Chongqing has long been a staging post for river journeys and a gateway to China’ s wild west. With its steep hills, raging rivers and spicy food, there’ s something for everyone.
Overlooking the confluence of the Yangtze and the Jialing Rivers. Chongqing is known throughout China as the “Mountain City.” Many of city’ s hills are so precipitous that bicycles are scarce and motorcycles a far more common sight. Largely determined by its mountainous topography, Chongqing’ s districts are spread over a series of hilltops and separated by major rivers. As your taxi or bus zips across the precariously stacked apartment buildings clinging to the hillsides. It’ s possible for one of these buildings to have both the first floor and the fifth floor at ground level.
Although Chongqing’ s major tourist destination, the Three Gorges, is now being inundated by waters from the Three Gorges Dam, the city has its own inherent charm and the region is worth exploring. Known for its spicy food and hot-tempered people, Chongqing, with its mountains and fog and its bubbling hot-pots has secured a place in the Chinese imagination.
While the entire Chongqing municipality contains over 30 million people and like Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai , reports directly to the Central Government and is no longer a part of Sichuan Province, the actual city itself has a population of only 5.8 million.
Due to its strategic location on the Yangtze River, for over 4,000 years every dynasty has had a provincial capital there. This climaxed during the Second World War when Chongqing, then known as Chunking, was made the wartime capital of the Republic of China. It’ s population exploded, filling the city with refugees and government officials. During the war, the city endured severe air raids by the Japanese and what followed was an intense period of poverty.
Since then, it has rebounded with fervor. Chongqing became southwest China’ s key industrial center and a focal point for China’ s “Go West” program to bring investment to China’ s underdeveloped west. It’ s rapid modernization can be felt most clearly around the Liberation Monument, Chongqing’ s commercial and entertainment center. The actual monument, originally made of wood and dedicated to Sun Yat-sen, was rebuilt in 1945 to celebrate the end of the war with Japan. The monument is within walking distance of most of Chongqing’ s major hotels and shops.
If you want a taste of old Chongqing, the best place to begin is Chaotian Gate, the only remaining city gate and Chongqing’ s chief wharf on the Jialing River. Traffic is intense with freight and passenger ships docking day and night. From Chaotian Gate, there are great views of the green waters of the Jialing meeting the murky brown currents of the Yangtze. Within walking distance are the two cable cars crossing the Jialing and the Yangtze and providing stunning views of Chongqing’ s surroundings.
Through Chongqing’ s modern historical sites are plentiful, ancient ones are sparse. A short walk from the main commercial center is the Arhat Temple. Occupying the same site for over a thousand years, the temple has since undergone reconstruction. Inside are some 500 sculpted arhats (beings that have reached Nirvana) and a large golden Buddha. If you want to know your future, in the temple there’ s a specific route to follow based on your date of birth to find an arhat whose life course yours will closely follow.
A 45-minute bus ride outside the city takes you to the SACO Prisons (Sino-American Cooperation Organization). Developed in secret by the US in conjunction with Chiang Kai-shek, this was a training camp for Nationalist agents and a prison camp for captured Communists. Although the Nationalists and the Communists briefly formed a united front against the Japanese, civilian Communists suffered severe crackdowns under Nationalist hands and hundreds were kept captive.
Rather unique amongst Chinese historical sites is the Stillwell Museum, honoring the US involvement in the Second World War. Located in former Nationalist VIP guesthouse and the private residence of General Stillwell, the commander of the China-Burma-India Theater, it displays the wartime heroics of the Flying Tigers. These volunteer American pilots fought the Japanese over China. India and Burma in late 1941 for seven months, racking up an impressive kill ratio at a time when Japanese air supremacy was unrivaled.
If the urban congestion has gotten you down, try a stroll through the People’ s Park. Featuring a palatial conference and concert hall modeled after the Temple of Heaven, the park is large enough for an afternoon stroll and its trees and gardens are a welcome change of pace from Chongqing’ s urban development.
Ciqi Kou was Chongqing’ s old harbor and was once the home of many of Chongqing’ s rich merchants. Ming and Qing dynasty architecture abound throughout the town. Tea houses, dragon dances and temple fairs all make this a great place to really soak up the atmosphere of old Chongqing.
DAZU ROCK CARVINGS
More than a thousand years ago, Buddhist and Taoist sects fiercely competed for ascendancy and imperial endorsement. As power changed hands and religious orders came in and out of favor, the victors would create new monuments to their gods and destroy the old ones. One result was that significantly stronger materials were employed to build religious monuments, being hard to destroy, and the monuments got bigger. The monumental Dazu art testifies to this trend.
The Dazu Rock Carving and statues are scattered over some 70 sites in Chongqing’ s Dazu Country. The statues here are stylistically different from those at Yungang and Dunhuang, both of which were much earlier projects. Dating back to the Tang and Song dynasties, the carving at Dazu are purely Chinese in style, whereas earlier caves at Longmen, Dunhuang and Yungang have very obvious foreign influences. Revealing Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian influences, the Dazu carving range from small, intimate statues dedicated by pious families to massive reclining Buddhas, requiring hundreds of artisans. A welcome break from Chongqing’ s urban sprawl, the sites unfold over the idyllic scenery of rolling hills, placid farms and the red earth of the Sichuan basin.
Of the two major sites, North Mountain is smaller and requires less time. It’ s believed that this was originally a military camp and that a general, perhaps hoping for good fortune in battle, commissioned the earliest statues. Although many of the statues have deteriorated over the centuries, there are a few that still remain in good condition. Among the most notable is Niche 136, which depicts Puxian the patron saint of Emei Mountain riding a white elephant and the goddess of mercy, Guanyin. The Peacock King can be found in Niche 155.
Fortunately, this site is 1.2 miles (2km) from Dazu County and can be reached by a 30-minute walk from the bus station. Atop the site, good views can be had of the surrounding countryside.
The sculptures at Baoding Mountain, though further out of town, are far superior. Constructed from 1179to 1249, the works range from near miniature to massive. Whether enjoying the artwork, the religious zeal or the beauty of the area, it’ s well worth spending half a day.
Although still somewhat shrouded in mystery. Tantric monk Zhao Zhifeng is credited with founding this site. Built on a mountainside with a monastery perched on top, the lower section is filled with sculpted figures carved into a cliff. Unlike Dazu’ s other sites with Buddhist carvings, Baoding was carefully planned out, utilizing the natural features of the rock to accentuate the work.
At the center is the giant. Reclining Buddha some 102 feet(31m) long and 16.4 feet(5m) high. Entering Nirvana, the expression on his face is one of peace and happiness. Flanking him is a 1,007-armed, gold Avalokitesvara. In each hand is an eye symbolizing all encompassing wisdom.
The sheer variety and volume of statues here dazzles-there are heroes of the Buddhist faith, historical figures and scenes and depictions of daily life in the countryside.
While nearly 800 years have passed since these grottos were made, many of the statues have held up remarkably well, though wind has eroded some and paint has peeled off others. About 9 miles (15km) outside of town, reached by a 30 to 45-minute bus ride, the ride out to Baoding takes in solo sculptures carved along the winding road.