China’s City of the Future

Visitors may soon be adding Chongqing to their must-see lists

By: Gary Bowerman

This is the first Image
A woman admires the view across the Jialing
River from the restored old town.
Now, when people think of China, they think of Shanghai and Beijing. In 10 years, they will also think of Chongqing.”

This was no empty boast: the young hotel professional who sat opposite me was well-educated, impeccably dressed and spoke flawless English and she was watching her city change at a speed unmatched anywhere in the world.

Located in Central China, Chongqing is the world’s fastest growing city. Its entire municipal area covers about 50,000 square miles roughly the size of Austria or four times larger than El Salvador and has a population of 32 million people. By 2020, up to 50 million people will live in greater Chongqing.

Yet, as locals eagerly point out, most people beyond its moving parameters know little about a city that was China’s World War II capital and is now focused on a more prosperous future. Chongqing is a key pillar of China’s nationwide urban development program, and alongside Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin is one of only four city municipalities in the whole country.

Typically, visitors arrive by overnight train, en route from visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian. They spend less than a day in Chongqing before boarding a cruise ship down the mighty Yangtze River to the fabled Three Gorges. Such a short stay is a great shame, as Chongqing is one of China’s most intriguing cities and its spicy local food is not to be missed.

Built into the hills meandering across a steep river valley, Chongqing overlooks a cavernous basin where the muddy Yangtze and Jialing rivers converge. Unlike most flat Chinese cities, its hilly topography affords fabulous views. From the riverside wooden deck terrace at Hong Ya Dong a 10-level hillside development of old-style cafes, bars and a hotel Chongqing seemingly stretches beyond the horizon. To the east, west, north and south, high-rise construction is the dominant impression.

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Many restaurants overlook the Yangtze
from the riverbanks.
At ground level, however, Chongqing is a green city, with several parks and public spaces and tree-lined streets. There are no cyclists, and the taxis and buses run on liquefied natural gas. Motorcycles are ubiquitous, and the jovial red-helmeted motorbike-taxi drivers add character to the city. I began exploring at the Three Gorges Museum on People’s Square. An audio handset guides visitors through the new 7,500-foot-plus Three Gorges Dam project, China’s greatest engineering achievement since the Great Wall. The most interesting section, however, details Chongqing’s role as China’s WWII capital, and the incessant bombing from Japanese fighter planes. The exhibit is graphic and gruesome at times, but reveals the degree of suffering in the world’s most-bombed wartime city.

Chongqing’s 21st-century skyline is changing fast, and moving upward. Much of the downtown area is cloaked in skyscrapers, and the second-tallest building is a replica of the Empire State Building: its name written in Chinese characters is “New York, New York.” The nearby Liberation Square (the large central monument dedicated to the WWII defeat of Japan was the first of its kind erected in post-war China) features glassy shopping malls, cafes and office towers. But search beyond these, and several intriguing pockets of the old city open their doors.

Shibati is one example. Meaning “18 Steps,” this densely packed, traditional neighborhood of restaurants, markets, hairdressers and stores comes alive in late afternoon. The sloping district winds down past a wartime air raid bunker cut into the hills, and scores of locals sit at its entrance as cool air drifts outward, acting as a semi-natural mass air-conditioning unit. Here, I encountered endless games of cards, mah jong and city elders enjoying that timeless global ritual, an afternoon gossip session.

Next, I caught a cab to the riverside village of Ci Qi Kou. The 30-minute journey ($4) follows the Jialing River, and reveals how Chongqing’s avaricious urbanization is devouring the adjacent lands. Ci Qi Kou is a pleasant step back in time a neatly restored Song Dynasty district of cobbled streets and two-story wood-beamed homes. Small stores sell myriad souvenirs, from elegant silk qipao dresses to porcelain houseware and peacock fans, and an assortment of local snacks. Overlooking the scene is Baoshan Temple, a historic and colorful Buddhist temple with intricately carved stone staircases. Turning my back on the incense-filled central courtyard, I enjoyed fine views over the upturned granite rooftops and across the river.

An evening in Chongqing means sampling the local cuisine at a riverside restaurant. Spicy hot pot is a local specialty and one of China’s favorite regional dishes, but be warned, the Sichuan peppers added to provide flavor are very fiery. With my tongue still burning, I caught an after-dinner cab across one of the eight-lane river bridges to Nanbin Lu, where a strip of bars and restaurants frames a fabulous nighttime vista. With a cold, locally brewed Shancheng (“Mountain City”) beer in hand, the neon-lit peninsula skyline of downtown Chongqing reminded me of Manhattan.

I finished the evening by strolling along the riverside to the circular plaza in front of two fast-rising Disney-esque towers that will form the Sheraton hotel. Here, local women dance energetically and gracefully into the night to a selection of Chinese folk songs, and the occasional Viennese waltz, while their spouses watch from the plaza steps, cooling themselves with giant peacock fans.

WHERE TO STAY

Good accommodations are well priced and centrally located. In the first half of 2007, the average daily room rate at Chongqing’s five leading properties (including JW Marriott, InterContinental and Hilton) was only $57.

JW Marriott
77 Qingnian Road, Yuzhong District
86-23-6388-8888
www.marriott.com

InterContinental
101 Minzu Road, Yuzhong District
86-23-8906-6888
www.ichotelsgroup.com

Hilton
Zhongshan San Lu, Yuzhong District
86-23-8903-9999
www.hilton.com

Opening late fall:
Howard Johnson ITC Plaza
38 Qingnian Road, Yuzhong District
86-23-6310-6309
www.hojochina.com

Future properties include Sofitel, Sheraton and Hyatt Regency.

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