It was the end of November and the first snowflakes were starting to fly around just as we set off from the airport in Beijing. By the time we reached the motorway the snow was getting serious and I began to wonder if we would be able to get to the Great Wall of China at Jinshaling. I had been to different parts of the Great Wall previously but wanted to see this part as it was unpolished, still rugged in its natural beauty and easily accessible on the way to Chengde, a city in Hubei Province. The driver, with his thick neck and very short haircut, didn’t speak any English but when he turned to Miss Yang, a skinny, fashionable guide I knew instinctively they were talking about the Great Wall.
“Driver said it’s too dangerous to go to the Great Wall. “ Said Miss Yang turning her short bobbed hair towards me.
The sense of disappointment went through my tired body but there was nothing I could do. We continued our driving towards Rehe, the former name of Chengde. When my boss asked me to visit Chengde to see if we could add it to our tour programme I was under the impression that I was going to see pandas in Chengdu. Only when I found out that the mode of transfer from Beijing was going to be by car not by plane I realised there was a difference in the last letter and the place I was going to see.
At the hotel, the only four star which was receiving foreigners I had a welcome reception by the director of the hotel who asked me, through a translator, to join him for dinner. After 12 hours on the flight, and two and half hours driving through the country I was desperate to get to bed but my sense of responsibility was still alive and I decided to go for dinner.
The restaurant was empty, dark with the tables set up for breakfast with the coffee and tea cups neatly laid out. Our dinner was served in one of the private rooms, where except for a huge table for 16 there was a sofa bed, a big plasma TV and the bathroom. The meal consisted of 12 different dishes, all freshly cooked and I enjoyed the Hongchang, smoked red sausages and Khleb which is a kind of Russian bread. In China bread is not served on the table but Chengde is so north and under the Russian influence that bread is a part of the cuisine. Also the climate is cold and eating bread keeps you warm. My drink was an unusual choice for the north part of China, a coconut milk, served in long thin cans nicely decorated in blue. I was impressed with the marketing and the taste of the drink. The hotel director, secret entrepreneur at heart, offered to export cans of the milk to the UK. A subtle no didn’t stop him stockpiling my room with cans of the coconut drink to make sure that I always had a choice of cold or hot.
After the initial disappointment about not going to Chengdu I researched Chengde and I learned that at one point this small city, a short drive (2,5hours), from Beijing, was a Summer Palace during the Qing Dynasty (1614 – 1911). The Mountain Resort which was built in during the Qing Dynasty took 90 years to finish, and is located outside of Chengde. It is divided into four areas: the Palace Area, Lake Area, Plain Area and Mountain Area.
The Mt Area we couldn’t visit as the snow was getting heavier making me worried about my return to Beijing but the Palace area was outstanding. Imagine the Forbidden City in front of you but without any tourists, imagine the freedom to take as many shots as you wish without waiting for people to move from your viewfinder. Bliss!
Walking around we passed a happy couple walking backwards which made me think a mental institution must be located on the premises. The guide, a local woman born in the city, knowledgeable and in the love with the place, explained to me that humans are set to walk with their chest in front which during the lifetime can be damaging. In order to limit the damage the people of Chengde walk backwards, sometimes, usually in the park trying to develop Ying and Yang energy.
“Imagine it as a form of exercise.” she added. I did try to imagine walking backwards around the local Tesco but then saw myself escorted from the premises by the security guard. It would be very difficult to explain the calming influence of Jing and Jang to Essex gizza boy.
Outside the Mountain Resort there is an area covered with outer temples which are copies of those of different minorities in China and which symbolize the various ethnic groups. Legend goes that the Emperor was fed up with all the internal fighting in China and he decided to call all the representatives of each minority to sign a peace. In order not to favour any of them, he built temples for each – the Tibetan Temple which is a replica of the Potala Palace, the Pule Temple reflects a traditional Han style while the Temple of Universal Happiness (Pulesi) was built in honour of the representatives of the Kazaks. Originally there were 12 Temples of which 8 remain and together with the Mountain Resort are listed as UNESCO Heritage Sites.
At the back of the hotel I was greeted by the director again, who asked me if I would like to join him at karaoke which was conveniently located on the 3rd floor of the hotel. The sound of my own voice would cause a diplomatic row and making a polite excuse of an early start the following day, I refused the offer and spent a night in my hotel room drinking coconut milk.
The following day I took the train back to Beijing on my own, sharing sunflower seeds and hot water with local commuters who didn’t speak any English and since my Chinese is very limited our conversations were short but we enjoyed our journey together all the same.