IM­PE­RIAL CON­NEC­TIONS

Es­cape from Bei­jing to the pine-scented royal re­sort town of Chengde, ad­vises Steven Thur­low

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - China Holidays -

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.

Check­list

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.

www.cnto.org.au

Pic­ture: Photolibrary

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

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