A Travellerspoint blog

China Deep Dive: Chongqing final chapter

View Turkiye and China 2023 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

I took an uncharacteristically long break from writing my blog before beginning my posts about Chongqing. I had to collect my thoughts and figure out how I could explain how Chongqing became my favorite city in China and one of my top ten favorite cities in the entire world. Like most Westerners my original favorite Chinese cities were Shanghai and Beijing. They were the first cities I visited, the easiest to get around in without speaking Chinese, and the setting for many exciting adventures before I met my wife. Once I began traveling with Mei Ling I experienced Shanghai in a whole new way, eating in some of the best street markets and exploring neighborhoods that few foreigners ventured into. Nothing can dampen the memories I have of Shanghai and Beijing from the 2000's and early 2010's, but much has changed since then. All the unofficial street markets and many of the dilapidated but charming neighborhoods in those cities have been cleaned out as part of the government's impatient push for modernization. The street markets that remain are mainly of the sterile, officially-sanctioned variety. Foreign tourists still visit Shanghai and Beijing in droves and mostly hew to well-worn tracks around the Bund and the Forbidden City, but little remains there for us to enjoy. Not ones to dwell on tragedy, we've renewed our commitment to exploring the other 99% of China and been rewarded with delightful cities like Dalian and Xiamen. None of those cities has quite reached the level of Chongqing, a metropolis of fifteen million whose name would at most sound vaguely familiar to a minority of Westerners. Chongqing is undergoing its own rapid modernization but in my opinion it is being carried out in a manner far superior to the efforts underway in Shanghai and Beijing. Of course we never visited Chongqing in the old days and perhaps we would be distressed at the markets and neighborhoods which have disappeared, but there is still so much of the old city left and a huge number of beautiful and exciting new areas to visit. It's also notable that Chongqing's character remains entirely Chinese, unlike the more international cities that seem to have acquired a desire to become more European or North American. The architecture and aesthetics here are unlike anything we had seen before, an utterly unique approach into a prosperous future. While one might criticize some of the social aspects of China, the fact is that in Chongqing and other cities here we did not see any homelessness, any drugs, any crime, or any other serious forms of urban decay. Perhaps there's a price to be paid for that in some civil liberties but from our perspective as visitors it was quite a welcome change from traveling in the United States and even Europe.

We began our day in the usual way with breakfast at the food court next to the apartment. Afterwards we set off on foot in the direction of a community market I had located online. On the way we passed a barber shop and took advantage of the opportunity to get Ian a long-overdue haircut.

On our first two days in Chongqing we had been too busy to visit any regular markets. This one was kind of small but still had some interesting features such as the barbecue guy selling odds and ends of various domestic animals. There was a whole section of the market devoted to pig butchers who kept their inventory under ultraviolet light, presumably to ward off bacteria.

Mei Ling and I found a salad vendor where we could choose our own ingredients and have them tossed together in a plastic bag. I knew from experience to request that no salt be added to my bag. I still had painful memories of delicious looking salads in other Chinese cities that had been rendered inedible by heavy additions of salt at the very end of the process. We ate on a bench outside the market while Cleo documented our meal for posterity.

We continued our walk to the center of Jiefangbei where we caught the metro to Liziba station. Line 2 of the Chongqing metro is a monorail and Liziba station has become locally famous since it opened in 2005. The station was constructed within a residential building that the monorail passes through at the seventh level. Noise reduction technology has been employed to insulate the rest of the building from the noise of the station. When we arrived the building didn't seem very residential at all. A cottage retail industry had sprung up inside to take advantage of all the tourists who came to take pictures of the monorail entering the station, including a rather tacky food court and numerous souvenir stores. We skipped all this and pushed our way down the multiple flights of stairs to the ground level where a large group of people had amassed for the show. Soon enough a monorail showed up and passed into the gap in the building as the crowd snapped photos and shot video. I dutifully did the same although I was somewhat nonplussed as I was sure I had seen very similar arrangements more than once in other cities. Once I returned home to Miami I confirmed my suspicion walking down Northwest 2nd Street and observing the Metromover track passing through a building in exactly the same way. No one was on the sidewalk taking photos.

In order to get to our next destination we had to switch from the monorail to another metro line. As we crossed an elevated walkway we could see the monorail track seemingly laid on top of the tree canopy at the crest of the Jialing embankment. As we watched a monorail came gliding along the track towards the station as if it was skimming the tops of the trees. It was an infinitely more beautiful sight than watching train cars pass in and out of the hole in the Liziba building.

The Great Hall of the People is a 1950's construction that was patterned after Beijing's Temple of Heaven. The Great Hall sits atop a hill in central Yuzhong and the central auditorium is a tall, colorful, circular structure that is quite photogenic. It was originally conceived as a venue for political meetings but is currently used more for cultural performances.

On the other side of People's Square was the famous Three Gorges Museum. This is probably the foremost destination for foreigners visiting Chongqing but even here we did not see a single Westerner. The stern modernity of the museum made for an interesting contrast with the traditional Chinese architecture of the Great Hall. Naturally we never for a moment considered going inside the museum. Why suddenly pretend to be fascinated with archaeology and geology just because we were traveling? We weren't going to be taking the cruise through the gorges either. I had decided long before we departed that three days on a boat for a couple of hours surrounded by beautiful landscape was not an efficient proposition.

We decided to walk back through Yuzhong in the direction of Hongya Cave. Our plan was to finally take the hour long boat trip on the river that we had been too flustered to worry about on our first night. We wandered through an interesting residential area that had some small and colorful markets. Eventually we figured out it would be too far to walk and jumped on a bus that seemed to be headed in the right direction.

Having been on our feet and on the metro for the last few days, we hadn't noticed how slow the traffic was in Yuzhong. Being on the bus was an exercise in stuttering frustration. Once we got fairly close to our destination I couldn't take the snail's pace any more and we took the first available chance to disembark. We found ourselves in the vicinity of a major hospital with an interesting traditional design. I saw the sign for their emergency department and wondered how similar a shift there would be to my work in Miami. I think it probably would have come with a substantial culture shock. The following street had some cool wall murals that were representations of storefronts.

Not long afterwards we arrived at the western side of Hongya Cave. Once again I had to marvel at the beautiful, futuristic design of the Qiansimen Bridge. This area at the top of the embankment was filled with pedestrian walkways and restaurants and early diners were already beginning to settle in. I made a mental note to return here after the boat trip so that we could finally eat something other than hotpot in Chongqing.

In order to get to Hongya Cave we made our way down a series of staircases along the steep embankment. Close to the bottom we encountered an artificial waterfall in front of a large cave in the embankment. The waterfall poured into a pool that was traversed by stepping stones we had to cross to reach the main building. We hadn't explored far enough to see this on our first night.

We found our way to the ticket booth near the boat dock and Mei Ling interrogated the agents until she figured out the optimal arrangement. Our boat wouldn't depart for another hour so we took a stroll through the ground floor of Hongya Cave and had an artist do some caricatures of the kids. While we waited for the drawings to get done the kids got a fish pedicure, their second of the trip. Cleo's caricature worked out pretty well but the boys' didn't bear much resemblance to the real thing.

There was a line to get on the boat and once they opened access to the floating dock there was a rush to get to the chairs and tables on the top deck. We managed to grab a small table but there were only two chairs. The glowing outline of Hongya Cave seemed to be suspended in the center of the embankment. Behind it were residential apartment blocks and the tallest skyscraper in Jiefangbei, a monumental tower at the center of the neighborhood that had Chinese characters flowing down its facade.

The boat took off fairly quickly and we headed towards the river confluence. In the darkness the brown siltiness of the water was no longer apparent and the surface appeared black with gentle ripples. Meanwhile it seemed that every building close to the water's edge was brightly illuminated, often with alternating colors and messages in Chinese characters. I wondered if this type of illumination was a municipal requirement for new skyscrapers and if developers had to submit a plan to the authorities to make sure their light display would coordinate with the surrounding structures. The Raffles complex with its tubular skybridge looked absolutely surreal. It was far from the first time on this trip that I had felt propelled a half century into the future, but now the sensation was particularly acute.

We rounded Chaotianmen and cruised a short way up the Yangtze. Soon enough we reached the familiar outlines of the Sheraton towers and their black oblong neighbors. The Sheraton was resplendent in red once again while the black towers were displaying some kind of television program or awards ceremony on their facades. I have no idea what kind of technology was required for this but the only place I had seen it before was as a special effect in the movie Blade Runner. Now that we were on the Yangtze I had officially been on the most famous rivers of every continent except Australia, which to the best of my knowledge does not have any famous rivers. The others are the Nile, the Amazon, the Mississippi, and the Danube. The only one which isn't the longest on its continent is the Danube, but I'm fairly comfortable saying that the Danube is more renowned than the Volga. As we returned to the Jialing we encountered another brightly lit sightseeing boat framed on either side by the Raffles complex in crimson and the Chongqing Grand Theater in turquoise. It was truly breathtaking and I was glad we had made the decision to partake in this one touristy activity.

Once we disembarked we were quite hungry but the weather chose this moment to stop cooperating. A huge downpour suddenly broke from the heavens and the logical move at this point would have been to give up on the previous plan and eat at one of the hotpots in Hongya Cave. As irrational as it may seem now, my conclusion was that the elements had joined the cosmic conspiracy to force me to eat nothing but hotpot in Chongqing and I decided we would fight our way back up to the top of the ridge and find a table in one of those hip restaurants. I had remembered to pack the rain jackets so we threw them on and began to battle our way up the crowded staircases and escalators that led up the side of the embankment. The driving, wind-swept rain seemed to ignore our jackets completely and by the time we arrived at the restaurant area we were all completely soaked to the bone. All the little outdoor tables had been removed because of the weather, making it harder to identify where the popular restaurants were. The few I could pick out had lines in front and that was definitely not an option. I saw one door at the back of an alley that opened into a restaurant that seemed pretty full. There was no line at the door so we quickly opened it and ducked inside. It was hotpot of course but I was way past the point of fighting my destiny. There was a large table right in front of us that was in the process of being cleared so we stripped off our sopping rain gear and hung it around any available surface. One of the waiters muttered something to Mei Ling and she was laughing as we took our seats. It seemed we had come in through the back door of one of the restaurants with a long line in the front, but since we'd already thrown our wet jackets and bags all over the place they had decided to let it slide. The restaurant was air conditioned and I was grateful for the warmth from the hotpot once it arrived. It wasn't the dinner I had imagined but as far as hotpot went it was probably the best we had experienced in Chongqing and definitely the most authentic atmosphere. As my shivering slowly abated I checked out the interesting crew of locals that occupied the neighboring tables and wondered what it was like to live in this chaotic, delirious, rapidly transmogrifying city.

Our flight to Hangzhou was in the late afternoon so once again we had an extra morning to explore. One area we hadn't visited at all was Jiangbei, to the north of the Jialing River, although we had seen its impressive skyline countless times. It was a slog coming up with places to visit in Jiangbei on the English language internet but eventually I found a couple. It was fairly easy to get to Liujia Wharf via the metro. This riverside area was renovated about ten years ago and has a high concentration of restaurants and bars. It's probably quite lively in the evenings but on Friday morning it was rather desolate.

The most interesting place we encountered at Liujia was an absolutely gorgeous restaurant that was open but without a single customer. The maitre d' greeted us hopefully as we came in but we had already had our customary breakfast at the food court. The restaurant was filled with colorful floral displays and the furniture was sleek and contemporary. The space was exceptionally well-illuminated with ornate chandeliers and a variety of modern light fixtures. The entire rear wall of the establishment was dedicated to a bookshelf that extended all the way to the high ceiling. It would have been a spectacular place to eat if we had just one more night to spend in Chongqing.

The only other area worth seeing that I could come up with in Jiangbei was the Ninth Street entertainment district in an area called Guanyinqiao. We had to walk quite a long way from the metro but it was an interesting commercial area without any trappings of domestic tourism. Once we reached Ninth Street we could see there were a lot of dormant nightclubs and some interesting street art, but it was clear that this was an area that only came to life in the night time. We explored for a few blocks and then took the metro back to Jiefangbei.

After four days we were quite satisfied with our experience in Chongqing. I had read enough travel guides and blogs from Western visitors to understand we had experienced the city in a far different way than most tourists. Much of this was because of Mei Ling's familiarity with the language and culture, but we had also made strenuous efforts to get under the skin of the city rather than simply skimming along the surface. While most foreigners shuffled along the same track of tourist experiences such as Hongya Cave, the Three Gorges Museum, and Ciqikou we had also found the Chiang Kai Shek teahouse in Eling Park, Testbed2, Mafangwan, Shi Ba Ti, and Yes Bear among many other places. Chongqing was a city where no one ever needed to stay home or feel bored if they didn't want to. In that respect it is almost the equal of international touchstones such as Istanbul or Osaka. If Chongqing continues to develop at its current pace and is discovered by the international travel community I can't even imagine where its ceiling might be. As the SUV taxi Mei Ling had called drove us north on the highway to the airport I spotted mysterious items on a building to our right. A purplish planet-like sphere was perched on the roof while a gigantic magenta rabbit sat on a terrace a few levels below. Whatever significance these objects had would have to remain a mystery for now, perhaps to be solved on our next visit to Chongqing.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:36 Archived in China Tagged family chongqing yangtze family_travel travel_blog hongya_cave tony_friedman family_travel_blog liziba

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents


Looks like my kind of place!

by Peter

Comment with:

Comments left using a name and email address are moderated by the blog owner before showing.

Not published. Required
Leave this field empty

Characters remaining: