Lined with skyscrapers, upscale dining options and big-name boutiques, Jiefangbei Square (above) is just as swanky as its foreign counterpart, New York’s Times Square. Across town, the People’s Square area commemorates both communism and the Three Gorges Dam, one of the key projects behind China’s great leap forward from it; it is home to the Deng Xiaoping-era Chongqing Great Hall of the People and the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum, which pays homage to the sacrifices made in the name of national progress.
Chongqing’s cityscape is mesmerising at ground level, but to get a true idea of what an urban area with a population of 36 million looks like, hike up Nanshan Mountain to its observation tower and take in the panoramic views (below). Or, head to the Yangtze River Cableway and hop into a cable car; the views afforded are still stunning, albeit not as sweeping, and it is easier to access, with the station a short 10-minute walk from Jiefangbei. Visiting around sunset guarantees the best views but also massive crowds.
For those who like it more rustic, take even a few steps off the beaten tourist track and you’ll be rewarded with scenes that are nothing if not authentic. Skip the cab and take a walk between Jiefangbei and People’s Square for a taste of the city’s sylvan charm. The winding road lined with old men playing mah-jong, migrant farmers hauling fresh oranges and loquats, and schoolchildren skipping beneath drooping bougainvillea vines will leave a different – welcome – aftertaste for weary city-ites.
Chongqing’s past as a Sichuan province municipality still shows in its food scene, where Sichuan cuisine, and the Sichuan peppercorn in particular, looms large. The most celebrated way to taste the numbing pepper is to indulge in Chongqing hot pot, known as ‘huo guo’ in Chinese. Try Chongqing Cygnet (Level 6 Yingli International Financial Mansion, 40 Minquan Rd), conveniently located near Jiefangbei. Alternatively, join the locals at a random noodle shop and order a bowl of ma la chao shou – pork dumplings in spicy soup (above) – or sample Chongqing-style dim sum at Xiao Bin Lou (Level 4 Riyueguang Center Plaza, 89 Minquan Rd), also near Jiefangbei.
Despite its shiny façade, Chongqing brims with history. A walk around Ciqikou (the ‘Porcelain Port’ in English), an ancient town perched on a hill overlooking the Jialing River in the Shapingba district, will reveal serpentine alleyways with a comparable number of cafes, craft shops, and Ming-era pagodas and temples. After nightfall, head to Hongyadong (aka Hongya Cave), a hillside district at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers. There, you’ll find Bayu-style stilt houses and buildings – such as a stunning 11-storey complex that glitters like gold in the darkness – that call to mind both its two millennia of history and the contemporary spoils – think frozen-yogurt shops and upscale watering holes – of its present riches.
– TEXT BY ROBERT SCHRADER
PHOTOS: ROBERT SCHRADER, ALAMY (CLICK PHOTOS)
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.