5 November – Into the wilderness of northern China

Today is long but absolutely fascinating and completely different from any we’ve had to date while here in China. We depart the hotel best forgotten in Chengde at 8am. I know, an early morning after such a full on day yesterday. No rest for the avid traveler. Again it is a cold start to the day but the sun is shining.
Heading north west into a less rugged mountainous landscape, we come to a more forested remote country of rolling hills. For the first while we continue through numerous long tunnels (up to almost 6 kms) on the near empty modern divided highway but eventually turn off onto less travelled secondary roads. We climb. The country becomes less inhabited. We pass several roadside villages. All are very similar. Grey and black brick cottages, neat and clean, lined up in tidy rows. Each with a garden space and courtyard. These, we are told, have been built by the government so the mountain dwellers can move into central locations thus enjoy better accommodation, medical care and schools for their children. These people can travel by small vehicles to their hunting grounds or farms to continue making their living in the traditional manner. Looks quite ideal. Sounds great too. We don’t meet anyone living in one of these little villages to get their opinion. Maybe it is as perfect a solution as it appears to be. What do you think? I don’t really know what to think. The neatness and cleanliness and general feeling of industrious labour prevails.
We climb higher, passing through Qipanshan, a busy frontier town on its market day. Many farmers selling their produce, people seem happy and busy. There are new vehicles and old. Young people and old. The town looks rough and tumble but prosperous. We continue on and the road becomes a switch back version of its former self. We climb. We pass through the park gates of Saihanbai Grasslands National Park at which no one is taking entry payment this time of the year. We are now in quite dense forest of hemlock and silver birch. The trees have all lost their leaves and there is some snow on the ground from a snow storm last week. We climb. Eventually we come to a parking lot where we get out to stretch our legs. 

There is a Pagoda here. This seems extremely incongruous to me. A Pagoda a top a hill in the wilderness. The sun shines brightly and a cold wind blows across the vast expanse of forest around us. I climb to the top of the Pagoda (of course I do) even though it is obviously closed for the season as the stair well is pitch black. At the top I open the windows to a commanding view across the forest. When I look north I am seeing the southern reaches of Inner Mongolia. This stirs my imagination. Here we are on the border with one of China’s autonomous regions – Inner Mongolia. The border is of course invisible but I feel the wildness just there in those bare winter trees and sweeping north across vast untamed grasslands beyond the forest. My mind’s ear hears thundering hooves of nomadic horses in the wind that is threatening to tear the window from my grip. I close the window and descend, but I’m thinking of that wild place. I have the scent of a new adventure. I feel it in that compelling north wind.

Leaving the Pagoda, we carry on a short distance until we come across a small log sort. The sorting is being done by two men with tape measures and two wheel barrows. They measure a log then take it to the appropriate pile on the barrow. Everything is very organized and tidy. Steed chats with the men while Dad and I take some pictures. The men are accommodating of our cameras and interest. They seem a bit bemused by our appearance in this out of the way place.
So where are we? Well, we’re visiting a National Park in an area which was once the hunting grounds of the Qing Dynasty emperors. This is where they came to ensure their offspring didn’t lose touch with their nomadic hunter heritage or become soft inept courtiers. Why are we here? We want to balance the intensity of the multi million inhabitant cities with another quieter aspect of China. Mission accomplished. This is incredible. Like Canada in the sense of space and wildness. The vast urban jungles seem more than a couple of hundred kilometres away.
Speaking of the urban jungle. It is time to head back south and east. Six hours later we roll into Qinhuangdao. It is dark as we pull up to our hotel – the Shangri La. This is a very new high rise hotel built on a beautiful sandy beach. The hotel entry is gleaming glass and glowing red Chinese lanterns. The lobby is vast with 30 foot ceilings and gigantic beautiful chandeliers. We feel a bit travel weary but are greeted with grace. Our room is palatial and has proper doors between bathroom and bedroom. The dinning room is staffed by charming young people who speak minimal English but who go out of their way to be helpful. We have a lovely dinner, and are soon collapsing – exhausted – into sumptuous beds.
I’m sure our snoring is instantaneous!

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