Explore Sichuan and Chongqing
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.Read More
DAZU (大足, dàzú) is a small, quiet place whose centre forms a 700m-wide rectangle along the north bank of the mild Laixi River. The east side of the rectangle is Longzhong Lu, the north side Beihuan Zhong Lu, and the west side Bei Jie. Buses from Dazu’s station leave twice an hour until around 4pm and take thirty minutes for the 16km run to the most notable sculptures are at Baoding Shan (宝顶山, băodĭng shān), 16km to the northeast. The project was the life work of the monk Zhao Zhifeng, who raised the money and designed and oversaw the carving between 1179 and 1245, explaining the unusually cohesive nature of the ten thousand images depicted here. What makes these carvings so special is not their scale – they cover very small areas compared with better-known sites at Luoyang or Dunhuang – but their quality, state of preservation, and variety of subject and style. Some are small, others huge, many are brightly painted and form comic-strip-like narratives, their characters portraying religious, moral and historical tales. While most are set fairly deeply into rockfaces or are protected by galleries, all can be viewed in natural light, and are connected by walkways and paths.
The Yangzi River
The Yangzi River
Chongqing is the departure point for the two-day cruise downriver through the Three Gorges to Yichang. There are two main cruise options, both of which run year-round: relatively inexpensive public ferries, which stop along the way to pick up passengers; and upmarket cruise ships, which only stop at tour sites. Alternatively, you could travel in style on a cruise ship. These vessels verge on five-star luxury, with comfortable cabins, glassed-in observation decks, games rooms and real restaurants. They’re usually booked out by tour parties during peak season, though at other times you can often wrangle discounts and get a berth at short notice.
Rising in the mountains above Tibet, the Yangzi links together seven provinces as it sweeps 6400km across the country to spill its muddy waters into the East China Sea, making it the third-longest flow in the world. Appropriately, one of the Yangzi’s Chinese names is Chang Jiang, the Long River, though above Yibin it’s generally known as Jinsha Jiang (River of Golden Sands).
Although people have travelled along the Yangzi since recorded history, it was not, until recently, an easy route into Sichuan. The river’s most dangerous stretch was the 200km-long Three Gorges (三峡, sānxiá) where the waters were squeezed between vertical limestone cliffs over fierce rapids, spread between Baidicheng and Yichang in Hubei province. Well into the twentieth century, nobody could negotiate this stretch of river alone; steamers couldn’t pass at all, and small boats had to be hauled literally bit by bit through the rapids by teams of trackers, in a journey that could take several weeks, if the boat made it at all.
All this is very much academic today, however, as the new Three Gorges Dam above Yichang has raised water levels through the gorges by up to 175m, effectively turning the Chongqing–Yichang stretch into a huge lake and allowing public ferries and cruise boats easy access to the scenery. While rising waters have submerged some of the landscape – not to mention entire towns – many settlements have been rebuilt on higher ground, and many historical sites have been relocated or preserved one way or the other.