Chongqing is a huge city in Southwestern China. The name is pronounced 'chong ching', the letter 'q' representing a type of 'ch' sound in the standard Chinese pinyin alphabet. The city was known as 'Chungking' in the past, probably because that's the way it is pronounced in southern Chinese dialects.
The population of Chongqing is about six million as of 2015, but it is growing rapidly. Although the city is at least 2,000 years old, there are very few buildings in it more than about 50 years old, as the whole city is in the process of being torn down and replaced by modern high-rise apartment blocks and skyscrapers.
Chongqing is at the junction of the Yangtze River and its tributary the Jialing. The centre of the city is on a peninsula between the two rivers. Chongqing is at the east end of the region called Sichuan, which is a plateau surrounded by mountains. The city lies in the 'Sichuan and Bamian Mountain folded zones'; the countryside is very hilly and there are unusual long, straight, narrow mountain ranges, the most notable being the Gele Mountain Range just to the west of the city.
Chongqing was part of the province of Sichuan until 1997, but the population of it and the area around it became so large that it was decided to make it into a separate administrative region: the city now lies in the region known as the Municipality of Chongqing.
Features of Chongqing
Chongqing is far inland, so its climate is more extreme than coastal cities'. Temperatures vary from about 5°C (40°F) in winter to 40°C (105°F) in summer. There is very little wind. The sky is almost always overcast with either heavy clouds or mist, and rain is common.
Due to the amount of industry in the city, particularly in the northern suburbs, the mist often turns to smog - Chongqing air is quite polluted although not anything as bad as Beijing. The problem is particularly bad in the winter when domestic heating systems add to the industrial pollution.
Chongqing was built on a hill. It has spread outwards to the surrounding area which is also very hilly. As a result, there's very little flat ground in the city.
Because of the hills, goods were traditionally carried by porters rather than wheeled around in carts. These porters are still an important part of the city. They are known as the Bang Bang Army - 100,000 porters who carry goods using a 'bang-bang' which is a bamboo pole about five feet long (1.5m) with two loops of rope. The goods are hung from the two ends of the pole and the pole is carried over the porter's shoulder:
I've seen a porter carrying four bags of cement hanging from one of these poles. I've also seen a woman walking home from the shops with a porter walking behind her carrying her shopping.
Bicycles are not common in the city because there is so little flat ground.
In the nine days I was in Chongqing I only saw one bicycle and it was a motor-assisted one.
– an h2g2 Researcher
Also because of the hills, the first metro systems to be built were monorails rather than standard light rail, because these are better at climbing hills. At time of writing (2015) there are two monorail lines, one of which is not only the longest in the world at 55km, but is also the busiest, with 680,000 passengers a year.
Chongqing residents love eating and there are many, many places to get food. These may be stalls selling something on a stick, small restaurants opening directly onto the street, or more elaborate restaurants with table cloths on the tables. You're never far from somewhere to eat anywhere in Chongqing.
One particular street food speciality is well worth avoiding - the 'stinky tofu', which literally smells as if there is something wrong with the town's sewerage system. More reasonable street snacks include deep-fried meat or seafood on a stick, and vegetable filo pastry parcels. Food in Chongqing is spicy, with lots of chilli. If you're lucky you can ask for the non-spicy version, but many restaurants just don't offer such an option.
A speciality of the region is 'hotpot' served in more elaborate restaurants. The tables have a hole in the middle into which is placed a large metal bowl of broth. This is kept simmering by a hotplate underneath. You can order a chilli broth or a plain one. There is also a 'yin yang' bowl with a divider down the middle so that you can have both types of broth. You choose what you want from the menu and this is brought raw to your table on small plates. You cook it in the broth and fish it out when you think it is done. There are numerous sauces, mostly with chilli in them, to flavour the food after you've cooked it. This is a great night out and very popular with groups of young men, who seem to compete to see who can eat the hottest chilli sauce.
Open Air Dancing
Chinese people like to dance, and many groups dance in the open air in public squares. Most of these dancers are middle-aged women, with just a few men. You can see every type of dancing including waltzes and tangos, line dancing and more energetic pop styles.
Language and Writing
The local language in Chongqing is Mandarin Chinese with an accent. There are some words which are pronounced differently from standard Mandarin, and there are a few local words, but in general the language is Mandarin rather than a separate dialect. The most distinctive features of the local accent are:
The 'sh' combination is pronounced as 's' rather than like the English 'sh' sound. The phrase for 'thank you' is pronounced 'see-see-uh', rather than 'shee-uh-shee-uh' as it would be in Beijing. This pronunciation of 'sh' can also lead to confusion in numbers. The words for four and ten are 'sì' and 'shí', pronounced 'suh' and 'shuh'. In Chongqing they are both pronounced 'suh' and the only difference is that four uses a falling tone while ten uses a rising one.
Chongqing accent doesn't use the strong final 'r' sound which is added to many words in Beijing.
Although there are many universities in Chongqing where English is taught, particularly in the Shapingba district, and all Chinese children learn English in school, you won't find many adults in Chongqing who speak English. Even in 5-Star hotels owned by American companies, the Chinese employees have a very limited command of the English language. You are best to learn a few words of Chinese.
The pinyin system for writing down Chinese in the Western alphabet was introduced in the 1960s in an attempt to replace the Chinese character system which is confusing and difficult. This attempt has had limited success so far, so pinyin is used in only a few places:
- In books for small children, alongside the Chinese characters, as an aid to learning to read
- On direction signs
- In the Chongqing Metro
- In Western-style restaurants such as Pizza Hut
You won't generally find any English or pinyin on menus in most of the cheaper restaurants, making deciphering the menu a laborious task.
Nevertheless, it's still worth your while learning the pinyin system for the times when you will encounter it.
A casual visitor to China won't have time to learn many of the Chinese characters, but you should be familiar enough with the way it works to be able to look words up - there are mobile phone apps for doing this, where you draw an approximation of the symbol and it tidies it up, then translates it into English and into pinyin (so that you can say it to a person who doesn't speak English). The better ones of these will work even when you haven't got an internet connection, which is usually the case when you leave the wifi zone of your hotel.
Transport in Chongqing
Chongqing is huge and sprawling. There is a modern metro system which is only ten years old. There is also a local bus service, but this is incomprehensible if you don't read and speak Chinese. If the place you want to get to is out of range of the metro, take a taxi - these are cheap and plentiful.
The Metro System
The metro system is officially known as CRT - Chongqing Rail Transit. It consists of two underground rail lines and two monorails. The system is being expanded all the time - as of 2015, there are plans for another 16 lines. The monorails go underground for part of their route but mostly are above the street on giant pillars. In all cases the system works like any other metro system, with plenty of signs in English and names written out in the Western alphabet, so you should have no problems. On board the trains, all announcements are in Chinese and English. One unusual feature is airport-style security at the station entrances: bags are X-rayed and bottles scanned by a 'sniffer' machine.
The metro system is not easily accessible to disabled people. There are very few lifts (elevators). There are escalators between most levels, but they're not always working. Often the escalators are turned off, apparently to save power. In some places, there are short flights of steps without any escalator. The trains themselves, on the other hand, are very accessible with plenty of space for people in wheelchairs and safety restraints for them as well.
It is possible to get the monorail from Chongqing Airport into the centre of the city, but this is a very long line with many stations on it so the journey could take 60 to 90 minutes. Consider getting a taxi.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful. Like New York cabs, they are painted bright yellow. When they are available for hire they have a red light showing in the windscreen. Most taxi drivers are extremely honest and friendly so you should have no problems. Very occasionally, if the taxi driver is unscrupulous and thinks you are a gullible tourist, he may 'forget' to start the meter, meaning that he can invent a price when you arrive at your destination. Make sure that the meter has 10 or 11 yuan already displayed on it, and if not, point to it and tell him to start it.
The minimum fare is 10 yuan which is less than two euros. The price per kilometre is reasonable too. Most taxi drivers don't speak English, so you should have the name of your destination written out in Chinese characters and you should know how to say it in Chinese. Some taxi drivers don't read very well, so they may just look at your destination, shrug and drive away. Don't worry, there'll be another taxi along shortly.
Taxis have seatbelts in the front but none in the back. You will probably feel safer sitting in the front, although this means you will see the crazy things the driver does, such as chatting on the phone while avoiding pedestrians at high speed.
Tipping is not done in China. The driver will always try to give you the correct change, so avoid paying with very large notes. Keep some small notes for paying your taxi fares.
Long-distance Bus and Rail
There are a number of long-distance bus stations. The biggest is at Caiyuanba, beside the big central rail station. The easiest way to get to it is via the metro station Lianglukou which is on both the red and dark blue lines (lines 1 and 3). Take exit 3, then pay two yuan to go down the long escalator (see below). The railway station is immediately outside the exit from the escalator. There is a McDonalds just beyond the railway station and the bus station is just beyond that. At the bus station, when you buy your ticket, it will have a departure gate printed on it. Be at the gate early. Show your ticket to all the officials so that they make sure to put you on the right bus.
History of Chongqing
An old city, dating back to sometime before 400 BC, it was founded by the Ba people and was originally called Jiangzhou. It received its present name in 1189 - it supposedly means 'Double Celebration' and commemorates the crowning of an Emperor. You can see the style of the old city at Ciqikou, which although modern is constructed to look like the old city. Chongqing itself would have looked much like this. Ciqikou at the time would have been a separate town further up the Jialing River.
Chongqing was the capital of various small kingdoms over the two millennia of its existence. It became the temporary capital of the whole of China under Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), because the Japanese had captured all the major cities along the coast. During this period the city became heavily industrialised.
In the last stages of the Chinese Civil War which ran from 1927 to 1950, Chongqing became the last stronghold of the Nationalists before they fled to Taiwan, where they are still in control.
The population of Chongqing has been steadily growing in the last 30 years. It was greatly boosted with the building of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, downstream of the city, as over a million people had to be rehoused when their homes and farmland disappeared under the lake. These 'migrants' were forcibly moved to Chongqing, swelling the population. According to the official reports, they were very happy to be moved to a better life.
Sights in Central Chongqing
The centre of Chongqing is considered to be the Liberation Tower (officially the People's Liberation Monument) in Liberation Square, which is in the centre of the peninsula between the Jialing and Yangtze rivers. Around the square is a pedestrianised area with many large shops selling all the sort of stuff you can buy in any Western city, such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Apple etc. There's even a Starbucks, although you'll have to search hard to find it. The fronts of the shops in Liberation Square are lined with giant computerised advertisements similar to those in Times Square in New York or Piccadilly Circus in London but on a bigger scale.
The Liberation Tower's name in Chinese is Jiefangbei and this name is often used for the whole district. The tower itself is much older than any of the buildings around it, dating from the 1940s. You can't climb the tower, but it makes a nice backdrop for photos.
The Arhat Temple
The Arhat Temple is a Buddhist temple. It is also called the Luóhàn Temple (the word 'Luóhàn' is the Chinese version of the Sanskrit 'Arhat'). Over 1,000 years old, it is quite a contrast to all the other buildings around which are mainly built in the 21st Century. An arhat is a student of Buddhism - in some traditions it is one who has achieved Nirvana, the ultimate goal of all Buddhists. The temple has 500 statues of arhats made from terracotta and painted in bright colours. Each one is different, and they are all displayed in the building at the north end of the temple complex. The arhat statues are fascinating as they are clearly modelled on real people, although some have weird features such as extra eyes. The statues are from a very old tradition but the current ones are not old - they date from only 1986. The statues have been damaged a number of times over the centuries and re-made. Also in the temple is an arcade lined with rock carvings. These are genuinely old, dating from the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Guide books say there is a vegetarian restaurant on the premises but as of December 2015 the whole place is undergoing renovation and the restaurant appears to be permanently closed.
Hongya Cave Shopping Centre
Hongya Cave is a shopping centre (mall) that is built into the cliff overlooking the Jialing River just north of Liberation Square. It is made to resemble traditional Chinese buildings. The whole thing is lit up at night with yellow lights making it look very picturesque.
Hongya Cave is 11 storeys high, the top level being easily accessible from street level just down from Liberation Square. The bottom level is down beside the river. There are a few lifts (elevators) but at busy times there can be long queues for them. The shopping centre features a street of restaurants on one of the high levels, a traditional food street at level 4 and traditional crafts at level 3. At the west end there is a waterfall with a path behind it where you can look out at the view through the waterfall. The shopping centre is best visited after dark.
The Yangtze Cableway
The Yangtze River doesn't look particularly large, but it is in fact one of the biggest in the world, both in length and volume of water. There is a cable car which will take you across the river, although unless you're a local there is nothing to do when you get there except come straight back. The entrance to the cable car is at the Xiaoshizi metro station (exit 5). You need to buy your ticket, then go up in a lift (elevator) to the start of the ride. The journey takes about 5 minutes and goes about every 15 minutes.
Yangtze Boat Trip
Tourist boats will take you out on the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers. These can be a pure sightseeing tour or can include dinner on board. The best time is after dark, as the city is rather drab during the day but is beautifully lit at night. Tours go from the docks at Chaotianmen, where the two rivers meet. This is a short walk from the end of Line 1 of the metro (Xiaoshizi). The metro is planned to extend to Chaotianmen, but as of 2015 this section of the line is still under construction.
The Walls of Chongqing
Like most mediaeval cities in the world, Chongqing had walls. These were removed very recently, except for one small section of about 500m, which features the Tongyuan Gate. This is accessible from Qixinggang metro station on line 1; follow the signs for the walls of Chongqing and walk down the hill. The walls are presented nicely, with a group of bronze statues showing invaders attacking the wall and two brave defenders on top of the wall - one is throwing rocks down on the soldiers below. If you walk to the end of the wall, you can climb up steps and walk along the top of the wall.
People's Square and the Three Gorges Museum
To the west of the centre of Chongqing is an area which has been developed as the administrative centre, with many government buildings. There is a huge square called People's Square. At one end of this is a very large exhibition hall in traditional Chinese style, known as the People's Hall. It is modelled on a similar hall in Beijing. At the other end of the square is a modern building of glass and stone: the Three Gorges Museum. This has a number of permanent exhibits:
- The Three Gorges Hydroelectric Project - very interesting and nicely presented, showing the details of the dam, the special sites that were lost through flooding and the story of the people who were displaced and had to be moved. Signs in English and Chinese
- The history of the city of Chongqing - interesting
- Prehistoric people of the area
- The years of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (Second World War)
- Folk traditions of Southwestern China
- Art sculptures of the Han Dynasty
- Currency of China
- The Li Chuli Collection
Most of the exhibits have signs in Chinese only, but some are still worth a look. Admission to the museum is free.
The People's Square and the museum can be reached from the metro system Line 2 (Zengjiayan Station, Exit A). There is a 400m subway (underground walkway) from the metro station all the way to the square.
The Huangguan Escalator
This escalator links the Lianglukou metro station and the Chongqing (mainline) Railway Station at Caiyuanba. It is huge, being 112m long. That's twice as long as the longest escalator on the London underground. It is often described as the longest escalator in Asia, but there is in fact a longer one in Tbilisi, Georgia. The Huangguan escalator is probably the 2nd longest in Asia.
Due to a quirk of togography, the underground station is at the top of the escalator while the mainline overground railway station is at the bottom. About half way down, the escalator emerges from underground - the lower section has a glass roof. The top of the escalator is reached from Exit 3 of the Lianglukou station. The bottom end of the escalator is at the end of a small market which incidentally appears to be the best place in Chongqing to buy Mahjong sets, both standard and giant sized. The market is quite hard to find but is just to the right of the Railway Station.
There is a charge of 2 Yuan for the use of the escalator. You can pay cash or use a public transport Octopus card. The charge pays for an assistant at each end who will help people on and off the escalator. They'll phone the assistant at the other end and warn them of people needing help.
The transit time of the escalator is two and half minutes.
Sights in the Shapingba Area
If you like western-style shopping and have exhausted the shops around Liberation Square, you could try getting metro line 1 (red) to Shapingba (pronounced Shah-ping-bah). This is a modern suburb of Chongqing, about 11km to the west of the centre of the city, with its own centre and shops, clustered around the pedestrian Three Gorges Square. There are lots of sculptures celebrating Chinese workers going about their day to day business and a few of the revolutionary leaders. You'll also see lots of older people sitting around playing cards or Chinese chess.
The Lieshimu Martyrs' Memorial
Lieshimu is in the suburb of Shapingba. It is station 16 on Line 1 of the metro.
The Chinese civil war took place between 1927 and 1950, between the Nationalists ('Kuomintang or KMT') and the Communists. It was eventually won by the Communists who have ruled Mainland China ever since. The Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan. Each side still claims to be the rightful ruler of all of China, both Mainland and Taiwan. By the end of 1948, the Communists were winning the war and the Nationalist side were in retreat. The Nationalists briefly used Chongqing as their headquarters from 15 October to 27 November, 1949 before fleeing to Taiwan. As they left Chongqing, they killed all their Communist prisoners rather than freeing them. These 80 or so people became known as the 'Martyrs' and a commemorative park was built at Lieshimu known as the Chongqing Gele Mountain Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery.
The entrance to the Cemetery is on the main road about 300m north of the Lieshimu metro station. As you enter, you will see lots of steps climbing up the hill. The numbers 27 and 11 are displayed on either side - the date of the massacre was 27/11/1949. About three quarters of the way up is a flat court with a museum on the right, and beyond this the climb continues up to the actual grave of the martyrs at the top. Behind the grave is a wall with the names of all the martyrs and photos of many of them.
The museum was built in 1963 and was originally known as the 'Exhibition Hall on Crimes of the U.S. Imperialism and Chiang Kai-shek'. It was renamed the 'Martyr's Cemetery Museum' in 1985.
Ciqikou Ancient Town and Baolun Buddhist Temple
Ciqikou (pronounced 'tsee-chee-koh') is an old town on the banks of the Jialing River, about 12km from the centre of Chongqing. The town is now completely surrounded by the suburbs of Chongqing. It's easy to get to on the metro as it is Station 17 on Line 1.
The town is at least a thousand years old and kept its traditional Chinese buildings up to the 20th Century but then the old buildings were demolished. They have been rebuilt in the same style but with just about every building as a shop selling souvenirs. The town is now a major tourist attraction. It gets very busy in the middle of the day so try and arrive early.
Among the shops are tea houses and restaurants where you can sit and rest while you eat or drink, but there are plenty of stalls selling street food as well.
If you want to get away from the throng of shoppers, you can climb the steps to the Baolun Buddhist Temple, which is 1,500 years old. There is a small admission charge, but this includes the incense sticks that you may take at the entrance. There are some steep steps from the entrance gate up to the temple which is at the top of the hill. Once inside, there is a rectangular open court surrounded by buildings. In the centre of the court is where all the incense is burned. At the near end, overlooking the steps, is a building dedicated to Guanyin, also known as Avalokitesvara, the many-armed goddess of mercy. There's a very nice golden statue of her. At the other end of the court is the biggest temple building, with statues of the Buddha himself and other important figures. You may find a ceremony taking place; these involve chanting, singing and banging drums - you're welcome to join in.
On the right near the entrance steps is the pagoda. For a small charge you can climb to the top of this and ring the giant bell. This is done using a large beam of wood which you use like a battering ram to strike the bell.
Sights in Chongqing - Other
Metro Line 2, the green monorail, will bring you to Chongqing Zoo. The entrance to the zoo is right beside the monorail station of the same name. While the zoo is a good one and most of the exhibits are up to modern international standards, some of the older enclosures are still shamefully small and grim, reminiscent of European zoos of the 1960s. As of 2015, all such enclosures are being rebuilt and the zoo will soon be fully up to international standards for animal care.
The main thing to see in the zoo is the collection of pandas. There are both Red Pandas and Giant Pandas - about four of these. Other unusual animals include the Tibetan macaque, the Tibetan bear and the Giant Chinese salamander, but most of the animals are the sort that you would find in any zoo.
Sights outside Chongqing
The Dazu Buddhist Rock Carvings
Dazu (pronounced 'dad-zoo') is a boring, modern city about 80km west of Chongqing. It's about 90 minutes from Chongqing by long distance bus, which you get from the Caiyuanba Bus Station.
Near Dazu in the countryside are the Rock Carvings. These are mainly the work of Buddhist monks but have Taoist and Confucian influences. There are several thousand carvings in about 100 sites; the whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The greatest concentration of carvings is at Baodingshan. You can get a bus or taxi from Dazu to Baodingshan. The site is not too busy in the winter, but is designed to cater for vast hordes of tourists so it is clearly a lot busier in the peak season.
The carvings at Baodingshan date from around the 12th Century. They are in a cliff face. There are thousands of figures of enlightened men (Buddhas), of gods, demons, people being dragged into hell, dragons and other animals.
Probably the greatest carvings are the giant sleeping Buddha who lies on his side along one whole cliff face, being about 30m long, and the golden statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Avalokitesvara. This statue was originally covered in gold leaf and has recently been restored so that it is as it would have been eight centuries ago. The goddess, also known by her Chinese name Guanyin, has 1,007 arms, each with an eye painted in the palm of the hand, and most of them holding some object. The goddess statue is inside a wooden temple to protect it from the elements, and is still worshipped by Chinese Buddhists.
Two problems with the Baodingshan site: there are very few facilities for getting food, and while it is easy to flag down a taxi in Dazu and get it to take you to Baodingshan, it's not so easy to find a way back at a reasonable price. It is worth investigating the times of the local buses to see which ones bring you to Dazu.
Other More Distant Sights
If you're prepared to do a bit more travelling:
Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Centre (270km) - within reach by train - you might need to stay overnight.
The Three Gorges and the Three Gorges Dam (450km) - a four-day cruise on the Yangtze among China's most spectacular scenery, the biggest hydro-electric dam in the world, followed by a train journey or flight back. Go on an organised tour.
Xian Terracotta Army (580km) - probably best to fly there.