The city of Chengde boasts the largest royal hunting grounds, royal garden, royal temple group, and wooden Buddhist statue in the world. Not to mention it’s also home to the shortest river in the world that does not freeze in winter. Though that last one may seem a little tenuous, this long list of achievements means you’d be hard pushed to find a reason not to go to Chengde! This prefecture-level city, just north of Beijing, is home to large constituencies of the Mongol and Manchu ethnic minorities and has been a melting pot of nomadic cultures for centuries.
Historically the city was known as Rehe, which literally means “Hot River”. It was named after the local river which, in spite of the icy cold temperatures, never freezes during winter thanks to the many hot springs that feed into it. That being said, “not frozen” hardly counts as “hot”, so perhaps “Lukewarm River” would have been a more appropriate name!
The surrounding landscape is an idyllic mixture of plateau and mountainous regions, with numerous rivers flowing through the city. Amongst these verdant meadows, the Mulan Paddock is the most famous and represents the world’s largest imperial hunting grounds. Its jade hued grasslands appear to be boundless, stretching out over 2,300 square kilometres (888 sq. mi). With Mongolian yurts dotted like small pearls across its expanse and with the vast blue sky above it, it appears like a scene from a watercolour painting.
It was supposedly on a hunting trip through these charming grasslands that the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) took notice of Rehe. He decided that this should be the location for his summer resort and began construction of the complex in 1703. Yet it would be 89 long years before this sneaky summer getaway was finally finished. I can’t imagine the Kangxi Emperor’s summers here were too relaxing, considering it must have looked like a construction site 90% of the time!
When most of us think of a summer home, we think of somewhere balmy and warm, backing onto a silvery beach. Yet, as illogical as it may seem, the Kangxi Emperor chose Chengde because its climate was cooler than that of his home! The resort’s official name literally translates to mean “Mountain Estate for Escaping the Heat”, as Chengde’s summer was far more temperate than that of Beijing and so royals would flock to the resort in an attempt to escape the oppressive heat.
Since the seat of government always followed the emperor, Chengde became one of China’s political centres and people soon flocked to the city, meaning it began to grow exponentially. Mongol vassal princes would assemble at the resort every year for a great feast, and it soon became the place for the emperor to receive foreign envoys. Yet, by 1821, the resort had largely fallen out of favour and the practice of summering there was gradually discontinued. You know you’re too rich when you can afford to abandon a summer home that’s twice the size of most theme parks!
The complex covers a staggering area of 5.6 square kilometres (2.2 sq. mi) and is separated into four areas: the palace area, the lakes area, the plains area, and the hills area. Unsurprisingly, the palace area hosts the main palace and the lakes area consists of 8 lakes, while the plains area was once used by the emperor to host horse races and hunts. The hills area is arguably the most elaborate, as it is the site of hundreds of palaces and temples within the complex. The whole resort, including the Eight Outlying Temples, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
The Eight Outlying Temples lie outside of the resort’s walls and were built by incorporating features of Tibetan, Manchu, Man, Han, and Mongolian architecture. The most well-known is the Putuo Zongcheng Temple, which was built during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796) and was modelled after Potala Palace in Lhasa. The nearby Puning Temple, which was built in 1755, contains the largest wooden statue of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin, resplendent with her 42 outstretched arms and towering in at a height of 22 metres (72 ft.).
Sledgehammer Peak is another popular attraction in Chengde and is made up of a large rock formation that greatly resembles an inverted sledgehammer. It sits among a variety of other mountains along the borders of the city that are just waiting to be explored!