Based around a hilly, comma-shaped peninsula at the junction of the Yangzi and Jialing rivers, CHONGQING (重庆, chóngqìng) is southwestern China’s dynamo, its largest city both in scale and population. Formerly part of Sichuan province and now the heavily industrialized core of Chongqing Municipality, which stretches 300km east to the Hubei border, the city is also a busy port, whose location 2400km upstream from Shanghai at the gateway between eastern and southwestern China has given Chongqing an enviable commercial acumen. While it’s not such a bad spot to spend a day or two while arranging Yangzi River cruises, in many other respects the Mountain City (as locals refer to it) has little appeal. Overcrowded and fast-paced, the city is plagued by oppressive pollution, winter fogs and summer humidity. Nor is there much to illustrate Chongqing’s history – as China’s wartime capital, it was heavily bombed by the Japanese – though the nearby village of Ciqi Kou retains a glimmer of Qing times.
Chongqing has been settled since around 1000 BC, with its current name, meaning “Double Celebration”, bestowed by former resident Zhaodun on his becoming emperor in 1189. The city has a long tradition as a place of defiance against hostile powers, despite being ceded as a nineteenth-century treaty port to Britain and Japan. From 1242, Song forces held Mongol invaders at bay for 36 years at nearby Hechuan, during the longest continuous campaign on Chinese soil, and it was to Chongqing that the Guomindang government withdrew in 1937, having been driven out of Nanjing by the Japanese. The US military also had a toehold here under General Stilwell, who worked alongside the Nationalists until falling out with Chiang Kai-shek in 1944. Though still showing a few wartime scars, since the 1990s Chongqing has boomed; now over two million people rub elbows on the peninsula, with five times that number in the ever-expanding mantle of suburbs and industrial developments spreading away from the river.
During its Qing-dynasty heyday, the peninsula was Chongqing, an enormously rich port with mighty walls, temples, pagodas and public buildings. Not much of these times survive, largely thanks to Japanese saturation bombing during WWII, and the peninsula as a whole is shambolic – most development seems to be targeting Chongqing’s newer, western suburbs – though it’s being modernized to resemble a miniature Hong Kong, complete with skyscrapers, hills and a profit-hungry populace.
About 100km west of Chongqing, Dazu is the base for viewing some fifty thousand Tang and Song dynasty Buddhist cliff sculptures, which are carved into caves and overhangs in the surrounding lush green hills. Chongqing is also the departure point for the two-day cruise downriver through the Three Gorges to Yichang.