Chengde in Hebei Province, which should not be confused with Chengdu in Sichuan Province, is about 225 km northeast of Beijing. It is best known as the site of the Mountain Resort, a vast imperial garden and palace formerly used by the Qing emperors as their summer residence, and therefore also the summer capital of Imperial China, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is Chengde’s “Eight Outer Temples” (a complex which includes Puning Temple, Xumi Fushou Temple, and the Putuo Zongcheng Temple).
I visited Chengde three times (in 2006, 2009, and 2010) with groups of Tourism students (and a few teachers) as part of their course. Unfortunately each time during the month of April, when it was still very cold at night (Chengde is over 1,000ft above sea level) and the ground and trees were still brown, and not the green they would become in late-May or June. On the other hand, it did mean there were few other visitors about. It gets very crowded during the tourist season, especially since it is so close to Bejing.
I made two great discoveries in Chengde, one local product, the other not. The latter was a very good, but expensive, white tea: Baihao Yinzhen. The former was made locally, but is actually better-known in nearby Inner Mongolia: MaNaiJiu (Mare’s milk alcohol, though sometimes it is donkey rather than horse milk). This manaijiu is not to be confused with Kumis, which is made and consumed by Mongolians, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other peoples of the Central Asian steppes, and is low in alcohol. Manaijiu (which may actually just be distilled Kumis) can be extremely strong – 60-70% alcohol is not unusual! – though some varieties are a light and refreshing 40%. It is very hard to find elsewhere in China. Most bottled brand labels seem to be blue and white, though a few differ. Like Kumis, it is not liked by everyone, though it is by me.
Each of my trips to Chengde was by coach. On the coach, tour-guide speeches were practised and songs sung, It was a long drive.
The first group of photos are of the countryside (including views of the Great Wall) along the way and of the approach to Chengde city – an interesting feature on the way in was the dry river bed.
First up on each visit was the Mountain Resort, with its palace and park. Let’s start with a composite picture of the lake in winter (well, April). Unfortunately I didn’t (and still don’t) have software which will let me blend the colours more evenly, so you can see the join.
The palace is now a museum. Interesting, but probably more so if you can read Chinese or one of the other languages (Mongolian, Tibetan, and A.N.Other). Unfortunately, some of the historically more important rooms are not open to the public (to protect the exhibits), and it is only possible to see them through gaps in the doors. I took a lot of pictures of various objects in the museum; far too many to show here.
Walking around the park was quite entertaining, with plenty to see and even the occasional wildlife. Watching the tourists at play had its moments, too.
Interestingly, the hotel where we stayed belonged to the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), and was located within a PLA base. They weren’t too keen on me wandering around alone at night, so I just stayed in the freezing cold room. On the third visit, our head of department was given an officer’s room, with an air-conditioning unit, which doubled as a heater, but the students and us lesser (male) teachers had to make do with sharing a room with none. There was no hot water either, though I did hear a rumour that there was some for an hour early on in the communal showers – it was gone by the time I got there.
Since we spent all day at the various tourist sites, we didn’t have much time to explore the city, just an hour or so between dinner and dark (and views from the bus).
I don’t think we missed much, since it seemed like a pretty normal Chinese city, with its mixture of modern buildings on the main roads, and Soviet-style apartment blocks everywhere else
Day two in Chengde always started with a visit to Puning Temple, which was modeled after the Samye Monastery, the sacred Buddhist site in Tibet.
The afternoon meant the Putuo Zongcheng Temple, the biggest of the Eight Outer Temples, and one of the largest in China, which in turn was modeled after the Potala Palace of Tibet, the residence of the Dalai Lama built a century earlier. Many of its halls and pavilions have copper and gold tiled roofs.