A woman admires the view across the
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.
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
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.
77 Qingnian Road, Yuzhong District
101 Minzu Road, Yuzhong District
Zhongshan San Lu, Yuzhong District
Opening late fall:
Howard Johnson ITC Plaza
38 Qingnian Road, Yuzhong District
Future properties include Sofitel, Sheraton and Hyatt