Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Chengde (July 22-24, 2011)

By the time I got to my hotel in Beijing on July 21, I was trying to figure out an exit strategy. It was going to be four more days till I was to meet up with a group from Intrepid Travel for the Trans-Siberian trip and I’d really only set my heart on seeing two things while in Beijing: the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. As a group, we’d all go to the Great Wall, and since I was meeting up with the group at 6 PM on the 25th, I figured that would give me a good day to see the Forbidden City along with Tiananmen Square and the accompanying oversized pictures of Mao. So I set my sights on Chengde, a city about 250 km northeast of the capital. Back during the times of the Qing Dynasty, the emperors would escape the heat and humid of the capital city by heading to a mountain summer resort there and, assuming if it was good enough for a Qing, it’d be good enough for me. I dropped my luggage at the hotel and went back to the Beijing station to see about tickets.
There are 50 or 60 windows where one might buy tickets, but only one reserved for foreigners.  Having looked at the schedule, I knew there would be a morning air conditioned train to Chendge the next day and a hard class train that evening.  And on Sunday, the hard class train came back early and the soft-class came back in the evening.  My desire was to book the soft class trains, so I got into line and began my hour wait.  Luckily, I had my ipod and was listening to Carl Haissen’s book, Nature Girl, as I waited.  When I chuckled at a particularly funny part of the book, people looked at me strange.  Obviously, I was having too much fun waiting in line.
It turned out that I wasn’t able to get my first choice for tickets to Chengde.  On Friday, they only had space on the hard class train, but it was only 17 yuan (less than $3).  On Sunday, she would sell me a return ticket for the soft-class but it was without an assigned seat, meaning that I would have to stand, and cost 43 yuan or a little over 7 bucks.   I thought about my options for about 10 seconds and plopped down a 100 yuan note.  With the tickets in hand, I went back to my hotel room and got on the internet and booked a private room at the Ming Dynasty hostel (which had newly opened in Chengde).  The hostel was a little more than I’d been paying for hotels in Vietnam, around $20 a night.  When I added everything up, travel and accommodations to Chendge was going to save me about $100 over the price of staying in Beijing.  Even more valuable was the experience!
I boarded the train the next afternoon and found my seat.  The train was only about half full, but as we stop at the stations on the edge of Beijing, the cars quickly filled and before long its standing room only.   There is padding on hard class seats, but not much.  It’s a straight-back bench with a maybe a ½ inch of padding.  I pull out a novel that I’d just started reading, Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief. Through the eyes of a 20th Century Orthodontist, MacLeod tells the story of a family of MacDonalds who leave the Scottish Highlands in the late 18th Century for the Canadian Maritimes.  But in the heat, I only read for a few minutes before nodding off on the hard seats.  I’m awakened a short while later by the conductor who asks for my ticket.
A light drizzle accelerates the cool down.  Although my seat faced forward, half of the seats faced back and they were all positioned around small tables.  Sitting with me in the other three seats was a husband and wife and their son.  They too were going to Chengde, but spoke no English.  He, like most of the men on the train, had taken his shirt off.  Others, who still had their shirts on, pulled them up to expose and cool their bellies.  This is definitely a working class train, although I later meet a few students coming home for their summer break.  Most of the rest of the passengers work in Beijing and were going home for the weekend.
There is no dining car on this train, but a railroad employee pushes a cart through the aisles selling all kinds of snacks as well as bowls of dried noodles, beer and soft drinks.  I buy a bowl of noodles for dinner and go in search of the water boiler, which is located between the cars.  I’m surprised to discover its burning chunks of coal.  And the water was boiling!  I add the hot water to my noodle bowl and fill my insulated cup into which I dropped in a tea bag.  Returning to my seat for dinner, I surprise my seatmates by pulling out chopsticks.  The man points to them smiling and gives me a “thumbs up.”
The line between Beijing and Chengde is mountainous.  Lots of coal is mined along this track and many of the towns nestled in these hollows could just as easily be in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Eastern Kentucky.  The train makes frequent stops and those who now worked in Beijing get off the train, taking with them their suitcases or backpacks.  In contrast, many of the passengers who board at these coal towns carried their belongings in large homemade bags of canvas or denim, with tops secured with rope.  Riding in this hard-seat class train provides me a different view of China than my trip up from Vietnam.  Not everywhere is prosperous in this vast country.    
As darkness falls, I go from looking out the window to reading my book about a Highlander clan struggling to make a life in Canada.  It couldn’t be a more dissimilar world, or maybe not for the narrator and his brothers find themselves working for a time in the mines of Northern Ontario.   The train is running late.  Our arrival is scheduled for 10:40 PM, but about 10 PM, we pull onto a siding and sit for over an hour.  Then, after going down the line for two stops, we pull over again to let several trains pass us.  It’s well after midnight when we arrive in Chengde.  The Ming Dynasty Hostel is advertised to be only a ten minute walk from the train station.  At 11 PM, I’d called to say the train is late and I debate taking a cab, but decide it might be easier just to walk.  There directions are simple and the proprietor along with several of the guests are still up when I knock on the door. 
The next morning, I take the local bus to the Summer Resort built in the Yanshan Mountains.  Much of this resort was built in the early 18th Century and is a reminder of how well the Emperor and his family lived, as well as museums that now fill official halls, which are dedicated to various Chinese crafts.  The resort is surrounded by large walls and filled with pagodas and temples and places designed to stir the soul with nature’s beauty.  One could spend days walking all the trails inside the walled resort (a trail that runs along the inside of the wall is over 10 km) and still need a few days to see the temples that are in the mountains to the east of the resort. 
"Friends" outside a pagoda
I first tour the halls at the main gate, where guests met with the Emperor and business was conducted.  Today, many of these halls which are surrounded by large courtyards and shaded by pines, are museums and shops.   Interestingly, in one of the shops there are unique playing cards that include pictures of the Summer Resort and various Emperors as well as Chairman Mao, Playboy Bunnies, Marylyn Monroe and Michael Jackson!  There is also an exhibit of the shame the late-Qing Dynasty brought on China when they sold out the country to European powers.  At the site of the Zhuyuan Temple, which was the largest within the resort, we’re told that the temple made of bronze was stolen by the Japanese during the Second World War and turned into weapons.   We’re reminded in a plaque that also includes an English translation, that “weakness means becoming a victim.”  Although the late Qing Dynasty signed one-sided treaties, the early years of this dynasty are celebrated.  In one hall, there are many poems written by several generations of emperors who found much happiness at this site.  Although no connection was made (that I saw) between their happiness and the hall in which they penned their poems, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to make the link between the emperor’s happiness and the hall in which he wrote poem sand also selected concubines.   Reading about the multi-functional use of this hall had me wondering if the Empress ever figured out what the Emperor was really doing when he said he was going to write some poetry.  I was also reminded of a line in a Garrison Keillor novel, that men only write poetry in order to seduce women.  After an hour or so in the halls, with my mind going in all the wrong directions, I leave the buildings and slowly walk around the east side of the resort, stopping to pause at the many pavilions, temples, pagodas and gardens.  Their names entice the senses and I stop frequently to enjoy the beauty: Moonlight and Gargling Water, Waterside Hall for Enjoying Lotus, Lakeside Hall for Enjoying Fragrance, Garden of Spring Scenery, Temple of Everlasting Blessings (my favorite pagoda), Myriad Tress Garden, A House for Enjoying Clouds and Water, The Sound of Two Springs, Watching Fishes on Rock, Misty-Rain Tower, Clear Water with Green Mountains, A Chamber for Enjoying Coolness, Lotus in Sunshine…   With the afternoon slipping away,  I leave the resort and walk back to the hostel (it’s only a couple of kilometers, stopping at a grocery store where I am finally able to find more tea in bags (I was beginning to think the phrase, “all the tea in China” was a joke) and coffee packs for my upcoming days on the train.  I pass several barber/beauty shops and decide it is time to get my beard trimmed. The first place has a long line and the second place doesn’t seem interested, shaking their heads no.  The third place I enter, a guy agrees but then approaches me with a straight edge razor and I jump up out of the chair saying no, no, no.  I then point to a set of clippers and indicate the length.  He laughs, understands, and does a nice job of trimming my beard.  He only charges 10 yuan and I offer a tip, but he refuses and asks me if instead he could have a dollar bill (showing me a photo on his computer).  I give him a dollar bill and he takes it and shows it others in the shop, and displays it in the corner of the mirror behind his chair.  All together, my beard trim cost $2.50. 
As I approached the hostel, I stopped in a nice looking restaurant where no one spoke any English, but I managed to get myself a spicy dinner of rice, mystery meat (some things are best not known) and a beer.  Back at the hostel, I talk to the proprietors for a bit.  I had hoped to find a church, but they did not know of any in Chengde.  They know there are house churches, where only Chinese is spoken, but don’t know of any of their actually meeting places.  The hostel had only been open for a few months and they say I’m the second guest who tried to find a church, the first being a couple of guys from Nigeria.  I then used their computers to get onto Facebook and to post onto Blogger (sites that are blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall).   
The next morning, the Lord’s Day, I read the Scriptures and worked some on my blog.  At noon, I walked up to the train station and stopped at a noodle place where I had a very “Vietnamese style” noodle lunch.  After which I found the waiting area for my train and a few minutes later was ushered out onto the platform where I learned the truth about not having an assigned seat.  There was a least twenty others in my car without a seat.  Standing only meant just that!  After a couple of stops, there are many more of us standing as sitting.  Luckily, this train only takes 4 hours to make the run.  Even after we arrive at Beijing Main, there are still twenty or so of us standing.
Chengde seems like a small town in comparison to Beijing, but as I take the train out of town, I realize that even here, there is a building boom.  There must be 20 or 30 large cranes working on high rises on the west side of town.  The air is still quite hazy, a combination of humidity and smog that it seems will never go away.  Outside of town, the tracks run through a series of long tunnels and when we break out of the tunnels, we’re back in coal country.    
A thunderstorm is threatening as we come into the Beijing station.  I hoist my pack on and walked fast, out of the station and across the walkway over the highway and down the block to the Harmony Hotel.  Lightning is popping as I walked through the front doors of the hotel.  Moments later, the skies open.  From the safety of my room, I watch the rain.  I wait a couple of hours before I venture out for dinner.
On Monday, I learn this was one of the worst storms in Beijing in years.  The storm had also caused a terrible train wreck, shutting down the Beijing to Shanghai high speed line.  Lightning had knocked out a section of the power lines, stopping a train.  Another train, not realizing there was a stranded train and speeding through the blinded rain, rammed into the back of the stuck train, killing many people.   

A pavilion overlooking the lake


  1. Great post. These get better and better. Just read this morning an article in the NYT about service and tipping in countries around the world. China ranked high for service, and tipping was shown as 0%. BTW, I wouldn't take Garrison Keillor's word for anything.

  2. Wow. That's one crazy storm/accident!
    Wish my trims at the shop only cost $2.50;D
    You are going to forget how to use a fork!!!!

  3. That train wreck made news here in the States when it happened. Of course you weren't writing about being in China at the time so I had no idea you were so close to it. Glad to learn that you weren't on it.

  4. You're going to have a travel novel by the time you are done. Good stuff.

  5. Mystery meat? Oh, no!! I could never have eaten it.

    And you stood for 4 hours on a train? I am impressed with your stamina!

  6. Those pavilions sound so wonderful! And I am so thankful that you weren't on that train. So sad for the people who were.

  7. Glad you're safe.

    BTW, I've been meaning to ask about air quality in Beijing and when you mentioned the coal, I remembered. I had a friend who visited during summer and said it was abysmal, but I thought I'd inquire.


  8. Jeff, your writing is stellar: crisp, personal, engaging, really lets me travel with you. Got a travel book coming out of this adventure?

    My storm chasing partner, Bill, spent much of July and part of August in China, and he tells me they have some very chaseworthy weather there. (How practical it would be to chase it is another matter.)

    Blessings, amigo.