I went to Chengde on a whim, and it turned out to be the best city I had never heard of. My mother and brother were visiting Beijing from Kentucky, and I wanted to take them somewhere outside the Chinese capital so they could experience a different part of the country.
I picked Chengde because it was close and had a lot of history. During the Qing (1644-1911), China’s last dynasty, it served as a getaway for the royal family. Situated 250 kilometers northeast of Beijing, Chengde with its rolling mountains and thick forests provided a cool and scenic escape from the capital’s blistering hot summers and flat landscape.
We went in the fall, when the leaves had turned brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange. Chengde’s main historical site is Bishu Shanzhuang, an imperial summer resort that began construction in 1703. Admission was pricey – 120 RMB ($19) – twice what it costs to tour the Forbidden City in Beijing. But the resort’s impressive mountain lookouts justified the expense.
After a stomach-turning bus ride up a narrow, winding road (brakes apparently optional, oncoming traffic be damned), we reached a perimeter wall where the Manchurian emperors and their families used to ride their horses, overlooking the Putuo Zongcheng Temple. The temple, built in 1771 and Chengde’s largest, was modeled after the Potala Palace in Tibet.
The bus tour of the imperial summer resort stopped at several other lookouts, each with a view as beautiful as the one before. The tour took about an hour, but if you choose to walk I imagine it would take an entire day. At 5.6 million square meters, the resort houses the largest imperial garden in China.
As we toured the rest of Chengde, my brother and I kept noticing a giant rock formation on the horizon. We both agreed that we needed to see it up close. A ski lift took us to the base, and after a short walk up some steps we were on the rock. The formation is called Sledgehammer Peak, which locals refer to as “the thumb of God” because from a distance it does resemble a clenched fist with the thumb sticking up.
If I have nothing to hold on to, heights scare me. A yellow line had been drawn less than a meter from the edge on either side of the rock’s base. The only thing preventing you from falling was a chain rope. The rope was hung about knee high, not nearly high enough to catch an adult from plunging to death. I don’t know what purpose it served.
As I approached the edge, the wind whipped around me, and my knees became weak. A couple of girls no older than 12 dashed past me and sat much closer to the edge, chatting, smiling and posing for pictures.
I climbed down questioning my manhood, but left without any doubt that Chengde is one of China’s hidden beauties.