The Scene: Administratively independent Chongqing, formerly of Sichuan province, is probably Asia’s largest, most significant city that no one has ever heard of. A smoggy (locals will claim ‘foggy’) collection of concrete, steel and glass rising sharply at a million angles over a landscape of steep hills, valleys and meandering rivers, its our favorite Chinese metropolis, as it slowly reveals itself one climb, view and spice-ladened bowl at a time. For the Chinese throughout the mainland, Chongqing means one thing: red, face-numbing, widow-making spicy dishes.
Although it is associated with Sichuan Province, it is one of the four independent municipalities in China (along with Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin). A quick overview: two great rivers converge into one here. The roadways have numerous tunnels. The ‘what-the-hell is that‘ local cuisine is like a battle each time. You can expect to bed with sore legs and a numb tongue. The endless red lights of the streets burn an unforgettable haze in the pollution (locals call it ‘fog’).
First-time visitors are often turned off by Chongqing’s grimy, serpentine disorientation. On the contoured surface, it may appear that there is not much to see here. It’s true that Chongqing is a city of character, not attractions. And, like the rolling landscape, Chongqing’s character is best described as ‘undulating’. It takes a little bit of time and effort to appreciate this town. But once you’ve sweated over your first peppery hot pot on Nanbin Lu, with the city’s impressive skyline glowing behind you, you may be tempted to roll up your shirt (local style), expose your belly, and dig in your feet a bit. In terms of otherness, this place never ceases to amaze.
If we had to give Chongqing an American brother or sister, we’d have to pair Chongqing with Pittsburgh. They are both built inland on curvy landscapes at the confluence of three rivers. Both are a bit sooty and working-class. Both are centers of steel production. Both offer wonderful cultural institutions and tight-knit, friendly neighborhoods. If you can believe it, “Chong” is Chinese for “Pitts” (possibly, I’m not sure yet).
Many travelers will suggest you skip over Chongqing for the more comfortable and touristic Chengdu. We like Chengdu, too, but prefer Chongqing due to its unpredictable physical and epicurean contours.
Chongqing is located right smack in the center of China’s national infrastructure. Like most huge Chinese cities, arriving can be disorienting. In addition to the airport, there are three train stations and two main bus stations.
The airport is about 20km from the city center. While international, it’s not yet a hub like Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. Expansion is currently underway but the airport is still fairly underdeveloped. While there are international flights, they tend to be more expensive and less frequent, so most travelers get to Chongqing by train or bus.
Chongqing Station: the oldest and most near the center, handling slower trains from outlaying major cities.
Chongqing North: this handles high-speed trains to Chengdu.
Chongqing West Station: infrequent, slower regional trains.
There are two bus stations for non-local trips:
Chaotianmen Station: handles buses that are going in the East direction towards Wuhan.
Chen Jiaping Station: handles buses going west, particularly towards points in Sichuan such as Chengdu.
Visitors to China will need some kind of visa. These are available in your home countries, or in Hong Kong, where many roaming travelers re-up their China visa.
Americans can now get a 10-year, 60-day per visit, multiple-entry tourist visa. This is a game-changer and if you fall in love with China this will be the gift that keeps on giving.
Chongqing has a plethoria of the typical somewhat grim ‘business hotels’ that will offer little English help and offer few amenities other than a fairly-comfortable room. These begin around ¥150 and get the job done. Mid-range hotels are much more accommodating and generally fall in the ¥300 – 400 range. Still, little English may be spoken and these are not really geared towards tourism, especially from international visitors.
Since Chongqing is not a super touristic city, we recommend one of the youth hostels located throughout the city. Remember, you don’t have to be a young dirty hippie to enjoy youth hostels in China. These places offer private rooms that, though small and non-luxurious, are clean and efficient. More importantly, the staff speak English and can help you with (honest) advice on how to enjoy the city and the region. Youth hostels in China are the best base from which to explore any Chinese city and meet other travelers that offer up-to-date advice on the China experience.
Like most cities in China, you can spend a lot or spend a little, depending on your budget/desires. The basic costs are low; very low. Street food here is very cheap, plentiful and exciting. The buses and subway are cheap and efficient, but do take some time to navigate (your hostel can help you with this). Things like bottled water, snacks, sundries are very inexpensive and available on every corner.
However, if money is not an issue, you can splurge in the city’s nightclub (pub) district, on glamorous restaurants or in the shopping centers located in the heart of Chongqing.
Bottled water (500ml): ¥2
Street noodles ¥4-8
Taxi: ¥10 + ¥2 / km
Beer in a nightclub / pub: ¥40
Leather belt in a shopping mall: ¥800
Changing money in China is not as easy as in other Asian countries. You must go to a bank where you see this ‘Foreign Exchange” sign:
Oh, and bring your passport to the bank. Also, expect to wait a very long time, even once you’re at the window. It’s inexplicable, but inevitable.
The best place to change currencies is the Bank of China, as they accept Taiwan dollars and other less common currencies. Bank of China is the only bank licensed to exchange travelers checks as well. They charge a reasonable 1% fee for travelers checks. Five-star hotels will cash your travelers checks only if you are an overnight paid resident.
Cable cars make our palms sweaty and Chongqing’s cable car that transports passengers over the Yangtze is no different. From the northern side of the river, you can walk the riverfront green spaces and take in the city’s skyline. The ride costs ¥10 each way and takes about five minutes in either direction.
Chongqing’s intercity train system has come a long way since it’s inception in 2005 as a limited monorail. Today it connects the airport and many of the city’s worthwhile attractions at an efficient low cost. Currently, there are four lines with more in progress.
City buses are cheap and plentiful, but difficult to navigate without Chinese abilities. The writing is in Chinese and driver is too busy to help you out, most likely. If you can save your destination in (Chinese) writing or on your phone (in Chinese), someone may be able to help you hop off at the proper place. If not, just enjoy the ride and see where you end up. There’s usually a hot pot at the end of the rainbow anyway.
Cheap by international standards (¥10 flagfall + ¥2/km). Due to Chongqing’s hairball layout, it’s easy for taxi drivers to cheat you and drive you around the long way to your destination and rack up a higher fare. Don’t smile foolishly when you get in the cab and try to keep your eye in the game from the backseat and consider public transit or walking if you find getting ripped off is frustrating.
Despite the intimidating topography, Chongqing is a great city for walking or meandering to your destination. Bring along a map and a sweat rag in the summertime. Spend a week on foot here and your butt will reward you with a little extra definition.
Like Hong Kong, Chongqing boasts an escalator that is an attraction in itself. The Caiyuanba Escalator (¥2) near the Chongqing Central Rail Station claims to be the longest in the world (this is a bit like having the world’s best pancakes).
Traveling in China has its difficulties and buying a SIM card is one of them. Many informal sellers will lie about the price and the value of the SIM. Many international phones will not accept Chinese SIMs. In general, an empty card should cost around ¥50 and a card with some data should be around ¥120. We would recommend taking your phone to one of the large “official” shops of Unicom, ChinaMobile, etc. You’re less likely to be lied to, but it’s still difficult to gauge how well the card will function with your phone.
Many long-term travelers or expats in China just shell out the $100+ (¥650+) for a decent Chinese phone, which work quickly with Chinese SIM cards. You may want to consider this, as Chinese phones can be of excellent value.
You’ll need a phone # to gain an access code to WeChat, a chat app that China practically runs on at this point.
Chongqing has always been a tea town and the tiny teahouses that can be found in the nooks and crannies of each district are still today filled with chatty locals sipping tea through a covered bowl or cup. The hot summer climate and soggy winter climate of Chongqing makes it a perfect place to slurp back some tea. The sloped streets and stairways of the city can wear you down and make you parched for a cup of something wet. Tea houses, both formal and informal, are found throughout the city.
The ancient gate of Tongyuanmen is a great place to experience a tea house. Be careful with price in these places and make sure you’ve got it in writing before drinking. It should cost about ¥20 – 25 in general for a little pot. Business hours usually range from 9:00am to 7:00pm.
Like many western traditions, coffee has been taking off in China steadily over the past fifteen years or so. Unfortunately, it’s still overpriced and underwhelming, especially when compared to the tea experience. In general, coffee in Chongqing tends to be a bit watered down and sweetened for local tastes.
For an awesome view and consistent wifi, check out the Chengshi Yangtai Branch of Starbucks (don’t roll your eyes) overlooking the Yangtze. Just jump behind all the students taking selfies and be broadcast live throughout China for some good giggles.
Many cafes in Chongqing also double as restaurants, serving up mediocre food at a relatively high price.
If you like face-numbing, tearjerking spiciness like we do, you’ve come to the right place. This is your Mecca. Be humble or be humbled. Take off your shirt, pop a cold beer and take the journey. You didn’t come to Chongqing to play paddycake, did you?
Chongqing’s most famous export. There are three basic kinds of soup:
Spicy (hong tang)
Non-spicy bone soup (yuan wei)
Yin yang (both soups segregated in the same pot)
What you decide to put into these soups is up to you, but often includes the unusual things such as duck intestine and pig brain to the more common slices of beef and pork, along with vegetables, noodles and tofu. If your Chinese is limited, it’s best (and most fun) for communication purposes to hook up with a local for the hot pot experience to make sure the staff don’t end up boiling your friend’s arm. To mitigate the feeling of Satan mercilessly drilling your face, you can order a nice cup of peanut milk.
Thousands of hot pot restaurants abound. Our favorite easy-to-find hot pot, and a great value, is Jiyi Lao Huoguo 记忆老火锅 in the Shapingba District near Chongqing University.
Chongqing’s little noodle dishes (considered a snack here) are greatly underrated and often include local chilis and peppers, plus peanuts, green onion and high amounts of salt (which satisfies greatly in the hot summers). Try the cold noodles as well. Many of these noodle shops will also serve up delicious Sichuan dumplings for about ¥4.
As in the rest of China, do your homework before making big purchases. With increasing amounts of cash shooting around town raising prices, it’s easy to be duped into buying fake “antiques” or “gems” injected with artificial dyes.
Typical gifts from Chongqing include the usual dried meats, but for the real deal try to get something that includes the numbing peppers, such as Sichuan spicy peanuts.Bill