Chengde - An adventure of miniature proportions?

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October 9th 2007
Published: October 26th 2007
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Everyone knows that teachers live for the summer. Well this summer was a little hectic for the two of us, what with packing up our lives and moving to China. Then we started work August 4th and "poof" what happened to the chance to relax, and recover from 2006-2007?

Starting work August 4th was actually a relief after such a crazy July, but I can't deny as September slipped by I was ever so relieved that we had a whole week's holiday on the horizon. The first week of October is a national holiday.

My travel agent Lily recommended we stay at home and sleep. You see, while stores, restaurants and tourism sites stay open; banks, businesses etc close down. Everyone goes home to be with their family. Remember there are over 1 billion people here. Its so busy she warned, and she really didn't want us on airplanes at the very least. I think she honestly would have been happier to have made no money and had us stay home. "Wait for your Christmas holiday" she pleaded, "travel then."

Our compromise was Chengde, only 6 hours from Tianjin, but in the mountains! Lots to do but not

It reminded me a little of Sudbury... but with history!
as busy as Beijing or Shanghai. It was a fantastic choice.

Getting there

We left Teda on Monday morning. It was dreary, raining and a little disheartening for the beginning of our holiday. We set en route to Beijing, a less than inspiring landscape. The farmland is crammed in between factories, poorly built highrises, coal plants and highways. The rivers and streams either look like sludge or are eerily glowing green.

Fortunately, we only ran into one traffic jam, and it was quickly resolved. However, when we stopped at a petrol station for a washroom break it was unbelievable. The floor was incredibly wet, and although it was still raining hard, it seemed unlikely to be due just to wet shoes. Half the toilets were not flushing. Most of the stall doors were broken, which doesn't stop anyone from using them. If you hesitated even an instant, a local chinese woman would rush into the stall you had been waiting for. She who hesistates in a line up is lost (in China). Later on the trip I would use a number of Chinese outhouses, (cement with holes in the floor), and they were so much more preferable to this. I started to wonder if Lily had been right, there were too many people travelling.

We rounded Beijing to the north and jumped on the highway to Chengde. After about 30 minutes or so, not only did the weather begin to clear, but so did the landscape. It started to become more and more rural. Hills started to appear.

And then, having no idea we would pass anywhere near it...we saw it! Chángchéng! The Great Wall, coiled around the curves of the local hills and in the fog it looked like a giant long snake. We pointed like idiots and said "ChangCheng!" and our driver, proud of us for having a few words of mandarin nodded, repeated "ChangCheng" back, maybe a few other words too, I didn't understand. Kindly he pulled over so we could gawk and take pictures. Its the fact that we hadn't expected to see it I think that had us giggling like idiots. This wonder of the world has been part of my general knowledge for as long as I can remember being able to think... and now it was in front of me. Not a documentary, poster or postcard - it was actually there. I'm sure my grin stretched ear to ear. We needed to move on, and while a trip to the Great Wall is in our future, this was not the time. We reluctantly got back in the van carrying on to Chengde.

The road became more and more interesting. We began to pass orchards of pears. Roadside vendors were literally stretched for miles mostly selling local produce. Most were located in places it would be incredibly dangerous to stop your vehicle (uphill on a curve around a mountain). Mind you, there were lots of cars stopped. But we just carried on. Chengde awaited.

Finally we crept down into the valley that shelters Chengde. Here was the small town that awaited us. In China, a city of 400 000 is a small town.

Our Guide

Our Mandarin is only at a basic survival level. I can take a taxi to a few key places, barter prices, meet and greet but that is it. We have started Chinese lessons, but had only 1 under our belt before this trip. The agent arranged for a guide for us (and I know the poor
Closer look at the Artwork on the Pavillions inside the Mountain ResortCloser look at the Artwork on the Pavillions inside the Mountain ResortCloser look at the Artwork on the Pavillions inside the Mountain Resort

The painted every square inch of these pavillions with beautiful artwork. Many have been restored, but a few paintings, on the underside of roofs are still in their original state.
guy doesn't get paid a whole lot, because it barely changed the price of our trip). But it seemed like a good idea. He would be able to explain the history of the sites to us, explain local custom, foods and if a problem arose, we had someone to help us out.

We checked into our hotel and went for lunch at a local Manchu restaurant. It was recommended by our guide and was quite expensive. They featured lots of local items, such as venison stuffed dumplings, but we were exhausted from our trip and not up to spending tons of cash on a meal we would likely be unable to remember. We stuck to good old "Gong Boa Ji Ding", "Sweet and Sour Pork" and dumplings. It was still easily 3 times what we would pay in Teda. We discovered our guide had a taste for the expensive, and immediately had to begin reigning him in, or we would be out of money in a day or two.

Our guide was enthusiastic and knowledgeable but maybe a little tricky. I should clarify that since arriving in China, I can only say wonderful things about the Chinese people as a whole. They are curious, sweet and honest. At the vegetable market I have spent 2 minutes trying to decipher why the merchant was so upset (thinking I had underpaid), only to discover I had paid 20 jiao too much (very little money even by Chinese Standards) and the vendor would not accept it. Taxi Cab drivers have found ingeneous shortcuts, which ends up meaning I only pay the minimum fee (8rmb), even though it could be a very long time until they find their next fare. So, encountering anyone even slightly less than honest to a fault is a rarity, but I think we found him.

The rest of the day was supposed to be spent just with some downtime, to nap or whatever but he started rearranging the itinerary. To our surprise, at 2 in the afternoon he was carting us off to the Summer Resort. By everything I had read, this place can easily stand an entire day's visit, and we were going to tackle it in 2-3 hours. We were all of us a little overwhelmed, and not quite ready to stick up for ourselves.

The Summer Mountain Resort

Lotus LeavesLotus LeavesLotus Leaves

It's October, so we missed their bloom. Nonetheless, they caught the sunlight and absolutely glowed.
Mountain Resort was built by the Emperor Qianlong in 1703. We heard different stories as to its purpose. First, that it was a cool and beautiful place to escape the heat of Beijing. Second, that it was halfway to Mulan, where the Emperor trained his soldiers. He could leave his Empress and attending party there for a period of time and continue on to the hunting grounds.

The Resort is over 5 square kilometers and has several sections. The palace is built of sandalwood and smells just that good. The massive logs were brought up from the South of China and just imagining that process is impressive. The sandalwood is intricately carved with lotus flowers, bats and other designs.

"The Lakes" is a series of small lakes jam packed with paddle boats! Its supposed to be the best way to view some of the pavilions but we just walked. Walking we saw the Emperor’s library, private gardens, and so forth.

The Mini Great Wall surrounds the resort. Its 10 km long and it does resemble a miniature version of its big brother. From the wall you can view many of the 8 Outlying Temples.

We took
Craig and Aaron Craig and Aaron Craig and Aaron

Standing on the Mini Great Wall
a crazy bus around the park’s perimeter. It barrels down the road, taking sharp turns way too quickly. It was crazier than a roller coaster, because a roller coaster is theoretically safe. At least they keep all the buses going in the same direction so there is no oncoming traffic.

As I mentioned, we were rushed, and I think one could easily enjoy a full day here, or even more.

Mini Potala Temple

Tuesday morning we visited two temples. First we visited the MINI Potala Temple.

The Mini Potala Temple was built in 1767 after the Potala Palace in Tibet. It has massive grounds and so much to see. Unfortunately, many of the Buddhas were stolen and sold, or broken during the revolution, and there are many empty places where a Buddha should obviously be sitting. From here we had a great view of Chengde, the Mountain Resort and its Mini Great Wall.

Puning Si

Puning Temple was the liveliest temple we visited. It was built in 1755. It houses the world's largest wooden statue. It is a statue of Guanyin, and she has 42 enormous arms. I took some fantastic pictures. Sadly, this is when my brand new 4GB Sony Memory Stick decided to die. I lost all pictures of the Mini Potala and Puning Si. Fortunately, I have Aaron's photos but its still incredibly frustrating. Let it be known, that through Internet research I have discovered this is a prevalent problem, which Sony has made no effort to correct! And I'm not going to be able to return it to Future Shop from here.

Anyhow, the giant Buddha is worth seeing, so I am including a website that has a good picture, its a German site, but you can check it out.

As we were leaving the temple, I couldn't resist paying 10 rmb to see the trained mice. It was one of the most ridiculous things I've ever seen, and I laughed really hard. He had a doll's house, and would put mice in various sections and prod them with his stick. The mouse would climb or crawl forward. I do have photos of this...OF COURSE.

Mount Banshui

Tuesday afternoon we headed to Mt. Banshui, known as the Hammer Peak. I think this goes down as the best part of the trip. We managed to convince our guide that we would hike up the mountain and take the cable car back down. He wanted us on one of those crazy busses up and down the mountain (then he could go for free) but we stood our ground. He still got paid to stay at the bottom and enjoy cool drinks. We were off, without him, and it felt great!

We started up the road and soon enough were in a local village. There was a little hotel/restaurant with a couple of little tables out back under the trees and it looked like absolute paradise. We stopped in for a cool drink. It was gorgeous.

We carried on and were directed (by some guy sitting on a rock) to start following a little dirt path behind this farmer's house (its funny how trusting you become when you don't understand the language and have no choice). The farmer and his wife were picking potatoes and carrying massively heavy baskets of them together, as a team. I was impressed.

We followed our little path up the mountain and were rewarded with beautiful vistas down the valley to Chengde. We met an older Chinese gentleman along the way who seemed to be trying to tell us something. We foolishly gave up and continued on our way, the path becoming harder to follow, steeper and narrower. Finally, so close to the top, we met our match. The path ended at a cliff. It was a sheer rock face maybe 5-6 metres high, definitely was not going to happen with the gear we had. At the top of the cliff was our final destination. WE WERE SO CLOSE! Sadly, we had no choice, we went back down the mountain.

Halfway down we met 3 Chinese people coming up. With lots of charades and my limited vocabulary I was able to convey that this path led to nowhere. They followed us back down a bit, and as we passed under the cable car, two security guards were in a chair on their way up. They yelled a bunch of things to our new Chinese companions and we then found out we had missed a fork in the path. We found it and made our way back up to the top. When we reached the level where the chair lift lets its
Lock up your loveLock up your loveLock up your love

These locks inside Puning Temple are put there by lovers, who want good luck in their relationship.
passengers off our trail changed in character. Now there were stone steps carved into the mountain and vendors the whole way to the Hammer Peak. We could buy ice cream, coke and lots of souveniers. It was still a long climb to the top, a lot of steps. I was impressed by the number of elderly who made their way up.

At the very top the view was unbelievable, a panorama of mountains and valleys. A very small chain, 1 foot from the ground, was supposed to act as a banister to keep people from falling over the side.

We decided it had been worth the second hike up the mountain. We treated ourselves to a chairlift ride back down the mountain. This was fun, and a little thrilling if you could see the state of the chairs themselves, or the hear the sounds of the gears in action.

On the way back to Chengde, we learned that our clever guide had managed to fit all of Wednesdays activities into Monday afternoon and Tuesday. He would have the day off he informed us. We were a little bewildered, as we were still paying him!


Giant Incense SticksGiant Incense SticksGiant Incense Sticks

Incense is purchased at the temples in order to help convey prayers to heaven. These huge incense sticks cost 600 rmb!!!
Mini Great Wall

While at first, the idea that the guide had managed to work himself an entire day off was annoying, I awoke this morning feeling FREE! We packed our bags and headed back to the Mountain Resort. Our aim was to walk the Mini-Great Wall, it is 10 km long, and surrounds the park.

We had some difficulty finding a place to get onto the wall. We walked beside it for some distance and started to see more and more local people who could never afford the admission to this place. They were gathering wood and leaves. We became curious. We went further and followed their lead to get onto the wall itself.

Now that we could see the other side of the wall, we realized we were in a poorer area of town (not that I felt unsafe) and was impressed with the agility and ingeneous methods these people had conceived to "hop the wall". They couldn't have cared less that we saw them, but I still refrained from taking their picture. I didn't want them to think I was going to tattle.

At one point they had even set up an
Trained MiceTrained MiceTrained Mice

It was almost out of a Monty Python skit. I wish I had it as a video.
elaborate vegetable garden inside the Mountain Resort and an older gentleman sat on a stool to watch over the garden. He was singing, and bade his welcome as we walked along.

The wall was not always in good condition. We had to hug it pretty closely and edge ourselves over collapsed sections a few times. But it wasn't too bad.

The hike itself became more difficult as the wall climbed moutains, but it was so rewarding. When we reached the highest peak we had quite the view. Unfortunately, we also had to check the time. We had paid for the driver to get into the park. (As I said, the price is prohibitive for most Chinese, but I felt he had the right to enjoy his own cultural heritage.) We had agreed to meet at the gate at 12:30. We had figured 3 hours to do the wall. This would probably have worked, had we found how to start our hike more quickly. It was 11:30 and we were between 1/3 and 1/2 done. It would be 1:30-2:00 before we were done. While I have no doubt the driver would have waited, I have a problem with that. We had met an access road and decided it was time to head back.

It was quick to head back down the road, though you had to be careful to not be mowed down by a crazy bus. We treated ourselves to icecream treats at the bottom, found our driver and headed off for lunch.

Craig is worried we will always regret not finishing the hike. But myself, I enjoyed what we did accomplish and think I would always regret making someone with no choice sit on a park bench and wait for me for 2 hours.

Temple of Eternal Peace and Happiness or the Mini Temple of Heaven

That afternoon we checked out another temple. This one is a smaller version of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. It was less "touristy" than the other temples. Only 1 small souvenir stand!!! Without a guide to give us the full details, we finished much more quickly and carried on our way.

Mulan Imperial Hunting Grounds

Mulan Imperial Hunting Ground was where the Emperor Qianlong trained his soldiers. It has now been turned into a National Reserve.

The drive from Chengde to Mulan makes the whole trip worthwhile. Its an idyllic countryside with farms nestled between mountains. Being further north it had already turned cold, we had hit the harvest, so the fields were bustling with activity. Farmers worked away slowly with their families, bringing in their crops by hand, maybe with the help of a good horse or donkey. There was little machinery, no factory farms.

As we approached the park the leaves started to change. Trees were turning gold, and the sumac a bright red. I cannot deny I started to feel homesick for the Saint John River Valley.

At the gate to the park we had to stop to get our ticket. This is when the "problem" was discovered. Our radiator was leaking coolant! We had to pull over and await a mechanic from the next town. The setting was beautiful so we just sat and relaxed.

After an hour, the mechanic arrived. He figured it would be 1.5 hours to get it fixed. We were only 20 minutes from our destination, and if we waited much longer, we wouldn't see any of the park in daylight. We decided to get gouged. We paid 200
Mt. BangshuiMt. BangshuiMt. Bangshui

The "Hammer Peak", it kept us heading in the right direction.
rmb for a local to take us to the park, and our driver would come along when he was ready.

The park road was winding and steep. We passed a potato truck overturned on the side of the road, and tens of locals were trying to rebag and pile the load.

Finally we approached the town and once again... it felt just like Canada. There, in the middle of this beautiful park, with old worn down mountains, pine trees and changing fall colours was a tacky tourist town to support all your needs. There were cheaply built (but still expensive) hotels, instead of rental cabins, rental yurts, and souvenir shops galore. Amazingly they sold the same crap! You could buy factory made dream catchers, leather purses with Native Americans in Full Head Dress, or Ghengis Khan etched on, and anything else cheap you can imagine. The air was brisk and fresh, and the Canadian in me felt at home.

Our driver came along only 20 minutes behind us. Turns out 2 hours was a bit of an overestimate. He took us out to the border of Hebei province and Inner Mongolia to do some horseback riding. This was an absolutely hilarious experience to say the least. We weren't allowed to go without guides, no problem, however our guides were on foot! We didn't realize this until ,...well it was too late. So our 2 hour trail ride was at a very slow pace. The horses were lazy and stubborn and really just wanted to get to the good pasture, and then do nothing. I nonetheless enjoy being on a horse, and the view was unbelievable. On one side Hebei province, with trees, fall colours, the smell of pine trees. On the other side rolling grasslands! The change was so abrupt it was bizarre. I wish we had the time to just drive around Inner Mongolia to get a sense for the terrain, but the sun was starting to go down.

We went out for a traditional meal. We agreed we would drop the money for this meal. It was going to happen anyway, as everything was overpriced in this little town, so why not have local fare? We treated our new guide (our original guide had managed to get out of coming North with us) and driver as well. We enjoyed a whole leg of lamb,
Taking a rest at the topTaking a rest at the topTaking a rest at the top

What a view! A well earned rest. I climbed this mountain twice afterall!
wild mushrooms, ferns and potatoes. It was a feast to say the least. The driver carved the meat for us and a good time was had by all, even with a severe language barrier. I had my back to a little woodstove and it was just perfect.

We headed back to our hotels, which had no heat (they just close up shop at the end of October), curled up under several blankets and had a remarkably wonderful sleep.

Sadly the next morning we headed back to Chengde. I could have spent many nights in Mulan, and was sad to head back south. I think its the most homesick I've been since I got here, or nostalgic...I'm not sure. I just know I felt at home up there.

Ready to Go Home

Back in Chengde we had yet one more temple left on our itinerary - the Pule Temple. It had a museum built into it, about the history of all the temples. I hate to admit it but I was so exhausted that my mind didn't do it justice. I hardly remember it at this point! Our guide wanted to bring us to another
Craig heads back down.Craig heads back down.Craig heads back down.

Time to go back the way we came.
temple after that (a Taoist temple) but we said no. We just went back to the hotel, packed our bags. That night we walked along the river, found a nice place to enjoy dinner and went to bed early.

The trip back to Teda

Our first and crazy guide Fred decided to tell the driver to take a different route home. He said it would cut an hour off of our trip. It didn't. However, it did have spectacular mountain scenery. The curvy mountain roads were a little scary due to the rain, and the fear of breaking down again; but we made it out alive. We went by yet another chunk of the Great Wall, and stopped for another gawk. When we came out of the mountains, back into the sprawling wasteland of industry that surrounds Tianjin, it was certainly depressing. However, I did feel some comfort on reentering my apartment. I guess its starting to feel like home.

We are starting to think about plans for Christmas holiday. We definitely want to go somewhere warm, somewhere with beach. We just don't know if Hainan Island is south enough. We'll keep you posted.

A big apology to everyone back home that this blog took so long to publish. Its been crazy. Term 1 just ended, and I'm a coordinator of the ACAMIS Volleyball tournament which is this weekend, so that has been keeping me busy.

Craig and I now volunteer Wednesday nights teaching English at the hospital to Heart Surgeons and Nurses. We take Chinese Thursdays and Sundays. Somehow, life has become just as busy over here.

I apologize for the length of this entry...but I do have to admit I feel I have left so much out! Chengde is a wonderful place to visit, and I know I haven't done it justice.

Hugs all around.

Additional photos below
Photos: 37, Displayed: 37


The last few steps to the Hammer Peak.The last few steps to the Hammer Peak.
The last few steps to the Hammer Peak.

A narrow bridge of rock to the actual hammer peak. Rubbing it brings good luck. It was quite crowded, but fortunately nobody was pushed over the edge.
The Easy Part of the WallThe Easy Part of the Wall
The Easy Part of the Wall

This part was quite flat and had gardens on the other side.
Fire ProtectionFire Protection
Fire Protection

These guys protect the building from fire. I'm not sure, but it looks to me like the guy at the front is riding a chicken.
Fall HarvestFall Harvest
Fall Harvest

I took this picture while waiting around for the mechanic to show up to fix the van.
Moving PotatoesMoving Potatoes
Moving Potatoes

You may notice we don't care nearly so much about seatbelts here.
Inner MongoliaInner Mongolia
Inner Mongolia

I took this picture from horseback...which wasn't difficult as I could have walked faster :)
Bridge to Inner MongoliaBridge to Inner Mongolia
Bridge to Inner Mongolia

The length of the bridge was covered in tables selling tacky souvenirs. Of course we had to buy a few!
Leg of LambLeg of Lamb
Leg of Lamb

This is some of the best food I've ever had. Presentation may not be that great, but ultimately it comes down to taste.
Mulan Fire TowerMulan Fire Tower
Mulan Fire Tower

We awoke Friday morning to fog and drizzle. You couldn't see much from the Fire Tower, but it was somehow very impressive looming in the mist.
Xumifushou TempleXumifushou Temple
Xumifushou Temple

This Pagoda had one level for each decade of the Emperor's life. So if you count, you will know this one commemorated his 70th birthday.
Valley on the Way HomeValley on the Way Home
Valley on the Way Home

Here is one of the impressive vistas we passed on the way home.

26th October 2007

I think you missed your calling!!
Hi Beth, You should be a journalist. When we read your blogs, we travel right along with you and Craig. I'm so glad you are both well and still enjoying yourselves. We miss you, but our "great" loss is their gain. Love, Laverne
27th October 2007

Oh guys this sounds like a great week's holiday and I completely understand the comforting feeling coming across familiar Canadian scenery in a foreign land. Now I can't wait to go to Asia again ; ) Brandy
27th October 2007

What an awesome road trip! It was like reading a movie script. Especially the intrigue involved with the smarmy guide, a vehicle breakdown, and of course the possibility of meeting with unfortunate circumstances when you and Craig went off on your own. I loved the tale. Keep these adventure coming. Your photos are absolutely magnificent. RF
28th October 2007

oh no i can't stop laughing! it's just to much to take in all at once. my tummy hurts from laughing. trained mice! it really could be a skit from monty python!
1st November 2007

Yea, I'm with Sam on this one - I wish I'd seen the mice too, or a video of them! Have to give you kudos on the travel blog, it is most interesting. Glad you guys are having so many adventures.
1st November 2007

Very cool mice :) The budda is fantastic aswell
5th November 2007

I really enjoyed reading your entries. I started with the piece on moving to TEDA and could not stop reading. The entries are funny, descriptive and written with so much warmth. Thanks!

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