The hot, humid megacity of Chongqing may seem an unlikely place for a fun weekend getaway, but we've recently found it to be just that.
Under the watchful eye of charismatic party secretary Bo Xilai, the city has its sights fixed firmly on the future, but our favorite aspect of the "Mountain City" as it is known, is the palpable sense of history that can be felt throughout the congested, noisy and strangely charming metropolis.
Chongqing is perhaps best known for being the capital of China after Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist government abandoned Nanjing to fall victim to one of World War II's most tragic episodes. World War II left a major mark on Chongqing – then called Chungking – that still reverberates today. Hillsides throughout the city are peppered with the openings to tunnels that served as shelters during Japanese bombing raids. Today many of the tunnels are being used for other purposes, from storehouses to shopfronts.
Another reason that Chongqing is famous is its people – all 35 million of them.
An inland port city located at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, Chongqing's strategic location made it the site of many fierce battles during China's dynastic history. Today the city is known for its friendly but feisty locals who excel in cursing and don't back down from a fight. The city's "wild west" image was further burnished by a recent crackdown on organized crime that resulted in several high-profile trials and the execution of police chief Wen Qiang.
Between the city's hilly topography and the two rivers flowing through it, Chongqing is one of China's most three-dimensional cities. Tunnels, bridges, cable cars and even hillside elevators all attempt to deal with the challenges created by such a three-dimensional river city, sometimes to breathtaking effect. An extra bonus for us was the absence of electric bicycles, which cannot handle the steep hills found throughout the city.
The eastward-pointing peninsula of Yuzhong (渝中), literally "the middle of Chongqing" is the heart and soul of the city. If you don't mind sweating a little, a day of walking around Yuzhong makes for a great crash course in one of the world's largest urban areas.
Downtown Chongqing: A walking tour
Starting from the historic Jiaochangkou (较场口) neighborhood on the south side of Yuzhong, it is possible to take in many of Chongqing's most interesting sights simply by following Jiefang Lu eastward toward the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing at Chaotianmen Pier, on the tip of the peninsula and then looping back westward on the peninsula's north side.
Tree-lined Jiefang Lu feels like it has seen a lot of history and one gets the feeling that the people actually know their neighbors. The slightly run-down brick buildings on both sides of the street give the area a kind of character that is hard to find in most Chinese cities today.
Not surprisingly, demolition is beginning to chip away at Jiefang Lu's character. There are already numerous plots where buildings have been demolished, the only proof of their previous existence being a glacial flow of bricks and other rubble.
Almost all the older buildings on Jiefang Lu have been marked for death. The character 拆 (chai, 'demolish'), is omnipresent, which means it's just a matter of time before much of the area is reduced to rubble to make way for real estate projects.
Our favorite place to poke around in this part of town is the Tongjunge Chinese Medicine Market (桐君阁中药商城), a large two-story market filled with small stalls selling every kind of medicinal herb imaginable, as well as pearls, pilose antlers, dried bats and seahorses and plenty of other unexpected surprises. The people working at the market are happy to discuss the medical benefits of anything that catches your eye or even simply chat for a while.
Just off of Jiefang Lu's eastern portion lies one of Chongqing's cooler side streets – Baixiang Lu. Literally 'One Hundred Elephants Road', this road faces out over the Yangtze toward Nanshan, the highest point in Chongqing's very three-dimensional geography.
Baixiang Lu's architecture incorporates more Western architectural elements than the buildings of Jiefang Lu. Given their location overseeing the Yangtze, these buildings are most likely brimming with fascinating stories, as are the street's residents, many of whom are getting on in their years.
Many of these elderly Chongqingers spend hours playing majiang in cramped rooms, others congregate in the shade and trade stories or maybe get a haircut or shave.
As with their Jiefang Lu counterparts, the old buildings on Baixiang Lu are slated for demolition, which will mean not only the loss of the historical buildings but also their inhabitants, who have borne witness to the vicissitudes of recent Chinese history.
Chongqing's steep hills and wide rivers have forced the city to come up with clever ways of moving people around. One of the more unique modes of transportation in Chongqing is just up the hill from Baixiang Lu, behind a middle school on Xinhua Lu.
The Yangtze River Cable Car is a quintessential Chongqing experience. For only five yuan, you and a small carriage of strangers can glide downhill from the heights of Yuzhong until you're moving above the swift flow of the Yangtze before ascending to the station waiting on the other side.
The cable car offers a different perspective on the city that naturally appeals to camera-toting tourists, but it is also a cheap and efficient way for Chongqing residents to get across China's most storied river. There isn't much of interest near the station, so most visitors usually buy a return ticket for the cable car back to Yuzhong shortly after arriving.
Whether you've seen the 2006 Chongqing-based surprise comedy hit Crazy Stone (疯狂的石头) or simply enjoy the respite offered by temples nestled among urban chaos, it is just a five-minute walk to Minzu Lu to check out Arhat Temple (罗汉寺), where most of Crazy Stone was filmed.
After plunking down 10 yuan, we walked along a path filled with ancient stone Buddhist sculptures, the faces of which had been destroyed during the campaign against religion and everything old during the Cultural Revolution.
Further into the temple compound is the Hall of 500 Arhats, a small room packed full of statues of arhats, or people who have attained enlightenment. Despite being replicas of the temple's original arhat statues, the collection of roughly one-meter-high statues is worth walking around for a while. As with most arhat-filled halls, photos were not allowed.
In the rear of Arhat Temple we came across a large prayer hall that is often filled with worshippers chanting and praying among incense and candles. After taking in the serene scene in the middle of one of China's busiest cities, there is a small Buddhist canteen serving local-style vegetarian fare. For 3.5 yuan, diners get a bowl of rice, stir-fried veggies and soup. The canteen has two rules: diners must eat everything they take, and they must wash their bowl and chopsticks after eating.
A short downhill walk from Arhat Temple is Chaotianmen, where the Yangtze is met by the Jialing River, which flows along the north side of the Yuzhong peninsula. This seems to be one of the must-see destinations for Chinese travelers, both individuals and tour groups. There are several boats offering short night cruises that allow travelers to take in the city's night skyline and maybe a meal too. Other boats depart from Chaotianmen for the legendary Three Gorges, which are of course are now home to a massive reservoir created by the Three Gorges Dam.
Chaotianmen is a good place for peoplewatching, when we visited there were some buskers playing spirited guitar and singing for cash, plus several middle-aged men flying kites. The steps above the rivers' banks are a good place to sit and rest while watching the flow of the world's third-longest river become bigger and more forceful. Should you wish to follow the Yangtze eastward, boat tickets can be purchased at several ticketing offices at the pier.
Of the sights visible from Chaotianmen, one's vision naturally drifts across the Jialing to the new Chongqing Grand Theater, which is somehow looks like it should have been a tank in the 1980s sci-fi movie Tron. Some say it's ugly, others find it bold and futuristic, we just like taking of photos of it. Luckily, there is a Jialing River Cable Car just a short walk from Chaotianmen that takes passengers to the open and green area where the theater is located.
It is difficult to appreciate the size of the theater without walking right up to it. The grid of panels on the building's outside, its strong lines and the numerous perspectives on Yuzhong make the theater a fun place to play with a camera for a while. It is also adjacent to the Chongqing Museum of Science and Technology, as well as a small grassy park with protected buildings including an old Catholic church.
A few minutes' walk into the heart of the peninsula leads to the Liberation Monument, aka Jiefangbei, which is surrounded by pedestrian streets, five-star hotels, upscale shopping and plenty of restaurants some of which offer the most famous local dish of them all – Chongqing hotpot – whose smell wafts throughout the city.
The Jiefangbei area is another good peoplewatching spot – it doesn't take much in the way of observational powers to see that Chongqing is in the midst of massive change and that a large segment of its population is upwardly mobile and flush with disposable income.
Sweltering weather during much of the year makes daytime in Chongqing somewhat stultifying. It is when the sun prepares to set and the mercury drops that the city really comes alive. In addition to being famous for its spicy hotpot and hot, muggy climate, Chongqing is also famous for beautiful women – whose legs have been sculpted by the city's hills – and a population that likes to party well into the early morning.
The epicenter of Chongqing nightlife is Deyi Shijie (得意世界), a stone's throw from Jiefangbei. Deyi Shijie is full of bars and clubs, most of which are quite full from mid-week through the weekend. Chain clubs such as Babi and Soho – which also have locations in Kunming's Kundu Night Market – as well as Babyface and Cotton cater to young locals and a handful of expats who apparently like to drink expensive fake booze. Small bottles of beer tend to be priced around 50 yuan.
If you're going to drink in these clubs, rumor has it that Carlsberg is the safest bet as it actually has a bottling facility in the area. There is also an open-air imported beer bar under awnings outside Day & Night KTV in the center of Deyi Shijie that has reasonably priced real beers in a comfortable setting. The main drawback is the almost nightly fights, some of which get quite large and violent, that frequently occur when large groups of seriously inebriated youth stumble out of the surrounding clubs.
In the span of one hour sitting outside in Deyi Shijie, we saw one young woman drop another with one punch, later followed by more than a dozen young men brawling, at one point beating each other with chairs. It really was like a little piece of Kundu in Chongqing.
For those who would rather do the dive bar with live music thing, a 10-minute cab ride to Shazhong Lu near Chongqing University in Shapingba District offers several more relaxed bar options. Our favorite spot is Nuts Club, which for now is the top live house in town.
We saw local band The Wheels play there one night and a London post-punk band that couldn't believe Chinese people liked rock and roll play another night. Unlike the crowds in Deyi Shijie, the young locals frequenting Nuts Club seemed less busy getting smashed and more occupied with having a good time.
Chongqing can be reached from Kunming by train or plane. The K160, K168, K1050 and K1051 trains will get you to Chongqing from Kunming, with total travel times ranging from just under 19 hours to just over 24 hours. Daily flights from Kunming to Chongqing vary in price and are best booked well in advance, when one-way flights can be as cheap as 400 yuan. Flights take around an hour.