Chengde Imperial Summer Villa
Chengde Imperial Summer Villa is regarded as one of China's 4 most beautiful gardens, along with the Summer Palace in Beijing, the Humble Administrator's Garden and Lingering Garden in Suzhou. The Imperial Summer Villa was first established by Emperor Kangxi of Qing Dynasty. The renowned mountain resort reached its prime in the 1790's during the reign of Emperor Qianlong; one of the most famous Qing emperors. They each ordered the construction of 36 scenic spots, from moon gazing pavilions to rocks carved with Tang calligraphy. Today many of the 72 originals are no more as they were lost in the layers of time or destroyed by war. But for a park of nearly 590ha, there are still plenty of delightful old buildings tucked into meadows or glens. The entire parkland is closed in by a wall along the dramatic ridge at the northern edge and abuts the town along the south, adding to the feeling of separation from regular life. Tasteful trails cross the various creeks and hills and the wall itself can be walked in their entirety. While the surrounding countryside has long since been logged of its big trees, inside the park is a mature forest of pines and cypress, a rare treat in China. It's easy to imagine royalty roaming this imperial playground on lazy summer days, perhaps stopping to write a poem when the mood struck.
As for the famous spots, many are worth mentioning. The first and grandest is the Front Palace. The throne hall is an impressive structure, worthy of seating any emperor, and the Hall of Simplicity and Sincerity is notable for the fragrant wood, nanmu, from which it's constructed. Just beyond the palace is a large lake crisscrossed by bridges and islands and dotted with 18th century buildings. This area is the most beautiful in the park and meets expectations for a traditional Chinese landscape. Be sure to visit Ruyi Island and the Misty Rain Tower, the former imperial study. Beyond the lake is the Wenjin Chamber which housed a set of anthologies commissioned by Emperor Qianlong. The anthologies took 10 years to compile. Sadly, of the original four sets, three have been lost and the remaining one is now in Beijing. Further on down the path is the Yongyou Temple Pagoda, proudly standing over a grassy meadow and the remnants of a temple.
After you've had your fill of historic sites, roaming the hills in search of solitude and birdsong is a pleasure in itself. Who knows, you might find one of the missing 72 scenic spots. The back of the park was originally the imperial hunting grounds, chosen for its varied terrain. Now, instead of going on horseback, there are hourly tour bus trips up the hills that stop at the scenic points where tourists still look for deer or joke about tigers and wolves. If you make it up to the top ridge the views are indeed superb and many of the other local sights are visible, including Hammer Mountain to the east and the Putuozongcheng Zhi Miao to the north.