Me, approaching Golden Hil by stony paths near one of the lakes. So yeah... the Chengde Chronicles.
A list of my kit, to start off with. The Chengde trip was a field test of my German webbing. I had with me my hydrapak (camel-back pack) and my webbing. It worked great. Webbing underneath, hydrapak with 2 litres of water fitting over that, resting on/above the buttpack of the webbing. It also created a lot of interest. If people weren't staring, they were discussing where I was from... and then saw the Canadian flag patches. I discerned a lot of "Ahhh... ta shi Canada ren." after I'd passed by. No issues at all with army gear - it's a big thing here. Anyway...
Usually, no trip in China is complete without a series of mishaps. Well, I guess I broke the tradition. No real mishaps except that the voyage by bus into Chengde was longer than I thought it would be, and I arrived at midnight (left at 5:30).
The buses en route were freakin' awesome. The first one was sort of like a drab mini-bus that had been gutted and had had prison bunks surgically implanted. It was a shady hostel on wheels, with 28 bunks in it, in three rows of three, plus two solid bunks at the back that held five. I was near the front, on the right side, upper bunk. (double windows, also, for both upper and lower bunks)
I was feeling a bit uncertain of everything, as I was out on my own with limited Chinese. Turns out all was fine. Being a foreigner does have some perks, as bus attendants seem to remember me and where I'm going. I say 'attendants' because there's one driver plus two or three others who are just kind there, riding along, doing random things to help out. ... like chain smoking. I got to talking to the main attendant of the first bus. He was asking me where I was from, which is about as far as we got since he wasn't overly patient (though quite nice) and my Chinese is broken.
Our first stop was a warzone. Or it looked like a dead city after a warzone, as if two sides had jointly decided to decimate a city, then move on, and people sort of filled in the holes. The bathroom was a pock-marked cement and brick wall with brick-laid holes and a cement trough that was squirming with maggots. A single yellow bulb kindly shed flickering light on their wriggling omni-presence.
The roads were absolute shite. Crews were destroying them and rebuilding most of the night, so we were on major highways that were nothing but 5 or 6 lane back-roads. Hell, half our trip was through back-roads, as there is no main route to Chengde, and we were doing a milkrun. If you've seen Romancing the Stone, then you've seen what my bus trip was like (when what's-her-name is on that bus that breaks down in Columbia). The main attendant spent most of his time yelling into his cellphone, and telling the driver to change course to pick up some random person on the side of the road. They were the ones he was talking to on the cellphone. So we zigzagged a bit, and 400 kms took 6.5 hours to traverse. All this in the dark, with the bus spending half its time on the wrong side of the road, or nearly off the road where it narrowed to single-lane through canyons or valleys.
Around 9:30, I was tapped on the shoulder (I had been dozing) and was gestured at to get off the bus. I saw a few others disembark, so off I went, shouldering my bags. We were at some downtrodden waystation, and after being ushered through a gauntlet of grumbling buses, I got onto another one, one that was a lot nicer and more modern. I thanked the guy and shook his hand, and found a spot on the bus at the back, in the under shared bunk, after creating much talk. "A foreigner? In the middle of nowhere? What the hell?" was the general bustle. One kid said "Hello!" and I responded, and he proceeded to talk to anyone he could, retelling the grand narrative of our bisyllabic exchange.
The rear bunk covered the width of the bus, as in the other bus, but it was more comfortable and semi-reclined. There were only two people back there, with room for 4. I took the middle. There was a Chinese guy who didn't say boo and promptly went to sleep on my left, and a girl on my right who kept watching me.
After thirty minutes or so, I asked where she was from, and she immediately leaned on her elbow and started chatting. I got across that I could only understand a little (Wo mingbai hungyu yi dien. Bu hen dua.), but we talked for 2.5 hours. She did a lot of laughing and saying "Bu shi" (another way of saying 'no', depending on what was said: "Ni shi blah blah blah?" "Shi" would be yes in that case). I found out she was going back to some town in Mongolia. She is a 24-year old Mongolian, which explained her beautifully exaggerated features. I'd say that chatting with her was one of the most enjoyable portions of the entire trip, as she was an interesting person, asked me lots of questions, and I had a chance to meet someone who put up with my attempts at Chinese and helped me improve. I've gotten better simply by virtue of this trip.
She let me know when we got to Chengde, and opened the back window and waved to me. Myself and one or two others were dropped near an underpass, with no sign of a city in sight. It had also begun to drizzle and I had nothing but a sleeveless t-shirt. (The Mongolian woman had asked me about if it was cold in Canada, and I said yes. She asked why I didn't have a jacket and I said "This isn't cold". The Chinese are really weird about the cold - they wrap themselves in layers if the temperature drops below 25 degrees.)
The taxi trip was without issue, and took 10 minutes. My hotel was literally across the street from the main south entrance to Bishu Shanzhuang, the imperial summer resort and gardens built in 1703. I was allowed into the hotel (it being 12:30am at this point) and numerous fuwuyuan had to be woken up. I was given a laminated card and a receipt and directed to the third floor. There, I woke up yet another woman who took my receipt and, jug of hot water in hand, led me to my room. From a massive ring of keys, she chose the one for my room, and that was that. The room wasn't nice, but it was clean and comfy after a 6-hour bus ride.
I slept in til 7am, then got up and went downstairs in search of breakfast (zaocan). It had been raining almost all night, and was drizzling outside still. I didn't let that disuade me, however. Breakfast was complimentary, so I had a boiled egg, a spongy rice bread roll, some sour bean sprouts and headed out for the day.
I wandered down the road a bit, then got a cab to Punning Si, the only temple with Buddhist monks. I arrived a bit too early, as they only open at 8am. I heard the gongs and the trills of pipe instruments from inside, so hung out for a bit til I could go in. There was a tour bus there, but their tour was slow, so I saw most of Punning Si without there being many people. I got a shot of the monks entering the main temple. I looked all around, and went into Mahayana Hall (where the monks had been praying), where a 22-meter high wooden Buddha stood. It was pretty staggering. The statue of Guanyin is one of the largest wooden buddha statues in the world, if not the largest.
By that point, I was pretty damp. By 9am I was wandering down one of the streets of Chengde, after being accosted by all manner of merchants. I bought an okay-quality Chinese jacket for 140. The only reason I bought it (I've decided) is because I talked them down from the 260 they were asking. I should have started the bargaining at 100 yuan. Aw well. Haggling was a success.
I then grabbed a taxi to Pule Si, which is off the beaten path. Puning Si was still somewhat within Chengde, but Pule Si is up on the hills, farmers' fields arrayed around it. Puning Si was 50 yuan, Pule Si was 30 yuan. Pretty cheap, really, and I donated a bit at the altars. While Puning Si was impressive with the wooden statue of Guanyin and the array of designs, Pule Si was architecturally impressive, and at the summit in the Temple of Universal Joy was an ancient buddha, Yamantaka (I think), a very Tibetan buddha. He had six arms, a dragon's head, and didn't look overly kind. No one was there, so I had the place to myself.
(Pictures within the temples and temple out-buildings were prohibited, so you won't find any pictures on my Flickr page of them, but a Google search should yield images.)
After that, I decided I needed a bite to eat. It was 11:15, and I had walked down from Pule Si, through some poor streets, to hit a main road. Restaurants weren't busy yet, so I didn't wait. (The sign of a decent restaurant in China is the degree to which it is busy and the people are happy, so I had no gauge.) I grabbed some stick thing from a vendor near the south entrance to Bishu Shanzhuang, walked the shops along the main drag and bought something for Angie, and 90 yuan later, into Bishu Shanzhuang I went.
I took a tonne of pictures of Bishu Shanzhuang, and I saw the entire place. It was absolutely beautiful, and very peaceful. I took a 'golf-cart' ride through the western, mountainous portions. That took 30 minutes or so and took me from the south to the west, north, east, and back south in a rectangle. The driver was a bit of a dick, but he was good and we didn't go flying off into any abyss (we had many occassions to do so on that Chinese rendition of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride). A pheasant attacked the cart, and many deer bounded off the cobbled path as we rolled through. Once we were near the entrance and had stopped, I got off and didn't go back to the cart. A random guy took a picture of me standing with his daughter ("closer, closer"). Their English was good, but it was odd. They just came up and asked if he could take a picture of her and I (I had first thought he wanted a picture of the two of them across from the Tower of Rainy Mist). She put her arm around me (she was foiled by my webbing - ha ha!), and I managed to twist out a crooked smile at the last moment for the second photo (I'd screwed up the first one with my bewildered expression).
I then walked about the lake areas for an hour and a bit, then headed north up the east side of the gardens, all the way up to the Mongolian yurts (soooo disappointing) and a huge tower. I then headed back south, past places I had seen, and wandered down a different path, back over the water pavilions and to the other south gate. At this time it was 3:20, and I needed to get to the bus station.
(I had picked up my ticket prior to going to Pule Si... the taxi broke down 2 kms away, so I walked the remainder. No issue buying a ticket to Tang Shan.)
I read Dracula while waiting to board the bus. God the bus was uncomfortable. They over-booked it, we had frequent long stops (sometimes for no reason), got stopped by the army and investigated (and the people seated in the aisles on little stools were told to get out), but finally arrived back in Tang Shan around 10:30pm. I had a headache from dehydration and fatigue, and pretty much went straight to sleep last night after two large glasses of orange juice and lots of water.
That was my trip. Lots of fun, and Chengde is a beautiful place. Thankfully, most of it can be seen at a leisurely pace in a 9- or 10-hour day.