Puning Temple

Top choice in Hebei

With its squeaking prayer wheels and devotional intonations of its monks, this is Chengde’s only active Buddhist temple. It was built in 1755 in anticipation of Qianlong’s victory over the western Mongol tribes in Xinjiang. Supposedly modelled on the earliest Tibetan Buddhist monastery (Samye), the first half of the temple is distinctly Chinese, with Tibetan buildings at the rear.

Enter the temple grounds to a stele pavilion with inscriptions by the Qianlong emperor in Chinese, Manchu, Mongol and Tibetan. The halls behind are arranged in typical Buddhist fashion, with the Hall of Heavenly Kings (天王殿; Tiānwáng Diàn) and beyond, the Mahavira Hall (大雄宝殿; Dàxióng Bǎodiàn), where three images of the Buddhas of the three generations are arrayed. Some very steep steps rise up behind (the temple is arranged on a hillside) leading to a gate tower, which you can climb.

On the terrace at the top of the steps is the dwarfing Mahayana Hall. On either side are stupas and square, block-like Tibetan-style buildings, decorated with attractive water spouts. Some buildings have been converted to shops, while others are solid, serving a purely decorative purpose.

The mind-bogglingly vast gilded statue of Guanyin (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) towers within the Mahayana Hall. The effigy is astounding: over 22m high, it’s the tallest of its kind in the world and radiates a powerful sense of divinity. Hewn from five different kinds of wood (pine, cypress, fir, elm and linden), Guanyin has 42 arms, with each palm bearing an eye and each hand holding instruments, skulls, lotuses and other Buddhist devices. Tibetan touches include the pair of hands in front of the goddess, below the two clasped in prayer, the right one of which holds a sceptre-like dorje (vajra in Sanskrit), a masculine symbol, and the left a dril bu (bell), a female symbol. On Guanyin’s head sits the Teacher Longevity Buddha. To the right of the goddess stands a huge male guardian and disciple called Shàncái, opposite his female equivalent, Lóngnǚ (Dragon Girl). Unlike Guanyin, they are both coated in ancient and dusty pigments. On the wall on either side are hundreds of small effigies of Buddha.

Occasionally, tourists are allowed to climb up to the 1st-floor gallery for a closer inspection of Guanyin.

Housed within the grounds, on the east side, is the Puyou Temple. It is dilapidated and missing its main hall, but it has a plentiful contingent of merry gilded luóhàn (Buddhists who have achieved nirvana) in the side wings, although a fire in 1964 incinerated many of their confrères. (The ticket price includes admission to Puyou Temple.)

Puning Temple has a number of friendly lamas who manage their domain, so be quiet and respectful at all times.

Take bus 6 (¥1) from in front of Mountain Villa Hotel.