Beijing Getaways: Chengde Guide 承德
Fit for an Emperor: The Imperial summer getaway of Chengde
The former Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) resort of Chengde, about 230 kilometers from Beijing in northeastern Hebei Province, makes a great weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of the Chinese capital. Originally called Rehe, Chengde was a small, unremarkable city for hundreds of years, until it was transformed into a picturesque expanse of regal gardens, palace walls and ceremonial buildings in the 18th century.
Today a lively city of 3.5 million people, Chengde is best known for its Imperial Summer Villa and Mountain Resort (Bishu Shanzhuang) - a summer getaway for the Qing emperor and his court. Chengde is connected to Beijing by road, rail and air - most people opt for the relatively painless 4 hour train journey.
There is enough to see to make a 2 or 3-day trip worthwhile, and the city has a diverse range of hotels and restaurants to suit all budgets. Spring and autumn are the best times of year to visit.
The Imperial Summer Villa, extending over two square miles and housing 110 buildings, was started by Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722). Story has it that he came across the site of the Imperial Summer Villa on a hunting trip and was so enchanted by its rugged, picturesque landscape and cool air that he decided to stay there, at least during the fierce Beijing summers. Over the years it grew to be larger than the Forbidden City and Summer Palace combined, and led to the establishment of an impressive series of temples.
Construction on the villa began in 1703 and soon Bishu Shanzhuang (which translates as "escape the heat mountain") was serving as a second capital, with 36 major buildings in place by 1711. In 1790, Kangxi's grandson, Qianlong, expanded the complex, adding another 36 imperial structures. It was here, in this expansive walled enclosure containing numerous lakes, pavilions and pagodas, as well as an enormous hunting park, that the Qing royalty received diplomatic missions and honed their military skills, as well as enjoying the more comfortable climate.
The buildings within the Imperial Palace performed various functions. Some were very simple, designed to show visitors that the emperors were still men of the people. Others were replicas of some of China's most famous and iconic buildings, and some were large-scale testaments to minority architecture, intended both to show the emperor's sympathy for the traditions of tributary and border-dwelling peoples, and to inspire fear and loyalty in their emissaries.
The Imperial Villa is split into two areas - the sweeping summer palace and the surrounding park. The Chengde Summer Palace is where the emperors handled state affairs and presided over banquets and festivals. Many tourists prefer the parkland, with its beautiful lakes, verdant forest, rolling hills and well-planted gardens. The lake district is home to a collection of fishing villages and the popular Rehe springs. Admission to the entire Villa complex costs around 100 RMB.
Outside the walls of the Summer Palace tourists will find the Eight Outer Temples, each constructed according to a distinctive ethnic architectural style. The Eight Outer Temples are in fact a collective name given to 12 temples located near a section of the Great Wall, northeast of the Imperial Villa. Together with the Villa they have been listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. All the temples can be reached via bus no.6 which leaves from outside the main Villa gate - entry to each temple ranges from 20 to 50 RMB.
The largest of the Outer Temples is Putuo Zongcheng Miao (Temple of Potaraka Doctrine), was modeled after Lhasa's Potala Palace, and is also known as the "little Potala Palace". Most of the complex's 60 or so halls are Tibetan in style, with white walls and flat roofs. Han Chinese elements are present, too, creating a unique mix of styles. Today, the temple houses numerous displays and artifacts, from statues and furnishings to ceramics and Tibetan religious items.
If you get a little temple-weary, the Qingchui Cliff National Park, to the east of Chengde, is a good place to get back to nature. The highlight of the park is the Qingchui Cliff, which is nearly 60 meters (197 feet) high and looks like a wooden club in the upper part (it's also known as Club Rock) just keep following the trail and you will eventually reach it. More than 100 species of wild flower can be found in the park, and in spring the hillsides are a picturesque profusion of color.
Chengde has a few speciality dishes, some harking back to imperial days. The donkey-rolling roll is a long roll with stuffing wrapped in yellow rice, served on a bed of yellow beans. The act of turning the roll on the yellow beans apparently resembles a donkey rolling on the ground, and the dish dates back over 200 years. Pubang deer meat kebabs are also worth trying, with many eateries south of the Imperial Villa selling this inexpensive snack.
- Various trains between Beijing and Chengde (4 hours) - hard seat 40 RMB, soft seat 60 RMB.
- Also regular buses from Chengde/Beijing long-distance bus stations (3.5 hours) 30 to 40 RMB.