Chengde, not to be confused with Chengdu, in the Sechuan Province, is a lovely spot about two hours’ drive from Beijing. Chengde has been identified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its historic architecture, and I think the only reason it does not receive the attention it deserves from foreign tourists is because it is overshadowed by the plethora of attractions in Beijing. In any other location, the Qing emperors’ summer resort, together with the eight surrounding Buddhist temples, would be a tourism magnet. On the day we visited, while there were many local visitors, we noted just a handful of foreigners exploring this scenic spot.
Chengde’s “summer palace” began as a lodge built by Emperor Kangxi, after a hunting trip early in the 18th century. When Kangxi found himself amidst the area’s verdant hills, he built a lovely retreat – in Chinese style but constructed using natural wood tones, rather than the bright reds of the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven. Later, his grandson, Qianlong, built Buddhist temples, constructed to welcome the neighboring dignitaries from Tibet, Mongolia and the eastern XiangJiang Province. One of the temples indeed seems to be modeled on the Potala Palace in Llasa. While their purpose was more ceremonial than functional, these temples are lovely tributes to the era – and definitely worth a visit.
On an obscure wall within the palace grounds, we noted with interest a sign with the following title, “No Forgetting the National Humilitation.” It informed visitors that it was here, on October 28, 1860, that China “was forced to sign the Beijing Treaty with Britain, France, and Russia, which ceded south Kowloon to Britain” and additional land in the north to Russia. Having lived in Hong Kong for five years, it was interesting to note that the territory’s most densely populated area, Kowloon, had been given to Britain on this very spot.
But all this is just the history. Even for those not interested in the details of China’s past, Chengde is still worth the effort. The gardens surrounding the summer palace and temples make for a lovely afternoon of wandering. After all, it’s not everyday one finds a place for a peaceful ramble when living in China’s frenetic capital city.