The Labyrinth of Chongqing, China
The Metropolis on the Dragons Back
Venturing up to the mountainous city of Chongqing has been a fixation of mine for as long as I have lived in China. This sprawling metropolis continued to swell to the point wherein 1997 it finally split from its home province of Sichuan to become one of the four municipalities of China. From the banks of the Yangtze River to the nearby high mountain peaks, the skyscrapers have continued to grow to the point where they challenge the heavens. From a distance, the neon signs illuminate the various canyons and valleys where the city lays, shedding light on a people who would otherwise be forever dwelling in the shadows of the mountains.
As soon as I stepped off the train in Chongqing I could barely control my excitement. My head, as if on a swivel, darted from building to building, in search of the perfect rooftop. One of my favourite things about China, in general, is that how most of the older Mao-era apartments are all open on the street, needing no lock and key to enter. I hoofed my way up ten flights of stairs before I finally reached the top floor. I exited out of the drab concrete stairway to see an array of lights and colours flash before me. The neon display of colours twinkled in the Yangtze river dividing the two sides of the city.
The soul of Chongqing is built into the monstrous buildings which are perched upon their mountaintop roosts. Massive city squares with China’s infamous dancing aunties can be found on the top of rooftops. The sidewalks are built in such a way that they twist and turn to the point where you question logic itself. Even the subway lines coil around mountain peaks and cut through the middle of skyscrapers. Merely walking through the streets of Chongqing is like walking through the pages of Alice and Wonderland. The pedestrian bridges and sidewalks never seem to abide by the laws of physics.
In many ways Chongqing is a typical Chinese city, many of the shops and restaurants are the same ones you could find in other cities around the country. While all the other megacities have been torn down and sculpted into a grid-shaped controlled society, Chongqing has still maintained its elaborate system of roads and walkways. The whole idea behind Chongqing is that it continues to defy science, making the city itself an engineering marvel.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Without a doubt, the best way to travel within China is by train. From the largest of metropolises to the smallest of villages, nowadays every part of China is connected to each other by this iron highway. The main factors you will need to take into consideration before purchasing a train ticket is your time, budget, and comfort. First of all, it is important to familiarize yourself with the different types of trains. The high-speed train or 高铁(gaotie) is the fastest train available, clocking in at a top speed of 300 km an hour. The slower train, called 动车 (dongche), takes nearly twice as much time and is a fraction of the price compared to the bullet train. To ensure you get a seat, be sure to book your ticket a few days in advance. Generally, the hard/soft sleepers will not sell out but the seats are known to fill up quite fast. Even if all the seats are taken you may still be able to secure yourself a standing ticket or known in Chinese as 无座/站票 (wuzuo/zhanpiao). This ticket is only recommended for short distances. Standing for any amount of time over 2 hours will quickly become unbearable, especially when people begin spitting and throwing cigarettes on the floor where many standing ticket passengers are trying to sleep.
As fast as the bullet train is, they still don’t hold a candle to taking a flight in terms of speed. On top of that, in many cases, an airline ticket is just as cheap as taking the fast train, if not cheaper. Be sure to compare prices to see which would be the best option in terms of both price and time.
The last option would be, of course, the long-distance buses. For those who truly want to get off the beaten track and not be confined to a tour group, taking the buses are an excellent way to see a different side of China for a cheap price. The buses are only ideal, however, when traveling within a province, not going cross country. When weighing your options as to how to get from point A to point B, be sure to look at both trains and buses. Fortunately, the long-distance bus and train stations are usually located adjacent from each other.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Hongya Dong 洪崖洞
Located not far from the shopping hub of Jiefang Bei Pedestrian Street (解放碑步行街) is one of the most picturesque, or for many Chinese, “selfie-worthy” places in Chongqing. Hongya Dong is an 11-story titled house which was once the location of a military fortress from the Ba State, which ended in 256 BC, all the way up to the Nationalist revolution in 1911. Today, every floor of this compact wooden behemoth hosts an array of restaurants, bars, antique shops, and more. Any sort of oddity the locals think tourists may buy, they place a stall on the crowded narrow streets of this ancient tower. In reality, it is not the inside which regularly brings in droves of tourists. The sidewalk across from Hongya Dong is constantly crowded with people with selfie sticks and tripods, getting their best shots of the exterior of this iconic attraction. Many people compare the architecture to resembling the famous bath house from Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”, this connection alone is enough to ensure that Hongya Dong will always be one of the most popular and touristy of attractions in Chongqing.
Single Tree Vista 一棵树
For those truly looking to take in the Chongqing Skyline and appreciate how massive and colorful this metropolis is, then Single Tree Vista is the place to go. Located on the popular nature reserve of the South Mountain (南山), The Single Tree outlook and tower brings in hordes of tourists every night, making it next to impossible to descend the mountain after taking in the night sky. An alternative option would be to stay at the summit of 南山 which has an abundance of hostels, cafes, lakes, and hiking trails.
Shangxinjie – 上新街
Next to the aesthetic East Water Gate Bridge (东水门大桥) lays a piece of old Chongqing. This labyrinth of alleyways snake up the hillside, giving tourists a glimpse into what life was like before the high-rises and skyscrapers which now dominate the skyline. There are tons of local restaurants and cafes scattered amongst the narrow streets, always leaving something new to be discovered. Unfortunately, this small community has been slowly evicted in order to make way for future development in the area. Plans are uncertain as to what will actually be built on the grounds of this irreplaceable neighborhood, but it is sure to not have the same culture and charm as it does today.
Huangjueping Railroad Fourth Village 一 黄桷坪铁路四村
For those who truly want to get off the beaten track, the artists from the nearby Sichuan Fine Arts Institute have turned a once abandoned railway station and its surrounding villages into a display of modern art and trendy coffee shops. While still maintaining a sense of exploration, old trains and railroad tracks have slowly been left to be overgrown and rusted while quaint cafes pop up to serve groups of adventurous university students. Like many places in China, be sure to check it out soon before this place too meets the demolition crew.
Stay – Accommodation
Chongqing has an abundance of budget options for travelers. Many of these hostels are located downtown, such as the Lonely Village Youth Hostel and Ruoshui Coffee Shop and Inn（弱水咖啡客栈. Youth Hostels in China are known for being extremely cheap and even have cafes and restaurants attached to the complex. Cheap single rooms are quite easy to find as well and can be found for as cheap as 10 USD a night. The staff in these kinds of accommodation typically don’t speak English and it is difficult to meet other travelers in the lobbies. Hostels usually have single rooms available and still provide comfortable lounge areas for tourists to meet and discuss their travels.
Eat – Restaurants
Chongqing is well known for their extremely spicy cuisine, the most famous of these is Chongqing’s hot pot. Other than the multitude of hot pot restaurants, Chongqing also hosts the annual Hot Pot Festival during mid-May. The festival showcases a variety of flavors and even has the world’s largest hot pot for the thousands of tourists to enjoy.
Transportation Tea House一交通茶馆
Walking down the narrow steep alleyways of Chongqing is not the only way to get a feel of old Chinese culture. The Transportation Tea House is the ideal “hole in the wall” café. The second you walk into this tea house you can feel the age of this place. Faded maps and old pictures hang on the walls, elderly men are crowded around wooden tables, sipping on tea and playing chess. This is a must do for drinking typical Chinese tea and being immersed in the traditional culture.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
Chongqing is a destination that has both mild summers and winters. The July average is around 28 degrees Celsius and goes down to only about 10 in December. The temperature itself is nothing to worry about but the humidity can become unbearable. Luckily Chongqing has loads of places to relax in air conditioning and recuperate.
Safety – Possible risks
China is one of the safest places in the world and Chongqing is not an exception. Virtually every street corner has a police station or community watch post. Even the most hidden alleyways have CCTV cameras always keeping a watchful eye on whoever may be passing by. The only things that travelers may need to worry about are pickpockets in crowded areas and crossing busy city streets. As long as you are careful and aware of your surroundings you should not have much to worry about in terms of safety.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Transportation and day-to-day costs are extremely cheap in China. Inflation, however, has been sharply rising over the years. Currently, a train from Chengdu to Chongqing will cost around 18 USD travelling over 400 km. The average cost of a hostel will cost anywhere around 6-12 USD a night. More and more restaurants and convenience stores have been trying to create a trendier experience and raising their prices. As long as you eat locally, a bowl of noodles will cost no more than 1.50 USD.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
In China, tourists don’t have to be as concerned about respecting local traditions as much as they need to be tolerant of bad habits. In places where people typically need to remain quiet, there is always someone talking with a loud voice. On the streets, parents can be seen letting their children defecate in public and old men spitting on the concrete. These habits have been developed over years of instability in Mainland China and lack of emphasis on how to conduct oneself in society. In recent years, however, the rapid speed of development has brought on stability. Along with this stability, the people have gradually begun to shake off these bad habits. There are, however, a lot of people who are still stuck in the past and it is best to go into China being tolerant and with an open mind.
Reality Check – Be Aware
The city of Chongqing is in some ways just the same buildings that you can see anywhere else in China. The difference is, however, the steep alleyways and towers emerging out of the mountain which makes this place special. The contrast of the river splitting the city and the skyscrapers leave a lot to be discovered in Chongqing. Even though the old parts of the city are slowly disappearing, taking away a part of their traditional culture, Chongqing is constantly developing modern landmarks which will continue to bring in curious tourists to gawk at their engineering marvels.
JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages
This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off-the-beaten-path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!
Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.
Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comment section below!