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I'd found Ping whilst I "Googled" for a private trip to a remote part of the wall. I found his site www.privatetaxibeijing.com and contacted him via mail. He offers a private taxi service at very reasonable rates, is reliable and added to that he speaks good English and is good to talk with about the modern China.

Ping picked us up at our hotel for the trip to Chengde and the old Summer Palace of the Imperial family. Chengde lies north west of Beijing, in the mountains that can be seen from Beijing - on clear sunny days! By car the trip takes 3 hours – 2 hours on the highway and one hour in the middle, on a local road – as the two highways haven’t been connected yet!

As we approached Chengde the mountains we were passing on the highway were covered with snow – which made Ping very happy, as there hadn’t been much snow in Beijing last winter – he had to take pictures - you may already be able to see them on his website. We were a bit concerned about how cold it was going to be! We arrived in Chengde around lunch time, a small dusty town – they were building a new road, whilst the road was still open, so it was a bit chaotic, with potholes that a small car could disappear into.

We eat lunch at what was perhaps the towns most exclusive restaurant, which was over 100 years old – Ping was very apologetic when he saw the prices, but the meal for 5 was less than 100 RMB. We eat on the first floor in our own box - like in a theatre all the boxes could see into the middle of the room which was open to the ground floor where I can imagine people have acted and sung (at least in olden days if no longer). All the boxes had wooden panels and engravings and the furniture fitted with the surroundings. All together a great experience and well worth a visit. Added to all that, the food was fine as well.

Chengde was just another village until the end of the 17th century, when the Qing-dynasty emperor Kangxi stumbled upon it during a hunting trip. The rolling hills along the Wuli River inspired him, and he decided to build a summer retreat, now called the Chengde Mountain Resort, a collection of wood and stone structures open to the public as a museum and park, where he could indulge his passions for hunting, riding and hiking. He ordered construction of the first palaces in 1703, and within a decade 1,500 acres dotted with dozens of ornate salons, temples, pagodas and many spectacular gardens and pools had been enclosed by a six-mile-long wall. By the end of the 18th century, when Chengde reached its heyday, it included nearly 100 imperial structures.

We spent several hours walking around the park – it was sunny. We walked by the lake, visited a pagoda and we were wondering what else we were getting for the 90 RMB per person. We decided to follow a path that took us into the forest, and soon we were on a far longer hike than we had bargained for – but as we walked up the mountain and came to the edge of the resort, the views across to other mountains were spectacular – and because of the previous nights snow, the air was clear – one could see for miles and miles.

In the distance one could see a peculiar shaped rock sticking up. At first we thought it was some type of illusion, how could a rock that size stick up like that? According to legend, a dragon used Sledgehammer Peak to plug a hole that allowed the sea to flow into the valley. But local folklore offers another interpretation: it is said that if the rock falls, it would have a disastrous effect on the virility of local men.
We ended up taking a 3 hours stroll following the paths up and down the mountain – not planned exercise – we must have walked 8-10km by the time we arrived at the entrance.

All in the the park was a bit of a disappointment, even though we enjoyed the walk. There wasn't much to see and due to the time of year everything was a bit grey and dull. It is perhaps a totally different story during summer.

Ping picked us up and took us to the hotel, where we cleaned up before going for an excellent dinner at a local restaurant – the only available table was next to the door, which of course was open and it was cold. We ended up in a closed room. Ping only allowed me to order five dishes, meaning that 5 would be enough and we wouldn’t leave a lot. I think that even Ping was surprised by the size of the plates the food was served on – each plate was probably 35% bigger than the plates in Beijing, and there was probably 50% more food on each plate – we couldn’t eat up. We slept well – another long trip sitting in our legs.

NEXT DAY (16th)