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Royal Retreat for the Soul

When the capital starts to heat up, many, like the imperial family of old times, dash for the cooler climes of Chengde, with its royal gardens and cliff-hugging temples

By Michael Jones Updated Aug.1

A view inside the Imperial Summer Palace Mountain Resort, Chengde, Hebei Province

A courtyard inside Putuo Zongcheng Temple, also known as the Little Potala Palace, Chengde

Across the world and throughout history kings and emperors have sought to escape the stress and noise of their capitals. The French kings escaped to Versailles, the German Kaisers to Potsdam, and the British Kings to Windsor. The Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) were no different, and so when faced with the abrasive summer heat in Beijing, they retired to the cool tranquility of Chengde. The city has been home to the world’s largest royal garden, part of the royal summer resort since the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722). Nowadays the network of palaces and temples are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Chengde city itself is somewhat unremarkable, although it provides plenty of hotels and restaurants, however the broad range of historic destinations dotted in and around the city provide enough entertainment for a full holiday. It is therefore quite surprising how few tourists are actually present in the city, especially international tourists who seem to have somehow missed this magnificent jewel. I traveled with a group of friends on a guided tour which took in four of the most impressive destinations in the city over two packed days.  

To fully enjoy Chengde, just to the north of Beijing in Hebei Province, allow plenty of time. Each attraction is extensive and deserves attention. Although we managed to visit four locations within a weekend, it was a long and intensely packed weekend including leaving Beijing very early and returning very late. Moreover, although the various sites are centred around the city, there is plenty of geographical distance between them, so when you are planning your visit, allow enough time for transport between locations. 

Resorting to Pleasure 
The main attraction is the Imperial Summer Palace Mountain Resort. This resort really forms the heart of the Chengde experience, complimented by the “eight outer temples” (actually 12). Much like the Summer Palace in Beijing, the Imperial Resort comprises buildings and pagodas spread across a gigantic park, with lakes, rivers and landscaped gardens. The Resort might not inspire the same instant awe as the gigantic temples, however, that was never the point. It was designed as a peaceful expanse for relaxation, where man-made structures deliberately blend with nature. For hundreds of years Emperors, eunuchs, courtiers and concubines could unwind in peace, and now visitors can do the same. To ease modern needs, dragon-headed ferries cross the lakes, and the gardens are dotted with small shops, restaurants and public conveniences. 
Our next stop was Puning Temple (also known as Dafo Temple) famous for a golden lacquer wood carving of Buddha and a 24-meter Guanyin Buddha. Puning Temple is apparently regarded as the most important and best preserved of the outer temples. It is an expansive complex of buildings spread throughout a landscaped garden. There are bell towers, living quarters for monks, small prayer chambers and numerous small courtyards. As one climbs through the various segments of the complex, one passes through a sequence of ever larger chambers and buildings featuring ever more elaborate halls and statues. The natural route is perfectly designed to culminate in the largest, most famous, and most elaborate chambers and their stunning representations of Buddha in different forms.  

The most famous of the outer temples is Putuo Zongcheng Temple. The elaborate complex was built between 1767 and 1771, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735–1796). It was modeled on the Potala Palace in Lhasa, which had been built a century earlier, and designed to be of equal size and splendor. Like the Potala Palace, Putuo Zongcheng’s true scale and brilliance slowly reveals itself as you climb to ever higher levels, uncovering endless ornate internal courtyards and ever-higher golden roof terraces overlooking the vast world below. The public is allowed access to a good expanse of Putuo Zongcheng, and it would be easy to miss a section or lose your friends as you meander throughout.  

To focus excessively upon the similarities and differences between Putuo Zongcheng and the Potala Palace does a disservice to both unique locations. Putuo Zongcheng is awe-inspiring in scale, and fascinating in its alternative design. It is easy to risk temple fatigue after visiting multiple temples within a short period of time, however the extreme differences between Puning Temple and Putuo Zongcheng Temple, and indeed the other two destinations on our itinerary, meant that we completely avoided that feeling of repetition. The visual diversity of Chengde is not accidental, rather it stems from the ambition of those who designed the royal summer resort, to represent all of the ethnic minorities and diverse religious sects from the empire. After all, Chengde was not just a holiday destination, it was also the working home of the royal court during the summer months. 

Double Jeopardy
Our final destination was perhaps the most unique. Shuangta Mountain (also known as the Double Pagodas Mountain) is a bizarre natural feature, visible from afar, yet only truly possible to appreciate up close. Two towering rocks stand atop a mountain, as if placed there by giants. Their walls are extreme sheer cliffs on all sides, and yet, high above the visitors below stand two pagodas, one on each of the twin peaks. Apparently, the pagodas have stood there for over 1,000 years, having survived tumultuous times including the Tangshan earthquake of 1976. How the pagodas were constructed remains somewhat of a mystery, although there are some theories. Today, even accomplished climbers would need the support of modern equipment in order to scale such sheer cliffs, which slope outward at the top.  

For modern visitors, reaching the very top of the stone columns and pagodas is not possible, however a handy chair lift will take visitors to the peak of the mountain itself, where you can walk around the base of the two massive stone monoliths and truly appreciate their scale. Moreover, visitors can board the same chair lift to reach a different, adjacent, peak from which the views back toward Shuangta Mountain are breathtaking. The chair lift itself is rather simple and quite possibly the most terrifying experience of my life. However, for that view it was worth it. Once atop the final peak (where there are restrooms), the views stretch far beyond Shuangta Mountain and the pagodas, and there are a number of paths inviting visitors to walk extensively across the mountainous countryside, to enjoy peaceful contemplation in nature.  

What better place to watch the sun slowly set, as one reflects upon the glory of Chengde. Yet, Chengde remains somewhat of an overlooked destination. After all, there must be a reason why so many Chinese emperors chose to spend their summers there.