Escape from Beijing to the pine-scented royal resort town of Chengde, advises Steven Thurlow
SUMMER in Beijing can be miserable. The heat, the dust, pollution so bad you can’t see from one end of Tiananmen Square to the other. It’s a good time to leave the dusty Chinese capital and head northeast where, among pine-scented hills 250km away, lies the small resort town of Chengde.
This is a well-trampled route. During the Qing dynasty, Chengde, then known as Jehol, was home to the emperor and the imperial court during the summer months.
It’s this legacy of royal patronage — an eclectic collection of imperial pavilions, gardens and parks — that makes Chengde a memorable side trip.
I leave Beijing on a sultry August afternoon. My only transport difficulty lies with my pronunciation of Chengde: the ticket clerk at the station tries to sell me a ticket to Chengdu in southern China. The train going up to Chengde is packed with holiday-makers returning home. Despite the crush, once off the Beijing plain it’s a picturesque three-hour journey, with the line twisting and turning among green hills and rushing rivers.
Drawing into Chengde’s low-key station, the modern, mostly low-rise city can be seen clustered along the banks of the wide, brown Wu-lie River. Here in the hills it’s several degrees cooler than in Beijing and I immediately relax into the slower pace of life outside the capital.
After more than a century of neglect, it’s clear that Chengde is undergoing something of a renaissance. It fell out of favour as a royal retreat in the mid-19th century when two emperors died here and it was the venue for the signing of the humiliating Beijing Treaty that ceded Kowloon to the British and large parts of northern China to Russia.
However, things started to look up for Chengde in 1994 when it was listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage register: it has become increasingly popular as a resort destination for wealthy Beijingers and heatstressed foreigners such as me.
All roads in Chengde lead to the imperial summer villa, just north of the modern city centre, where in 1703 emperor Kangxi began building a royal retreat and Chengde became the official summer residence of the emperors.
Less than 100 years later, under the reign of his grandson, Qianlong, Kangxi’s original vision had expanded to include a huge royal park complex and replicas of the cream of architecture from across the kingdom.
It was also here in 1793 that Britain’s Lord McCartney, in an attempt to establish diplomatic relations with Qianlong, was forced to sail up the Wu-lie River in a ship whose sails were festooned with the words ‘‘ Tribute bearers from the vassal king of England’’. McCartney was sent packing by the emperor with the message that his country produced ‘‘ nothing of interest to the Middle Kingdom’’.
Today, the low-key and slightly dusty former imperial palace is a collection of onestorey buildings nestled beneath a soothing canopy of pine trees. Highlights include the sparsely furnished throne room and the lowkey private apartments of the emperors. Although some rooms have been turned into a gallery of Madame Tussaud-like scenes of dynastic life, most of the interiors are much as they would have been when they were abandoned by the imperial court.
There are echoes of exploring Beijing’s famous Forbidden City here, but on a much smaller scale and without the tourist hordes. A quaint touch is a plaque marking ‘‘ the former site of the emperor’s toilet’’ on an outside wall.
The vast imperial gardens stretching out behind the palace centre on an expansive lake. This serene stretch of water has several imperial pleasure pavilions dotted around its rim. The northwestern shore, for example, houses the Misty Rain Tower, which was originally built as an imperial study and now features a ‘‘ deer products’’ shop on its ground floor. Hopefully the proprietors don’t source their stock from the magnificent specimens of semi-tame fallow deer that wander at will across the park grounds.
While the best way to explore the lake is by pedal boat or battery-operated power boat, the only practical way to experience the huge expanse of parkland behind it is to take the tourist train (an open bus) that leaves from behind the main palace every few minutes.
During its circumnavigation of the forest park, the bus stops at various official beauty spots where passengers can get out and enjoy the views and many replicas of architectural attractions of 18th-century China built at the command of the Qing emperors.
These small-scale versions of the real things pop up throughout the park at regular, slightly surreal, intervals. There is even a mini Great Wall forming a perimeter fence in one part of the massive grounds.
Outside the park is a string of similarly impressive but likewise fake temples scattered along the so-called Lion Valley to the north of Chengde. Like the structures inside the park, they were built to remind the emperor of the great kingdom under his control. The most memorable segment of this 400-year-old precinct is a copy of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Roughly half the size of the original, it perches atop a hill about 5km from the modern city centre. Officially called the Putuozongcheng Temple, it was built on the orders of emperor Qianlong for the visiting dalai lama in 1770 so he wouldn’t feel homesick for his high-altitude homeland. It’s a magnificent sight, all red walls and Buddhist flags against a pine-green forest backdrop.
Inside, it’s interesting, too, boasting several complete Tibetan-style Buddhist temples and galleries featuring an eclectic mixture of Buddhist sculptures and dioramas from Chinese history. Ironically, considering recent events, on the day I visit the most popular place is on the rooftop terrace where a troupe of Tibetan dancers merrily twirl for less than enthusiastic daytrippers from Beijing.
Just down the road is Puning or Big Buddha temple. Built to commemorate Qianlong’s victory over the Mongol tribes in 1755, it’s modelled after the Samye Monastery, the most sacred Lamaist site in Tibet. The temple’s star attraction can be found in the large Mahayana Hall on a terrace at the rear of the main temple.
Almost filling the entire space is a statue of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. At more than 22m high and built entirely of wood, the figure astounds by its height and 42 arms fanning out from the torso, each holding a symbolic Buddhist object. Make sure you pay an extra 10 yuan ($1.57) to climb a set of steep stairs to reach an upper gallery to see the wooden divinity more closely.
To add to its man-made wonders, Chengde has a natural landform that is strangely irresistible. A short trip from Puning Temple is the coyly named Sledgehammer Rock, a natural rock formation that squats on the top of a bald hill like an upturned thumb or something rather more lewd. The best part of a journey to the rock is the 1600m ride up on the creaky 1960s-era cable car. The views back to Chengde and the royal park alone are worth the 40 yuan return fare. Don’t forget to touch the base of the rock while you’re there: it supposedly guarantees that you will live to a venerable 99.
To visit all the sites outside the imperial palace and main parklands, the best bet is to hire a bike, as I do from my hotel (it’s a mountain bike that belongs to the concierge) and do all these attractions on uncrowded local roads in a reasonably full but highly enjoyable day.
Eating? Chengde’s local specialty is wild game: deer (lurou), pheasant (shanji) and roast duck. Restaurants serving these dishes can be found all over town. To end the day, I’d recommend sitting on a terrace overlooking the gurgling Wu-lie River and treating yourself to some delicious locally produced almond juice. If you’re lucky, you’ll be entertained by ballroom dancing locals and an amateur orchestra in one of the many pavilions along the floodlit river.
Take your time over your juice and lap up the cool evening breeze. Baking-hot Beijing and its crowds can wait.
Chengde is about three hours by road or train from Beijing. The best accommodation is at the 230-room Yunshan Hotel, a fourstar tower block next to the river: it has two excellent restaurants and a well-run massage centre in the basement. Just outside the entrance to the imperial summer villa is the slightly less glamorous Mountain Villa Hotel, or try a concrete yurt at the Mongolian Yurts Holiday Inn inside the royal park (open April to October). Book via sites such as www.asia-hotels.com or www.sinohotel.com.
Place for reflection: The imperial summer villa and vast gardens at Chengde are centred on this expansive lake
The chosen one: Two women assist a child dressed as a young emperor