Chongqing is a big, bustling and mountainous city of 31 million, located at the confluence of the Yangzi and Jialing rivers. It serves as the industrial powerhouse of inland China and is renowned as one of China’s “Three Furnaces” (the others are Wuhan and Nanjing, both on the Yangzi) – because of its stifling summer heat and humidity.
While the city isn’t without character, this climatic reputation is well-deserved, and most visitors spend just a few hours here before departing downstream on a cruise boat through the Three Gorges.
However, if you do end up spending more time here, you will find the streets lined with fiery hotpot restaurants and steep, narrow alleys alive with local flavor. There are also a few historic sights and points of interest in and around the city, most notably the new Three Gorges Museum and the Luohan Temple, as well as the exquisite Buddhist cave carvings two hours away at Dazu.
In spite of Chongqing’s vast population and size, the principal area you need to concern yourself with is the teardrop-shaped parcel of land encircled by the Jialing and Yangzi rivers known as the Yuzhong district. The city center is focused on Jiefangbei, the Victory Monument, and includes the main business and shopping districts, as well as a good selection of hotels.
Cruise boats and ferries leave from the Chaotianmen Docks on the eastern side of the peninsula, while Renmin Square in the west is the site of the new Three Gorges Museum and the People’s Concert Hall. South of here you’ll find the train and bus stations.
Chongqing’s location on the life-giving and -taking Yangzi has seen it settled since the Paleolithic era, and densely populated villages existed in Neolithic times, but it first rose to prominence with Ba culture, around 1000 BC. The city was given its current name, Chongqing (which means “Double Celebration”), by the emperor Zhao Jiezhong and remained a stronghold against Mongol rule well after they had taken control of the rest of the country.
In more recent times, Chongqing was ceded as a treaty port to the British and Japanese in the 19th century and was used as the headquarters of the KMT after they were ousted from Nanjing by the invading Japanese. During World War II, Chongqing played a crucial role as the drop zone for the resupply of Allied-Nationalist forces against the Japanese.
US General Stilwell was a key figure in the joint effort until the alliance with the Nationalists failed in 1944, but much of the city was heavily bombarded by the Japanese and little of Chongqing’s long history remains intact.
Chongqing’s key location on this most significant of waterways has continued to serve it well and it soon developed into a center for heavy industry, which has left the city polluted, but prosperous. More recently Chongqing has emerged as a manufacturing hub for China’s burgeoning automobile industry – Ford has a factory here, in partnership with local producer Chang’an and Chongqing recently produced China’s first armored car.
Shopping on the modern streets around the Victory Monument, Jiefangbei, you can feel the wealth, but, as ever, this goes hand in hand with poverty and you’ll see plenty of people struggling to stay above the breadline. The city’s meteoric growth has left it with several million residents in the Yuzhong peninsula alone, and over 30 million in the municipal area!
This gargantuan population and the city’s strategic importance led to Chongqing’s separation from its parent province, Szechuan, in 1997, and it was designated as a “specially administered municipality,” controlled directly by the central government.
Industry and tourism combine to give Chongqing its fair share of foreign visitors and the city is being spruced up little by little but, with the enticing vistas of the Three Gorges waiting just along the river, few visitors stay long. If you are willing to explore Chongqing a little you’ll find a gritty but captivating slice of Chinese city life.