Thursday, September 6, 2012

Around China in 30 Days: Come to Chengde in Summer

These are my May/June 2010 Journals, rewritten into a semi-coherent narrative of my trip through China with the UW Madison History group. It was a tremendously fun experience that I want to publicize a little bit, so I'll be posting these here.

Around China in 30 Days
Come to Chengde in Summer 
I don't recall falling asleep on the bus to Chengde, but I certainly recall awakening after an indeterminate period and being startled to discover that at some point since I'd closed my eyes, someone had meticulously replaced a hundred-odd square kilometers of buildings with mountains.

They were huge, ungainly things, like we'd suddenly stumbled into a pasture of thousand-foot-tall buffalo. My general sentiment was that mountains are huge and neat and that I desperately wanted to climb all of them, forever. Just let me off here, I joked, I have a lifetime to waste in the Chinese countryside.
Warning: Mountains May Be More Majestic in Real Life

So when we arrived in Chengde I was in a ood mood, taken as I was with the mountains and oblivious to anything else. We were herded without much explanation into a restaurant, given  meal, and without much circumstance introduced to our tour guides. Wang Laoshi, an old friend of Dreux's, was to coordinate our trip. An older Chinese man and former professor of Japanese at Beijing Daxue, he was to be our caretaker for the next month. He arranged the buses, the accommodations, and the food.  Our guide in Chengde was introduced as Peter, and the more said about him the better, because the man was a beautiful lunatic. He was apparently a professor at a local tour-guide college, and so devoted to his guide company that he'd run ahead of us at any opportunity with a video camera, eager to film this crew of Americans as he lead us around China's version of a rustic paradise (which is accurate in the sense that it was home to a mere 450 thousand people). He developed an immediate crush on Krista, and while organizing group photos always asked that room be left for him with the implication that it be left near her. On several occasions he materialized to thrust a camera at me and have his photograph taken with Krista. He would not be the first nor last person to be taken with Krista's good looks, but he was by far the most entertaining. You know, for me.

He also served as our translator during both our lecture and our visit to a local village, and both times our resident Chinese speakers (Helen, Z, and Tony) caught him editorializing like he was the Chengde Board of Commerce. In retrospect, he probably was. But the thing that made me realize truly what a terrific nut we'd gotten, after our lecture, he announced he wanted to recite some poetry he'd written about the local sights, and play the flute for us. The man was so crazy I can literally not think of something funny to say that he hasn't outshone merely by being him. Suffice to say, no other tour guide impressed me as much.

Sean, Me, Sherri--Photo by Sherri
He took us to the Bishu Shanzhuang, the largest park in China and something of a miniature map of the Qing emperor's realm. The complex itself was huge and served as the summer home to the final Chinese dynastic powers, but like so many of the buildings we would see it failed to impress upon me its age or majesty. It was awesome, yes, but we simply stood about, a bit indifferent, as we were given an impromptu lecture on the Qing dynasty and the life of crazy Empress Dowager Cixi. We wouldn't rustle up anything resembling enthusiasm until someone gave us tiny electric boats and encouraged us to boat around the miniature lake. I shared a boat with Sean, Benny, Sherri, and Tony, which we dubbed the "USS Capitalism". Being Men Of Action (even Sherri) we promptly sailed hard across three lakes, singing pirate shanties and generally having a blast.

Arriving back on land found us on what would be the first in a string of buses traveling at spine-shattering, toe-curling, voice-box-welding speed along things Webster would only call a road after a particularly persuasive savage beating. The sights we saw when the bus would come to a blessed halt were made all the more wondrous by the relief that we hadn't died, but then immediately eclipsed by the fear that we'd have to ride another bus to go back down. High in these mountains that represented China's mostly uninhabited and dry North was the place where the emperor would store concubines that displeased him. What an awful punishment! Imagine, forced to leave a harem to go enjoy some solitude in a comfortable cabin in the mountains.. We also visited the emperor's private library, now a bookstore.

The garden outside the bookstore was amusing in its own right, constructed of rock and flowers to provide dozens of little paths through which the discerning Emperor (or slackjawed American tourist) might stroll. It even had a tiny rock statue with a hole constructed in such a way that it cast what appeared to be a reflection of the crescent moon into a shallow pool.

Putuo Zongcheng

The next day we visited a pair of vast temples constructed to resemble those in Tibet; apparently the Qing emperor had gotten a visit from the Dalai Lama and upon converting had decided to build the holy sites to house him during future visits. Adorning the entrance to each was a tablet written in the five languages of China--Chinese, Mongol, Tibetan, Arabic, and Manchu. I mention them because Peter brought them up and delivered the same monologue them every time we saw them, important symbolic aspects of Qing architecture that they were. These temples provided a unique psychological landscape, with their steep staircases and juxtaposition of modern and ancient infrastructure. The first temple was gorgeous and hosted a massive seventy foot tall Buddha statue. Dozens of locks adorned fences and although their purpose was never adequately explained they were really cool. The second temple was really tall. Like... really tall.

Our final day in Chengde started out painfully dull, like a fourteenth century sword through the thorax. Between the violent wind and the militarist offerings in the museum, that could possibly have been arranged. It was standing in this temple and hearing that it had been established in the late 1700s that it suddenly occurred to me that I was standing in a building that was going through its awkward teenage years when my home country was still weighing the pros and cons of self-rule. I decided to spend the rest of the trip breathlessly reminding anyone in earshot that we were in the presence of things whose age I could only appreciate with hushed, aggravating whispers. At some point it became possible to shrug, unimpressed, because something was "merely a few hundred years old". I thought that it was crazy.

Which, you know, didn't make the actual temples any more interesting, and the subtle nuances of Buddhist devotional architecture aren't well appreciated by still-jetlagged American tourists who're steadily running low on childlike delight. Se we decided to mix things up and went to the Sledge Hammer Peak. Arrival was arranged via twenty minute gondola ride that delivered you  over some pretty rough terrain. Sometimes there'd be a hundred feet of air between you and the ground, and other times you'd get gravel in your shoes. The peak itself was gorgeous, offering a view for miles that really  hammered home the fact that twenty feet in any direction you had roughly thirty stories to fall to a screamy death. Fortunately, the locals had take security measures: they'd painted yellow lines along the edges of the rock face, so I was perfectly safe so long as there wasn't a stiff breeze and I didn't have a crippling bout of acrophobia. Never one to let a good opportunity go to waste, I succumbed to my vertigo and lay down on the rock face to adjust my perspective and distract myself from the prospect of a short life filled with falling.

After crabwalking back to safety, we were dismissed to visit a village, interview the locals and learn from them whatever we were interested in.  My area of study was supernatural events and local beliefs. They were extremely quick to point out that they had none. They didn't have any particularly interesting festivals, absolutely no stories to tell their children, no religion, not even any funerary rituals except "When people die, we put them in a box. Then we bury them, the end." With no supernatural beliefs, or even supernatural stories they told for fun, I was stymied; I immediately contributed this frustration to Party involvement with the village and fear of appearing to be superstitious by a people who rely heavily on tourism to fuel their economy.

Of course, my attempt to enter into a college discourse on the supernatural wouldn't have held water anywhere, especially if the questions were delivered via a game of telephone between a moron didn't know how to phrase them in English (that's me), a slightly embarrassed translator, and a Chinese fruit farmer. Finally in a panic I just pretended I didn't have any more questions left, closed my journal, and thought of England. The villagers had an interesting approach to life; appeared to want for nothing, and because they produced all their own food they had considerably easier lives than city folk. Standing on the road overlooking a valley and some mountains as clouds left dappled shadows on the countryside, I got the feeling that they weren't too far off base.

We dropped Peter off at a street corner and headed back to Beijing. We'd spend a couple hours there before boarding a sleeper train to Xi'An. In a Dairy Queen we met an American who taught English at orphanages in south China--the bastard made me feel like a jackass. The sleeper was interesting, because our group of sixteen was shared across four six-bed bunks, meaning four Americans and two Chinese strangers in every cabin. I was disappointed to find that I was on the ground floor, but the top was empty. Surreptitiously I climbed inside and snuggled down for the night. Naturally, I had just fallen asleep when we stopped and our resident Chinese stranger entered our cabin and tried climbing in next to me. A few hurried apologies I was silently hating him from the bottom bunk.

After eleven hours on a train, we pulled up to the Xi'an stop. We'd arrived in the city that was to be our home for the next four days (with one exception), and it was a hot, sweaty, polluted place. Even so, I was excited to enjoy this new and strange place.

Previously, In Beijing
Next Up: Xi'an and Yenan


  1. Going to use this on our trip to Chengde in May. I realize its been about three years, but do you have any recommendations on where to stay, not in a hotel? Would like a more unique trip after we're stuck in a hotel in Beijing. Homestay or language immersion for two days sounds great, and would love recommendations (even through your impressive contacts!).


    1. Unfortunately, I do not. Since our tour was prearranged through the university, we were provided lodging and strongly encouraged to stay with the group in the hotel. However, the hotel was very nice, with an excellent continental breakfast and an immediate adjacency to the Summer Palace.

      Hope you have more like,