Chongqing, mountain-water city, middle of the middle country, megalopolis sprawling outwards, upwards, downwards, for a time even the temporary capital of the nation.
Its immenseness swallows the first-time visitor, makes one feel one’s own minuteness, insignificance. The first impression it makes is striking. It’s easy to draw comparisons between Chongqing and Hong Kong with the two cities’ mountain-water-skyscraper combination, but the former dwarfs the latter in scale, in rawness, and in ambition for what will be.
This behemoth of a city is outgrowing itself, its shell cracking at the seems, the quiet scientist unstoppably morphing into the Incredible Hulk. Buildings gutted, or ripped apart from the outside in, banners hung or chalk scrawls indicating that the structure will be torn down. City of hills and narrow streets that wrap around and around like onion layers. Skyscrapers and busy, rundown wholesale markets. Buses and small yellow taxis speed around the tight curves. The private vehicles, including bicycles, that are ubiquitous in most Chinese cities, are noticeably few. The only cyclist who whizzes past means business: suited up in full spandex, helmet, biker’s bike. Shoulder-pole bearers walk the steps transporting goods.
But while bicycles might not be anywhere to be seen, another cliché of Chinese cities—that juxtaposition between the old and the new, massive wealth and abject poverty—is represented perhaps more strongly in Chongqing than it is anywhere else in the country at this point. When you see Chongqing, you realize how much and how quickly Chengdu has changed in the last few years, even months.
Chongqing’s central area is a peninsula hugged by the intersection of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers, and it is this unique topography more than anything, the people will tell you, that gives the city its particular vibe. With temperatures climbing into the 40s in the summertime, Chongqing is one of the infamous “furnace cities.” The people crowding the small streets in this enormous city look weathered, roughened by the exertion of daily moving from point A to point B.
We stop to ask for directions to the cable car, and a small crowd starts pointing us in a dozen different directions—up stairs, through buildings, around winding streets. Finally, a wiry man offers to walk us there if we pay him. We politely decline, and the crowd disperses. The message is clear—don’t waste our time. In contrast to Chengdu’s leisurely friendliness, Chongqing is no-nonsense: Mountains must be moved, and there’s little time for mucking around with indecision.
Chongqing proper is home to about 5.4 million people; but it is the 80,000 square kilometer area and the 31-million-strong population of the entire municipality that has, at times, earned it the city the “world’s biggest city” label.
Photo by Leo Chen
Today, Chongqing’s historical richness can still be felt, and steps are being taken to preserve those traces of history with the construction of museums and memorials. Home to the ancient Ba people some 3,000 years ago, it served as a capital several times throughout the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Foreign trade was in place by the late 1800s. During the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, Chongqing served eight years as provisional capital for the retreating National Army after the fall of capital Nanjing and ensuing attacks on Wuhan. Its inland position did not provide a great degree of much-needed protection, however, and in 1938, the Japanese began a five-year-long series of aggressive bombings on the city, killing tens of thousands of civilians, with the hopes of breaking into Sichuan and securing total dominance of China.
The war pushed heavy industry inland from the eastern cities, propelling Chongqing’s development. In 1997, the Chongqing Municipality was formed, removing the city from provincial administration under Sichuan.
Chongqing is emerging as an art powerhouse on the national art scene. The city’s Sichuan Art Institute is one of the nation’s upper-crest art schools and the most well-reputed in southwest China. On a 1.25-kilometer stretch of Huangjueping Street, opposite and surrounding the main gate university, the city has turned public space into art space: Every visible inch of façade—mostly the walls of 1970s apartment blocks—has been covered in mural and graffiti art. The art institute’s director, Luo Zhongli, originally wanted to modify the area with total renovation hoping to align its image with that of an internationally recognized fine arts institute, but with a budget shortage, he compensated with the murals. By the end of the year—2007, the ten-year anniversary of Chongqing’s becoming a municipality—graffiti was painted over 40,000 square meters of wall space on 37 buildings by hundreds of students, artists.
Next to the university, sits the notorious Tank Art Space—a former tank storehouse, that now serves as studios and living/workspaces for local artists, many of whom are graduates of the institute.
Anyone suspecting that China’s cities somehow spontaneously, organically appear need only visit the Chongqing City Planning Museum. Showcasing Chongqing’s ambitions to secure a spot as one of China’s—and perhaps the world’s—megacities. Tracing the history of Chongqing’s urban development (the first city planning was executed in 1946; by 1960, a city master plan had been created, and in 1983 the final, overall planning was approved by the state council) and projecting the city’s future (by 2020, the municipality will comprise 6 big cities, 25 medium cities, and 495 small towns), the museum offers a digestible overview of the skyscraper city. Its futuristic displays are befitting of a city that plans in the next decade to add six additional monorail lines, both above and underground, and that has at least 130 over-200-meter-tall buildings vying for approval to begin construction.
With steep, narrow roads that wind around mountains and rivers, pedestrian passageways through buildings, and multilevel layout, Chongqing is much harder for the uninitiated to navigate than flat Chengdu’s dartboard layout. The hills and stairs will quickly wear out the most fit walkers and the city map, with its inability to show multiple planes or enough detail, will confuse the most skilled of navigators. Two cable car lines transport commuters across the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers every few minutes—one of the more efficient ways to cross the river—and the one completed line of the monorail snakes through the city to various points, although they might not be where you want to go. While both of these are simply a mode of transportation for many, they do offer superior views of the city. Buses and taxis are both relatively inexpensive and quick options as well.
Chongqing, even more so than Chengdu, is known for its hotpot restaurants. Much of Chongqing’s cuisine is, in fact, shared with Sichuan’s—the border between municipality and province is a recent one of economy and politics, and locals will tell you that Chongqing is actually the birthplace of Sichuan cuisine. Chongqing dishes are reputed as being more spicy, more pungent, and more numbing than Chengdu dishes. Standard fried dishes, noodles, cold dishes, etc., are widely available. Western restaurants are extremely few; Subway, one pizzeria, and a couple of international youth hostels serve allegedly Western food. We’d advise staying away.
This is an incomplete list of Chongqing highlights; many more historical and other points of interest can be found in and around the city. For further reading, refer to the websites listed below.
Jiefang Bei (解放碑)
This commercial “city center” district, similar to Chunxi Lu, with the Liberation Monument, an underwhelming clock tower, set right in the heart of the shopping and skyscrapers.
Cable Cars (索道)
These suspended aerial tramways will transport you across either the Yangtze (长江索道) or the Jialing River(嘉陵江索道) for RMB5. Nowhere is the construction-caused juxtaposition of old and new more apparent than from here, as you’re whisked from among the skyscrapers right over the soon-to-be-torn-down shanties.
Monorail (轨道) Another way to get a good literal overview of parts of the city.
Hongya Dong (洪崖洞)
This 11-story building juts out from a cliff along the bank of the Jialing River. With its classical-style architecture and shops selling all sorts of tourist kitsch on the third and fourth floors, it’s an attraction for Chongqing visitors. The mid-levels house food courts with a wide variety of inexpensive snacks and meals while the upper floors contain upscale restaurants and a Starbucks.
World Trade Center (世贸大厦)
Standing right in the heart of the city center at 62 stories and 283 meters, it’s advertised as offering the best view of Chongqing. Visitors must buy a ticket to access the panoramic viewing center on the 56th floor.
City Planning Museum (朝天门规划展览馆)
For those with an interest in urban development, including zoning and transportation networks, this is a must-visit. Anybody else will likely find it boring and not worth the RMB20 ticket price. Offers a great overview of both the past, present, and future of the city’s layout with plenty of information (displayed in Chinese and English), interactive displays, and a massive, 892-square-meter model of the city.
Art District (杨家坪 Yangjiaping – south central)
Sichuan-Chongqing is a hotbed of activity in the country’s art circles, with much of the action centered here, at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute (四川美术学院) and surrounding areas. On campus is one of the country’s better art museums (美术馆) exhibiting both international works as well as student and graduate pieces; just outside the campus is the Chongqing Contemporary Art Center, also called Tank Loft (坦克库) as it is housed on a former military-tank storehouse. The area is an alley (Huangjiaoping Road) lined with artist studios and small galleries representing a range of mediums, from painting and sculpture to photography and print to video and installation art. Later in the season, Chengduers will have a chance to see the Institute’s curatorial skills when the Chengdu Biennale comes to town.
Foreigner Street (洋人街 – northeast) We have to assume whoever named this foreigner street did so with a heavy dose of irony as the day we went the only foreigner we ran into was working in an Indian restaurant. The entrance-free theme park of sorts features all sorts of entertainment, from fun houses to horseback riding and horse-drawn carriages, and even go-karts. The main attraction, however, is the record-setting public toilet, billed as the world’s largest with over 1,000 stalls, including some novelty toilets. Toilet humor and trivia is helpfully posted on the walls (Americans use the most toilet paper, we learned), and the whole area is shockingly stench-free. Apart from this attraction there are food stalls aplenty, including a Café de Paris and numerous Indian Cuisines, all of which amount to shaokao stands. Most bewildering are the large banners hanging around the area, displaying slogans and words of wisdom that in both English and Chinese, sound like deep nonsense.
Ge Le Mountain Revolutionary War Sites (沙坪坝 Shapingba – west)
This corner of the city houses a number of civil-war sites, including the Kuomintang-controlled prisons Bai Gongguan (白公馆) and Zhazi Dong (渣滓洞), where hundreds of communist prisoners were massacred. As the buildings had been set on fire, they have been reconstructed, and the cells converted to small displays offering readings in both Chinese and English about the prisoners they housed. Much of it is rather poorly displayed, dull propaganda glorifying the Party and the prisoners’ martyrdom; however, there are a few original artifacts on display as well as a recreated cell model. In this region, you can also find the Red Cliff Martyrs Memorial Museum (红岩魂陈列馆), Chiang Kai Shek’s Hideout (蒋家院子), and the Song Lin Execution Grounds (松林坡). Be prepared to be hounded by aggressive tour operators hawking overpriced, prepackaged tours of all the sites as soon as you arrive.
White Crane Ridge Underwater Museum(白鹤梁题刻水下博物馆)
China’s first underwater museum lies 40 meters below ground level and houses a viewing cabin that enables visitors to see the now-underwater ancient White Crane Ride (Baiheliang) inscriptions made on the stone reefs, where thousands of years ago people would track the water level of the Yangtze River. The museum was constructed over the course of six years, before the Three Gorges Dam caused the water level to rise to the point of submerging the ridge. From Chongqing, take a bus, train, or taxi (60 to 90 minutes’ travel time) to Fuling (涪陵).
Dazu Rock Carvings (大足石刻)
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Dazu caves feature thousands of images carved into cliff faces and caves dating back thousands of years. Dazu is two to three hours northwest of Chongqing; from the main bus station in Dazu city, transfer to a local bus or taxi to Baodingshan (宝顶山) or Beishan (北山), the two most famous spots.
Cici Park (西西公园)
Hippie-style bar and lounge reminiscent of Hemp House or Jah Bar with occasional events. The friendly owner’s menagerie, including a dog, cat, and goose, all hang out at the bar. One side of the plaza overlooks the Jiefang Bei city center area; the other side offers a view of the Jialing River and Hongya Dong.
2 Linjiang Lu, Jiefang Bei, Yuzhong District西西公园解放碑渝中区临江路2号(原酒吧一条街)
The city’s only venue for live rock, something like Chengdu’s Little Bar without the history and reputation in the national rock scene. Regularly hosts bands touring through the city.
Gutai Green Donkey Hotel, 1st Fl., opp. Shapingba Primary School坚果俱乐部沙坪坝小学对面,古苔青驴旅馆负一楼)
The downtown area also houses a number of commercial chain discos: Cotton Club, Babyface, BABI, etc.
Trains depart from the north station in Chengdu and arrive in the north station in Chongqing. The journey between the two cities is becoming ever-faster, with high-speed trains now making the trip in under four hours. The new Hexie bullet train, which started running July 1 of last year, makes the trip in under three hours. Depending on the speed and amenities of the train, a one-way ticket will cost between RMB117 and 98.
Chengdu to Chongqing
Train No. Departs Arrives Journey Time
D5102 08:00 10:24 2 hours, 24 min
D5104 09:00 11:10 2 hours, 10 min
D5106 10:26 12:25 1 hour, 59 min
D5108 11:40 14:03 2 hours, 23 min
D5110 13:30 16:10 2 hours, 40 min
D5112 14:05 16:22 2 hours, 17 min
D5114 15:10 17:33 2 hours, 23 min
D5116 16:55 19:04 2 hours, 9 min
D5118 18:30 20:45 2 hour, 15 min
D5120 19:15 21:26 2 hours, 11 min
Chongqing to Chengdu
Train No. Departs Arrives Journey Time
D5101 08:00 09:59 1 hour, 59 min
D5103 09:10 11:15 2 hours, 5 min
D5105 10:40 13:05 2 hours, 25 min
D5107 11:30 13:40 2 hours, 10 min
D5109 12:50 14:49 1 hours, 59 min
D5111 14:25 16:29 2 hours, 4 min
D5113 16:10 18:10 2 hours
D5115 16:40 18:51 2 hours, 11 min
D5117 17:50 19:48 1 hour, 58 min
D5119 19:30 21:40 2 hours, 10 min
Photo by Leo Chen