelessly to turn tragedy into triumph, in memory of the many who lost their lives on that fateful day three short decades ago.