By some counts the largest city on earth, Chongqing is still mostly unknown in the west. Lying at the confluence of the Jialing and the Yangtze Rivers, Chongqing is also known as the “mountain city” due to the steep hills found throughout—unlike the rest of China, you will not find any bicycles here. The few tourists who make it to the area, do so mainly to embark on a cruise down the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges area, but if they spend a bit of time exploring and they manage to look past the grittiness and pollution, they will find a fascinating and entirely unique city. They will also get the leg workout of their lives on the hilly streets. If you like, you can read about my visit to Chongqing.
Best Time to Go
Chongqing does not have a pleasant climate. It is known as one of China’s “Three Furnaces” and is famous for very hot and humid summers, but the humidity sticks around most of the year. Winters are mild and don’t last long, but they’re damp and you’ll rarely see the sun. In fact, you won’t see the sun much at any time of the year. Chongqing is also known as “Fog City” and has one of China’s lowest sunshine totals annually. On top of that, it has been ranked as one of the world’s most polluted cities.
Getting to Chongqing
Chongqing’s airport is located about 20 km outside town. A taxi will cost you up to 80 RMB, but there’s no need. Metro Line 3 (the monorail) connects the airport to the city center and several bus lines will take you to various parts of town as well.
Chongqing has three train stations, with most trains arriving at either Chongqing Station or Chongqing North Station. Both are connected to the Chongqing Metro system. The West Station also has a metro connection, but you it is unlikely you’ll arrive here, as it mainly serves local destinations.
Chongqing has seven major bus stations, but quite a few more minor ones. All are connected to the city bus system, but not the metro. If you are arriving in Chongqing by bus, make sure to find out which station you will arrive at when you buy the ticket.
If you are arriving from, or planning on heading to, nearby Chengdu, you don’t need to worry about booking bus or train tickets in advance. Both buses and trains leave all day long and you can generally show up at the station and be on a bus or train within 30 minutes. The T88xx Express Trains are the best choice between the two cities, costing 87 Yuan and taking 2.5 hours.
Chongqing’s rapid transit system, consisting of subway and monorail lines, is the best way to get around the city. For destinations not yet connected to the metro, you’ll have to take the bus. Signs are not in English, so find out the correct bus numbers from your hotel or ask at the bus stop. Chances are you’ll find someone who speaks English. If you don’t mind paying a bit more, taxis in Chongqing are still fairly cheap, starting around 8 Yuan. It can be hard to find one on a hot day though.
Chongqing has a ton of accommodation options and none of them are ever really full. Unfortunately, very few of those options lie in the budget range, at least not the ones accepting foreign guests. Hostels that offer dorm beds are your best bet, but there are only a handful in the city. Yangtze River Youth Hostel is the best among them.
When I was in Chongqing, I stayed in an apartment near the North Railway Station. Just outside the station, you’ll find numerous older women running around with signs in Chinese that say Zhusu. These are rooms in an apartment. I ended up getting my own room with internet access for 50 RMB per night in an apartment complex with a pool (that was nice after a sweaty day of climbing Chongqing’s hills).
Unfortunately, it’s actually illegal for these women to accept foreign guests, so you’ll have to ask around a bit to find one that will risk it and they will only even consider if you know some Chinese or are traveling with someone who does—they need you to understand that you may have to disappear for a bit if an official comes by for an inspection. They wouldn’t get busted, but they’d have to pay a bribe fine.
UPDATE (March 2014): It seems there are now a number of apartment hotels open to foreigners. They cost a bit more than where I stayed, but most are still under $30. Sunroom Hotel Apartment is probably the best option. The location is great and it costs just under $20 per night.
Eating & Drinking
Chongqing has a lot of bars, but they are almost all geared toward locals, meaning they’re pretty terrible. There’s also always a danger of being scammed in many of these places. Most expats hang out at the Harp Irish Pub, making that your best bet to have a few beers, aside from restaurants.
The famous Sichuan hotpot actually originated in Chongqing where it used to be a cheap meal favored by dock workers. If you’re looking for the most authentic hotpots, this is the place to get them. Note that in China, authentic does not usually equal good.
The cuisine in Chongqing is basically the same as in Sichuan province, since it used to be a part of Sichuan. As such the food is generally quite spicy. If you don’t eat spicy food, I would recommend just eating something else, as taking the spice out of Sichuanese cuisine leaves you with a bland plate of oily food. Nevertheless, if you’d like to ask for your food to only be a little spicy, say “wei la”. Not spicy is “bu yao la.” And just in case, very spicy is “lao la.”
Avoid places aimed at tourists, as these will be overpriced and usually serve less authentic food. To save money and get the most authentic local food, eat at the smaller restaurants (they won’t have English menus). Western food in Chongqing is basically out of the question—you won’t find much and what you will find is horrible.
Chongqing is famous for organized crime, but as a tourist you won’t have any contact with that element. The biggest dangers to foreigners are the pollution and petty thieves who work the areas around the bus and train stations. Also beware of pickpockets on crowded buses; they will slash bags and pockets with razorblades.
Things to Do
- Chongqing Jiefangbei Pedestrian Street: a broad pedestrian square in the center of the city; good place to eat, although prices will be a bit higher, even for street food; you’ll see Chinese tourists lined up at the stalls selling meat on a stick
- Ciqikou (Chongqing Anceint Town): on Ci Tong Road, take buses 808 or 843; located on the banks of the Jialing River; mostly small shops selling touristy stuff, but otherwise very authentic and not reconstructed like most similar places in China (including HongYaDong in Chongqing)
- Chaotianmen: large public square at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers; go when it gets dark, as the night lights are pretty spectacular
- Yangtze River Cruise: Chongqing is the jumping off point for cruises down the Yangtze through the Three Gorges area and the new Three Gorges Damn; talk to your hotel staff about booking a cruise, if you haven’t booked in advance
- Tour Boat: a 1 hour trip on the Jialing and Yangtze Rivers costs ¥58-88; boats depart from the Chaotianmen dock; go when it gets dark to get a night view of Chongqing’s skyline
- Cable car ride: the cable car ride over the Yangtze River is apparently still in operation, while the Jialing River cable car is not (neither of them were running when I was there in August 2011); ¥5 one-way for the 5-minute cable-car trip; looks like you’d get a great view of the city
- Caiyuanba Escalator: a unique form of public transport, this escalator next to Chongqing Railway Station & Lianglukou Metro Station costs 2 RMB and saves a climb up steep steps from the station to Chang Jiang Yi Road; claims to be the longest single escalator in Asia
Money Saving Tips
- make use of the new rapid transit system whenever possible and use buses the rest of the time; the staff at your hotel will be happy to point you to the correct bus lines
- take local transport to outlying sights, rather than tours arranged by a hostel
- eat at local restaurants, which are numerous; don’t bother with western food here as it’s mostly just fast food anyway
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, author: Jonipoon.