CHENGDE, a country town 250km northeast of Beijing, sits in a river basin on the west bank of the Wulie River, surrounded by the Yunshan mountain range. It's a quiet, unimportant place, rather bland in appearance, but on its outskirts are some of the most magnificent examples of imperial architecture in China, remnants from its glory days as the summer retreat of the eighteenth-century Manchu emperors. Gorgeous temples punctuate the cabbage fields around town, and a palace-and-park hill complex, Bishu Shanzhuang, covers an area nearly as large as the town itself.
Construction of the first palaces started in 1703. By 1711 there were 36 palaces, temples, monasteries and pagodas set in a great walled park, its ornamental pools and islands dotted with beautiful pavilions and linked by bridges. Craftsmen from all parts of China were invited to work on the project and another 36 imperial buildings were soon added. Later, in honour of the 1786 visit by Tibet's important Buddhist figurehead, the Panchen Lama, the emperor Qianlong ordered the construction in Chengde of replicas of the Potala and the Panchen Lama's palace in Tibet.
The temples in the foothills of the mountains around Chengde were built in the architectural styles of different ethnic nationalities, so that wandering among them is rather like being in a religious theme park. Though varying in design, all share Lamaist features – Qianlong found it politically expedient to promote Tibetan and Mongolian Lamaism as a way of keeping these troublesome minorities in line. The best way to see the temples is to rent abicycle: the roads outside the town are quiet, it's hard to get lost and you can dodge the tour groups.
Chengde gradually lost its imperial popularity in the nineteenth century. The buildings were left empty and neglected for most of the twentieth century, but largely escaped the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Restoration, in the interests of tourism, began in the 1980s and is ongoing.