Chengde (not to be confused with Chengdu) is a mountain resort city about 4 hours away from Beijing by train. As Tenille was planning out another packed itinerary for her parents visit to Beijing, I suggested taking a train somewhere for a true Chinese experience. There’s only so many palaces and cheap shopping complexes you can go to (or should go to.)
I don’t want to say a four hour train ride with two little kids was a bad idea, but everyone was brainstorming ways to NOT take the train back when we arrived in Chengde. It’s possible that waking up at 4:30am to catch a 6am train had everyone a bit edgier than normal (including the kids). Or it could have been the musical chairs that everyone plays for the first 15 minutes of the train ride. Apparently, in the Chinese train system, they just issue you the next available 6 tickets, regardless of how they are grouped. The soft seats were grouped in foursomes with two two-seaters facing toward each other with a table in between. But, with a group of six, half of you could be in one foursome, and the other half in another. If you are a pair, you could be split up between two foursomes. So, the first 15 minutes consist of families regrouping each other. Fortunately, the Chinese people are quite accommodating to us and each other and it seemed like everyone made their best efforts to unite their traveling parties. One saving factor was that we did have a good McDonald’s breakfast. Tenille’s mom and dad had a big breakfast with pancakes. I thought I’d try something exotic and had a pork filet sandwich. (Kind of like a McChicken… but a McPork, I guess.) Although we all scoffed at the fact that we were eating McDonald’s, I think Tenille’s parents (and Tenille) were grateful we were eating something familiar and recognizable.
Arriving in Chengde reminded me a lot of coming to Beijing for the first time. Except we were armed with a little bit of Mandarin ability. By armed, I’m talking maybe a slingshot, or a dull club…. sharp stick? Everything was unfamiliar. We started walking down the street from the train station wondering where we needed to catch a cab. Luckily, a lady (perhaps moved by our pathetic, helpless looks on our faces) stopped to try and help us. She spoke a little bit of English and we asked in our best Chinese if she knew where our hotel was. She tried to describe where it was in Chinese, but in the end hailed a cab for us. I do have to comment that every single native person we had interaction with in Chengde was very kind to us, often going out of their way to help us or accommodate us.
The taxis seemed to be about 80% of the size of Beijing taxis which I think are already smaller than the big cars we are used to in the States. They didn’t use the meters. They just told us the price they’re going to charge us and we paid them. Nobody charged us more than 15 RMB the entire time we were there ($2). We managed to fit our family of 6 (+ driver), and they drove us to the hotel. The Hotel spoke minimal English. We asked where we could eat something. They pointed to the hotel restaurant. Not wanting to pay Hotel prices, we wandered out into the street in search of our first Chengde meal. First thing that caught our eye (mostly because it was the only thing we could read) – McDonalds. We noted it as a last resort backup and continued our adventure through the streets of Chengde. We walked by a bunch of fruit stands and side street vendors selling unrecognizable foods. We walked past several restaurants that looked like there was 0% chance they had English menus. We came upon a store with piles of roasted chickens and other miscellaneous meats that we could see through the window. We walked in and felt the heat of the food warmers and the meat smell overwhelm us. It was clear that we were not going to eat here by the look on Tenille and her mom’s face.
Finally, Tenille piped up that she was getting hungry and hinted that we should walk back to McDonald’s. Tenille’s father still thirsting for a bit more adventure suggested that we walk around to the next corner. We got to the corner and found a bakery. Apparently, it wasn’t lunch-worthy food, so we finally decided to head back to McDonald’s. As an American, it may seem a bit ridiculous that we’d be eating McDonald’s twice in one day when there’s presumably all this great Chinese food around. I won’t take time to fully justify myself, but encourage those that are looking down their nose to try out a country where you can’t read or understand the language, nor comfortable with the food handling standards, and see if the sight of an American corporate franchise (i.e. McDonald’s) brings a small sense of relief.
After gorging on some good ol’ Americana, we continued to the Summer Resort complex. Most of Chengde geographically is covered by this resort. The resort was built by a Chinese emperor as a summer get-away in the mountains where the weather is a bit cooler. It sprinkled rain most of the time we were there, but it was still beautiful. The place was enormous and about a third of it was covered with lakes. We could have taken an hour long, 11 km bus ride around half of the complex, but decided to walk instead. It was nice. It was crowded. It reminded me of the summer palace in Beijing. I have to admit that I was thinking, “we rode 4 hours on a train to see another Imperial summer resort.” (Tenille just told me that this summer resort was her parent’s favorite part of the trip, so apparently it was good that we went!) We did rent an electric boat and putted around on the enormous chain of lakes. I have to admit that it was fun to see Caleb drive the boat around for a while. It was also nice because the boats had a cover and it kept us out of the rain.
We caught a taxi back to the hotel and opted to have dinner in the Hotel, as we obviously could not find a reasonable alternative on the streets. When we arrived in the restaurant, there was nobody there except a few waiters. They seated us in the middle of an enormous dining room. The size of the dining room merely accentuated the fact that we were the only people there. In general, I have a rule about eating at restaurants where we are the only patrons. (I leave and find another restaurant.) However, we were really out of options and we were admittedly a bit early. Having no choice, we sat down. The odd thing was that they did not give us any menus. Tenille asked for some menus. They said a bunch of things in Chinese, and did not give us menus. We thought that perhaps this might be a buffet as we saw a bunch of food warmers to the side of the restaurant. We waited. Nothing was happening. I went up this time, and asked for some menus in my best Chinese. He said a bunch of things and smiled. I told him I didn’t understand. He said slowly and deliberately, “Tuan dui. Tuan dui.” (I gave him my “I don’t understand” blank stare.) He asked me to wait. I smiled and sat back down. Mission failed. We noticed that a Chinese couple came in and sat down in the restaurant. Strange – they got menus. After another 5 minutes, something odd happened. Food started coming out. Not out to the buffet tables. Out to our table. How could this be possible? How do they know what we want? And an even better question, “how much is this going to cost?” As they started putting dishes of miscellaneous chinese food at our table, Tenille and I both started a rant of incomprehensible Chinese to our waiter. This must have not played out as the waiter had imagined, as he quickly told us to wait and ran away. Within minutes, a lady appeared and spoke a bit of English to us. I asked her where this food was coming from as we had not yet ordered. After some back and forth, I think we figured out that there was another party of Americans or foreigners, who I assume had reservations at this restaurant. We think we know who they were, because we saw them on the train, then they appeared at the hotel (and we saw them in the same train going back home, too.) (Which was all a bit of a coincidence as there are several nice hotels in Chengde, and there were probably 20-30 cars on the train.) Once we figured out that we were not the foreigners they were expecting, we got menus and we were able to order. A little pricey for Chinese food, but it was quite good.
After eating and overeating, we returned to our rooms and hit the hay. This bed was by far the hardest bed I’ve ever slept on in my life. It was as if they took a piece of plywood and then chemically treated to make it even harder. Then they put a thin sheet over it (perhaps so we don’t get splinters or get a rash from the chemical treatment.) Luckily, I had enough body fat to compensate and surprisingly got a reasonable night’s rest.
The next morning, we gathered up the troops and went to the bakery we found the previous day. We each got 2 or 3 things because you never really know what you’re getting sometimes.
We headed to the Putuo Zongcheng Buddhist Temple which was completed in 1771, just about the time the American revolution was about to gain steam. It’s built into a hillside and is quite impressive. It seemed like we wound up an endless number of stair cases to reach the top. Along the way were statues of Buddha, Pagodas, an open air theater, paintings, pottery, and all sorts of artifacts. Just as we got to the very tippie top, it started raining. We joined the throngs of Chinese people as they made their way back down the endless sets of staircases to the bottom.
If I had known how many stairs we were going to have to climb, I would have paid the $3 for a ride to the top!
Dad at the entrance of the temple
The view from the top was worth the climb! Awesome! The wall in the distance is the wall surrounding the Mountain Resort.
Caleb as royalty.
Many buildings, many stairs, many beautiful things
The yellow roof signifies royalty as this is a temple where the emporer would go to worship.
After the temple, we hopped in a cab, and just for good measure made one more stop at McDonald’s. We got back on the train, played our 15 minutes of musical chairs until everyone got in their optimal seating arrangements, then headed back home. Since our train ride home was in the middle of the afternoon, we were all in a bit more of a sociable mood and played several card games. Caleb was quite good at Uno (that we approximated with a normal deck of playing cards). I’ll probably get a deck of real Uno cards sometime soon for him.
These two ladies were awesome! They entertained Caleb and Andrew for a couple of hours on the train ride back to Beijing.
I imagine Tenille’s parents will likely remember the difficulty we had getting around more than the sights that we saw. It’s hard to forget the feeling of helplessness when you can’t communicate or read anything. Overall, I thought it was a great experience and a great reminder of how difficult things were when we first arrived in Beijing. I didn’t really even think about how difficult it would be in a new city with relatively little foreigners. I suppose that could be a testament to how far we’ve come along… or how over-confident we’ve become.