This update from our trip north is a little late, but that’s because the highly-portable computer that we bring, an iPod Touch, is also ultra-droppable. Now, after a trip to the Apple Store in Shanghai (a story deserving its own post), we’re back in blog business. I know our one reader will be thrilled.
Anyway, about Chengde. Once again, our original draft was probably destined to become the introduction to one of China’s more interesting sights, but now the world (okay, our moms) is stuck with our less-inspired paraphrasing of the original masterpiece.
So here goes: Chengde may be the best side trip there is from Beijing, and one of the most interesting places in China regarding the history of the Qing. A morning train ride from Beijing’s main station (itself an interesting sight, and probably the nicest train station in China) took us up, off of the North China plain and through winding mountain passes back toward the Manchu homeland. Along the way, we passed through the Great Wall and the old frontier between the agrarian Chinese and steppe nomadic worlds.
Our destination at Chengde, the summer retreat of the Manchu Qing emperors, was originally chosen for its good hunting. The imperial court would decamp from Beijing to this place each year, sometimes for several months, in order to get back to their nomadic roots (they were non-Chinese, and wanted to keep it that way) as well as, I imagine, to just get the heck out of China for a while. Since the Han Chinese were forbidden from even setting foot in Manchuria, it probably made for a very relaxing vacation.
But a working vacation nonetheless. Here, the Manchu rulers held court for kings, chieftains and emissaries from all the far-flung suzerainties and tribute states of the Empire of the Great Qing. For their fellow nomadic brothers, hosting them here was a way to offer a more comfortable setting than the over-aweing grandeur and intimidating protocol of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was also a way to show that they were on separate status, even slightly more equal, than the Han subjects of China proper. Thus for the Tibetans and Uighurs and Mongolians and Kazakhs, their allegiances were to the Manchu ruling family, not to the wretched Han subjects toiling as the empire’s manufacturing base.
And in order to cultivate this sense of Tartar affiliation, the Manchus styled their retreat at Chengde as a sort of Camp David-meets-Epcot, with a series of surrounding temples built to show cultural respect and perhaps evoke fond memories of home for visiting dignitaries. Since the Mongols as well as Tibetans were fervent Lamaists, many of the temples were meant to resemble famous ones from up on the Plateau. The combination of quiet, pine-forested hunting grounds; simple wooden lodges of the imperial court with various personal effects on display; and white-washed Tibetan temples, seemingly flown in from Lhasa, all make Chengde one of the most interesting and enjoyable places to visit near Beijing. And for us, a good preview of sorts for our summer trip to all these far-flung places. The setting also provides quite the chance, whether you want it or not, to converse with many a pride-swelled Chinese tourist about their country’s rightful territorial scope.
(There are maps everywhere showing the territorial extent of the Qing Empire. In my simple ignorant interpretation, Chinese people’s recidivist urges to control Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet are about as historically well-grounded as Mexico claiming the Philippines because they were once both ruled by Spain. But in China’s official history, their previous Manchu overlords were actually Chinese themselves, making all areas where foreign princes and chieftains once pledged fealty to them a logical part of the modern Chinese state.)
But much of the day we actually didn’t talk to, or see, anyone. Instead, we enjoyed near-empty temples under a soft drizzle of rain, and quiet dirt paths through the hunting grounds where tour groups dared not tread. The next afternoon, we caught the single daily train heading back towards Beijing, with tickets to get us only halfway. Our next destination was the Great Wall, a meet-up with Tina, and finally, that marathon.