Originally known as Rèhé (and as ‘Jehol’ in Europe), Chéngdé evolved during the first half of the Qing dynasty from hunting grounds to full-scale summer resort and China’s centre of foreign affairs. The Manchu emperors, beginning with Kangxi, came here to escape the stifling summer heat of Běijīng and get back to their northern roots, primarily by hunting, fishing and watching archery competitions. The court also took advantage of Chéngdé’s strategic location between the northern steppes and the Chinese heartland to hold talks with the border groups – undoubtedly more at ease here than in Běijīng – who posed the greatest threats to the Qing frontiers: the Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs and, eventually, the Europeans.
What remains today is the elegantly simple Bìshǔ Shānzhuāng (Fleeing-the-Heat Mountain Villa), not nearly as ornate as the Forbidden City, but no less grand. The walled enclosure behind the palace is the site of China’s largest regal gardens, and surrounding the grounds is a remarkable collection of politically inspired temples, built to host dignitaries such as the sixth Panchen Lama. Grab a bike, pedal through the enchanting countryside and make sure you take in the jaw-dropping statue of Guanyin at Puning Temple – one of Buddhist China’s most incredible accomplishments.