During the last four years, I’ve clocked up some serious mileage throughout China including visiting Chengdu twice already – seeing the giant pandas, the Wide and Narrow Alley, the Leshan Big Buddha and the Chunxiu Business Street – however I’ve never made it to neighboring Chongqing (which, I‘ve just learnt was formally also part of Sichuan Province).
One random Friday morning, as I was reviewing my teaching plan, I got a call from my friend John: “I’ve got some great news for you…” he starts off “My Chinese friend Frank wants a business companion to travel to Chongqing.” Well, that’s lovely I thought, but where do I come into this? “It’s a free trip – I can’t go as I’m busy but I recommended you instead – all you have to do is pretend to be Frank’s assistant (he’ll take care of everything) and also he’ll pay you a grand [CNY].” Boom – this sounded too good to be true. A free road trip, a new city and I get paid to visit somewhere I’d always wanted to go anyway.
I did a little bit of the googling and discovered that back in ’97 Chongqing was granted special status as a directly-controlled municipality (alongside megacities Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin). It’s got a mind-boggling population of around 34 million people, although the urban core of the city has only 7 million people – some rather impressive numbers. Some have called Chongqing the largest city in the world and I could believe them, although technically I’m not sure this is true; whichever way you look at it though, this city is ludicrously large.
Those who are a bit more au fait with this part of the world, may be aware that Chongqing was formerly romanized as Chungking and it was the capital of the Republic of China during the Second World War. These days the city is absolutely thriving, developed as one of the major rail and air transport hubs of the country. It’s also the launch pad for cruises down the Yangtze River, especially popular with people wishing to visit the Three Gorges Dam and the Buddhist Dazu Rock Carvings. The waterways here have been used as a key part of the city’s transport network for over two millennia. In the heart of the super-sized city is a peninsula where the Yangtze and the Jialing River meet. Chongqing is known throughout China as a mountain city, and as such bicycles aren’t so common – motorbikes (or e-bikes) are instead the choice mode of transport.
Our flight set off around 8:30 am as seeing as the taxi to the airport would set me back about 100RMB – I opted for the subway. Setting off from my apartment around 5:45 am to meet up with ‘the boss’ Frank, I was blurry-eyed but in keen spirits.
Nearly 3 hours later we arrived at Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport (Chóngqìng Jiāngběi Guójì Jīchǎng; 重庆江北国际机场). Frank tells me Jiangbei has ambitious plans to be among the world's largest airports when the new Terminal 3A is completed later this year.
No trip to a new place is complete without tasting some genuine local cuisine. The local host, well aware of this, picked us up at the airport and took us to a hotpot restaurant. Hotpot is the most famous dish in Chongqing and is considered a local specialty. People gather around a small pot filled with flavored soup and heated by charcoal, electricity or gas. The pot is divided into two parts: the middle is not so spicy, and the rest is spicy. It’s called yuanyang (鸳鸯) hotpot.
Bizarrely the waitresses here were all dressed in the uniforms of Red Guards (红卫兵), which was a little intimidating but they were all very friendly nonetheless.
After lunch, we were given a tour of Chongqing and were dropped at the Bell Tower Square (钟楼广场) on Nanbin Road (南滨路). It’s a Big Ben style clock-tower in the city center. Just right to the Bell Tower, we came across the newly opened Chongqing Changjiang Contemporary Art Gallery (重庆长江当代美术馆). Learning the gallery would close in the next 20 minutes, we had to rush around it. Filled wall-to-wall with some fascinating pieces from a range of local artists, it would have been nice to have been able to spend a little more time here.
Chongqing Changjiang Contemporary Art Gallery
Arts on display.
Just 20 meters north of the art gallery is the Thousand Buddhas Temple (Qiānfó Sì; 千佛寺) but because of our tight schedule we didn’t have time to pay it a visit. Moseying along the scenic riverside walk, in the shadows of the Chaotianmen Yangtze River Bridge (Cháotiānmén Chángjiāng Dàqiáo; 朝天门长江大桥), we could begin to appreciate the scale of these rivers and important they have been to this city’s history.
Thousand Buddhas Temple
Nanbin Road scenic riverside walk.
Chaotianmen Yangtze River Bridge
After a couple of hours exploring we drove to a tea house for the business meeting. As I sat there smiling and nodding in agreement (and trying not to yawn), I spotted something that said the water used for the tea is from pure mountain spring water – and this stuff really tasted far superior to your average brew (even by Chinese standards).
Getting out of the tea house situated in the Impression Commercial Street (映像商业步行街) area, we walked to one of the neighboring restaurants. After stuffing ourselves silly, we’d still left enough to feed a few large dogs. The Chinese generally order much more than is needed to show their generosity and hospitality.
After the dinner, the host asked where we preferred to stay – either a five star luxury hotel or a villa located in a hot spring area. Frank opted for the villa because he wanted to let me have something special and different – Chongqing is apparently also known as the capital of hot springs.
After driving for 90 minutes, we arrived – feeling pretty tired – at Tongjing Hot Springs (统景温泉 ) at around 11:30 pm. The staff there boasted to us that the Tongjing Hot Springs are known as the ‘finest under heaven’ because of the ultra-clean, high quality water – always at amazingly high temperatures. It turns out there are 25 natural hot springs here, with the average temperature being anywhere from 35-52 C degrees; some are even as hot as 62 C! The hot spring water is rich in minerals and trace elements that help not only cosmetically but also your health. It is said to help with obesity, gout and other diseases and is generally regarded as one of nature’s finest gifts. This particular hot spring also included an outdoor swimming pool, indoor couple pool, physiotherapy room and other health-care facilities to boot.
We were in this luxury villa, with a hot spring right outside my room (with temperatures around 42 C at night). After a leisurely soak, where I felt like some bad guy in a Bond movie (only without the cigar), I hit the sack shortly after midnight.
In the morning we had a baozi and porridge breakfast before resuming the business sit-downs. After another hour and half of talking shop, we went for lunch. I could get used to this kind of business I thought to myself. After pigging out at another round-table sitting, this one specializing in fish, we headed out on a tour before our evening flight around 8:00 pm.
The host decided to accompany us on a tour of Tongjing Scenic Area (统景风景名胜区) which is also called Tongjing Lesser Three Gorges (统景小三峡). We went on little boat trip on these adorable little boats with old Chinese roofs. This gave us a great opportunity to admire some of Chongqing’s natural surroundings. Surrounded by beautiful forest-covered mountains, it feels good to be somewhere outside of a hectic city center.
Entrance to the scenic area.
The boats waiting for passengers.
The peacefulness of the day was disturbed, however, by screams in the distance. As the boat chugged around the corner, we spotted this huge scaffolding structure and someone swinging by ropes from it – clearly they’d just thrown themselves off it in the name of bungee jumping. I’m all up for general thrill-seeking activities but bungee jumping has never really appealed to me. I feel much safer with two feet planted on the ground.
Bungee jumping on the side slope.
We got to a place called Tongjingxiayuan (统景峡猿), where monkey business is in full bloom. As the boats dock up on the shores of – what’s known locally as – the Bamboo Sea, an army of monkeys come to greet you in search of food. Best bet is to either come prepared with some scraps of food to throw in their direction or to hide anything that could be food in a sealed bag or backpack. These little fellas have been known to rip plastic bags from unsuspecting tourists.
We spot some of the locals making rafts from bamboo with a sorry looking pony moping available for rides at 10RMB a pop. Leaving the poor beast alone we walked on. Spotting a hanging bridge loosely tied together from wood and string we edged across. Clearly being a little too eager, in hindsight we should have gone over one at a time, instead the bridge rocked and swayed with all four of us giggling nervously as we got to the other side.
I learnt that we were actually quite close to the Ganying Cave (感应洞), named after a Chinese ambassador sent to Rome in 97 AD, a 400 meter karst cave thousands of years old. I was so excited I could have peeped myself, thankfully I didn’t have to as I spotted a WC (what the Brits used to call a water closet) where you can find some holes in the ground. A western-style sit down toilet is not very easy to find around here.
After a couple of hours, we returned to the villa to briefly bathe in the hot spring before remembering we had a plane to catch. Skipping dinner, we scurried off to the airport pronto. It’s always nice to get an all-expenses trip to somewhere you’ve never been before but this trip will stand out in my memory for many, many years to come. Needless to say I told Frank I’ll be his assistant any time he needs my ‘services’. I’d even be happy to take a pay cut – just don’t tell Frank.