Hebei Province, 269km (168 miles) SW of Beijing

Hebei's nondescript capital is one of the few places in China where the intention to rebuild everything from scratch in only 20 years is actually improving the city. Down-at-the-heel Shijiazhuang is an accident arising from the crossing of major north-south and east-west railway lines -- here X really does mark the spot. It's grown from village to provincial capital in 100 years.

Even that status is a hand-me-down from Tianjin, after the metropolis gained the right to report directly to Beijing rather than through the provincial government. As a result there's little glamour here. But the city has a decent infrastructure for visitors and provides a base for exploring marvelous sights in the surrounding countryside, including Zhengding, about 15km (10 miles) northeast. It was an important town for centuries before anyone had heard of Shijiazhuang. Today it is still home to Longxing S, one of the oldest, most atmospheric, and (luckily) least "restored" Chinese temples. Zhengding is also home to a number of pagodas so different from each other it's hard to believe they were produced by the same culture. Zhao Xian, 42km (26 miles) southeast, has an important example of religious revival in the large Zen (Chan) Buddhist temple, the Bailin Si. It also has the elegant Zhaozhou Qiao -- the first bridge of its kind in the world. Roughly 80km (50 miles) southwest, Cangyan Shan has the bridge-top temple featured in the closing scenes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.