Monday, 24 September 2012

10 Days in Chongqing

My wife and I recently had the good fortune of stumbling on some cheap Finnair tickets to Chongqing, China.  Finnair opened a new route to that city earlier this summer (the first European carrier to offer direct flights there from Europe), and we took advantage of a promotional offer to get two tickets for US$1120/EUR900, a price we decided we couldn't let pass by.  We were in Chongqing the last 10 days of July.

Living in Lithuania, I don't have easy access to English language guidebooks, so I did most of my research about travel destinations in and around the city via the internet.  There's not a lot of information out there, but I did find a few sites offering some useful tips, two of the most useful being and Livin' in the Chonx

Greater Chongqing (the entire municipal district) has a population of 32 million (which is expected to double in the next five years) and the urban area is home to 7-8 million.  Some might know it by its former name, Chungking.  It served as the capital of China for a good part of WWII (or as the Chinese say, the War of Resistance against Japan; aka the Second Sino-Japanese War). Although the city is now a special municipality within China, it was historically part of Sichuan/Szechuan Province.

Because of our extremely limited budget, very early on I decided that we wouldn't be taking any tours to see the Three Gorges (a 5-day[?] boat trip) or other attractions outside the city (for example the Dazu Rock Carvings).  But in fact, there was enough in Chongqing to keep us busy for pretty much the entire time we were there.  We actually didn't get to see all the sites we'd planned to see in the city, but that was more because we got a bit worn out and wanted to simply spend more time relaxing.

Accommodation seemed to be plentiful and cheap, but we settled on the Yangtze River Hostel because I thought the English-speaking staff would be a bonus.  A private room with en-suite toilet and shower there was no cheaper than a room at a 3-star hotel, but it was certainly no mistake to book there.  The staff was very friendly and helpful, the room was clean and suitable (though in definite need of a paint job and some minor repairs), and there were activities guests could take advantage of (such as a night out of try hotpot, Chinese food party [making and eating Chinese dumplings], and a trip to a temple on the highest mountain in Chongqing).  Don't just turn up expecting an empty room or bed, however!  I saw several travelers turned away because the hostel was fully booked.  I reserved a room by e-mail, though there is also some sort of online reservation system.  If you reserve by e-mail, I recommend checking back with them several times before arrival.  When we arrived, there appeared to be some sort of booking mix-up, and we had a bit of a scare when it appeared that there would be no vacancies.  In the end, we got a room, which as I said was satisfactory, but we didn't get the "deluxe" room that I wanted and had apparently reserved.  But despite that small problem, I can wholeheartedly recommend this hostel.  One can't underestimate the English-speaking staff there, two of whom, Annie and Monika, deserve special mention.  We found that few people in Chongqing speak English, and unless you speak at the very least some basic Mandarin Chinese, it's a problem to get around and find things.

The Yangtze River Hostel is in Jiefangbei (East-Central Yuzhong), the part of Chongqing where two rivers (the Yangtze and Jialing) meet.  We explored this part of the city on foot, visiting the Jiefangbei Pedestrian Street, Chaotianmen, HongYaDong (all must-see attractions if you visit Chongqing), and quite a few shopping centers.  Chaotianmen is the place that boats take off on various tours.  We went there to look around one evening and ended up buying tickets from a guy for RMB80 a piece (not including meal) for a 2-hour tour of the two rivers.  We sat up on the top deck and thoroughly enjoyed the city lights and very interesting company of a couple of Ford employees (one from China and the other from the U.S.A.) who we met.  HongYaDong, a "recreation of old Chongqing" according to one source, was also very much worth the visit.  It's filled with shops selling souvenirs and food.  Arhat/Luohan Temple, a Ming-era temple located in this district, is another destination that shouldn't be missed.  Of particular interest are the 400 terracotta Arhat (one who has achieved enlightenment).  There's also plenty of shopping in this part of the city, from very fancy shopping centers/malls to very simple wholesale markets (worth a visit: Golden Ocean Market/金海洋市场, 24 Shanxi Rd.).  One thing we discovered early on is that because of the lack of foreign visitors here, the prices aren't often artificially inflated for tourists.  And therefore very few shopkeepers were willing to bargain.

We reached other parts of the city (with the exception of Ciqikou and Shapingba) by subway/underground/metro.  I was very impressed by this transport system.  It was spotlessly clean, it was never too crowded when we were traveling (though I've read that during rush hour it gets packed), the trains travel frequently (the longest we had to wait--after just missing one train--was 8 minutes), and it's a very convenient way to reach many parts of the city.  When we were there, one line was being lengthened on both ends, intermediate stations/stops were being added to lines, and a new line was under construction.  And I have to add that it's very easy to use.  All announcements on the trains are in both Mandarin Chinese and English and the automatic ticket machines also have English translations.  Just indicate your destination and number of tickets on the touchscreen and then pay.  And we found that there was always someone there to help people get their tickets.  Usually that person even knew basic English.  Bravo Chongqing Metro!

Another area of the city that we explored was Daping (Central Yuzhong).  There we visited a couple of parks, a couple of museums, and the Great Hall of the People.  Both Eling Park and Loquat (Pi Pa) Mountain Park are worth a visit.  It was unfortunate, however, that the latter was in the midst of reconstruction and some parts were closed to the public.  From Eling Park we attempted to enter Fo Tu Guan Park, but even though the parks are right next to each other we couldn't find any way to go from one to the other.  We ended up exiting Eling and walking down the road to find the entrance to Fo Tu Guan.  After walking for 15-20 minutes, we found an entrance, but because the park was full of heavy equipment and workers, we decided not to enter.  One of the highlights of our trip was our visit to the Three Gorges Museum.  It's really an amazing place.  It features a wide range of exhibits.  Although I didn't keep track of the time, I suppose that we were there about 3 hours.  And entrance is ... free!  Can't beat that.  Right across the square from the museum is the Great Hall of the People.  It's an impressive building and well worth photographing, but I can assure you that you shouldn't waste money on a ticket to see the inside of the building, that is unless you've got a thing for big auditoriums.  We also visited the Stillwell Museum in this part of the city.  For me, as someone interested in history, it was more or less a must-see destination.  I'm not disappointed that we visited, but I was saddened to see that quite a few of the photographs on display (besides the building itself, the photos are the main attraction) had been defaced or were quite faded.

Another highlight of our trip was our visit to Ciqikou (Porcelain Village).  It's an authentic old town (most of the buildings date from the Ming and Qing dynasties) where you can wander the streets and absorb a vibe quite unlike the rest of Chongqing.  Though a large portion is filled with shops selling souvenirs, local/traditional snacks, etc., if you wonder off the beaten path, you can run across all sorts of fascinating sights and sounds (and that's not to say that the main parts aren't worth seeing).  On one of the quieter side streets, we came across a tea shop where we ended up sitting and chatting with the owner about tea and life while enjoying several pots of tea.  The metro doesn't yet go all the way to Ciqikou, though we could see that one line was being expanded to there, but a taxi from the center of Chongqing was very inexpensive, only RMB 18.  On our way back, after dinner in the Three Gorges Square shopping district, we took an air-conditioned bus, only RMB 2!

One day we took the metro to Jiangbei (the northern part of the city) to the Guanyinqiao pedestrian street, which is a huge shopping area.  I liked the mix of upscale and more humble shopping areas.  If shopping is your thing, you can't go wrong visiting this area.  Not far from here is Hua Hui Park, which we didn't go to even though what I read leads me to think it would be a nice place to visit.

Our final destination was in Nan An (the southern part of the city).  There we, with a group of people from the hostel, climbed part of the way up Nan Shan (South Mountain) to a temple complex.  It was quite a trek for a sadly out-of-shape 46-year-old, but there is no doubt that it was worth it.  Of course there are easier ways to get up there (by taxi), but the climb gave me a sense of accomplishment, so it was good.  Tip: have lunch in the cafeteria of the complex.  Great vegetarian food.  It was probably the best meal we had in Chongqing.

Besides the places we saw and things we did, our trip to Chongqing was made memorable and pleasant by the many friendly, helpful and kind people me met along the way.  We had many positive interactions with the many people we met and not really any experiences that could be called negative.  Chongqing isn't a major tourist destination at this time (at least for non-Chinese), and that is both positive and negative.  There's no doubt that knowing at least a little Mandarin Chinese will help out a lot.  A great place to do that is  Thirty-one free lessons with sound files to help with pronunciation.  It's great for beginners or people who know a bit of Chinese and would like to brush up on it.

Many sites talking about travel in Chongqing stated that 2-3 days were enough time to "see the city".  I don't agree, even if your plans are to be fully occupied while you're there.  But then again I like to spend plenty of time exploring places on foot and observe the details that others might not consider very important.  In the final analysis, my wife and I both agreed that Chongqing is a city worth visiting.