Chengde is a small city in Hebei best known as the home of Chengde Mountain Resort, a huge imperial garden and palace built by Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) emperors to escape the sweltering Beijing summer.
Outside the garden’s walls, in the surrounding mountains, are the Eight Outer Temples, also built in the 18th century. Many are now either destroyed or no longer accessible, but the Putuo Zongcheng and Puning Temples remain tourist favourites, along with the imperial garden itself.
Chengde Mountain Resort is huge. There’s the palace itself to tick off; you can press your nose against the glass to catch a glimpse of the emperor’s living quarters, chair and even toothpick, but the real draw is the expanse of clear water, manicured gardens and towering pagodas. Rent a boat on the water, or simply amble around it. You can easily spend a day here.
If you don’t value your life too much, take a bus tour (50RMB) along the single-lane mountain pathways to enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding city and, in particular, the Putuo Zongcheng Temple. The temples, which along with the resort were made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994, were built to mimic various architectural styles drawn from around China; the Putuo Zongcheng Temple was constructed to resemble Lhasa’s Potala Palace, with a series of buildings climbing up a mountainside, leading to the imposing, angular tower at its centre.
Puning Temple, modelled on Tibet’s Samyai Monastery, is similarly stunning – a network of halls of worship on a peaceful hillside. From both temples you can enjoy views of the surrounding city as well as Sledgehammer Peak, a bizarre hilltop rock formation in the shape of an inverted sledgehammer.
Tickets to the main attractions aren’t cheap: entrance to Chengde Mountain Resort is 145RMB, while the temples are 80RMB a pop. But if you’ve travelled five hours on a hard sleeper, you’re very much the definition of a captive audience.
Hearty Manchu food – and lots of it. Find your local mum-and-dad shop and suck bones dry of marrow and drink baijiu till your eyes burn. Manchurian-style dumplings are possibly the heaviest, meatiest little parcels you’ve ever sunk your teeth into, but that’s only if you haven’t had Chengde’s take on the roujiamo – a mountain of shredded pork served alongside chewy, sesame-covered discs of dough, stuffed to the absolute limit.
Chengde Imperial Mountain Resort (qiwanglou.com, 031 4218 2288) is far and away the jewel in Chengde’s crown – its beautiful, historic courtyard property and Qing Dynasty-era buildings were renovated by the same design firm behind Aman Summer Palace’s restoration, the hotel says.
Rooms start at 1,293RMB a night, but for 2,364RMB (both prices on Ctrip) you can stay in a suite in one of the courtyard’s original buildings. Rooms are decorated for the period, and are a great way to experience the rich imperial history of the area firsthand. What’s more, the hotel is just a fiveminute walk from the entrance to Chengde Mountain Resort.
Trains from Beijing Railway Station to Chengde run several times a day with tickets from 40.5RMB.