If you haven’t heard about Chongqing yet, chances are you soon will. It’s the fastest-growing city in China, thanks largely to a focused effort by the Chinese government to create an affluent metropolis that can rival Beijing and Shanghai in social and economic stature. To show off what it has constructed, the government is enticing tourists to the region. The number of visitors to Chongqing grew by 14 per cent in 2017, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, and the destination is being promoted heavily domestically and abroad.
The reasons for boosting Chongqing are varied and deep. Before the Communist Revolution, Chongqing (pronounced Chong-ching) was the seat of government under dictator Chiang Kai-shek, the notorious general who warred with Japan and whose government was blamed for the deaths of millions of its own people, and the starvation of millions more. Chongqing was the target of Japanese bombs during World War II and also the focal point of the Communist coup that sent Chiang to exile in Taiwan.
Despite its tumultuous past, Chongqing’s heritage as the capital of the Republic of China remains important to the nation. So much so that the current leadership has created a fabricated tourist experience devoted to the general’s era.
Set in the 1940s, Liangjiang International Movie City, as the attraction is dubbed, has recreated the streets of Chongqing as they would have looked before Japanese attacks destroyed them. The more than 220 buildings of Movie City include a boutique hotel, fashion stores, a theatre, cafes, bars, and souvenir shops. Among the highlights to this attraction — and all of China, in fact — is a traditional meal served at Yida Hot Pot. Guests enter the restaurant by walking beneath a huge ornamental golden dragon and into a bustling multi-story eatery filled with tables made for communal dining.
Chongqing is the home of hot pot and the meal at Yida was far better than any similar meal I’ve experienced in North America. The name “hot pot” refers to the bowl of burbling pork broth into which diners submerge portions of meat, fish, shellfish, and vegetables. At Yida, a second pot of liquid contains a wickedly spicy broth full of chilis. The options to dip into it included cuttlefish, shrimp dumplings, whitefish, chicken feet, cow’s stomach, sliced beef, and other fare that was customary to the region. It was a feast and the kind of cultural food journey culinary travelers crave.
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Hot pot was invented in Chongqing. At Yida Hot Pot House in Liangjiang’s “Movie City” it is an incredible feast of flavours. You and your friends cook your food at the table by putting raw ingredients into a boiling pork broth or a spicy chilli broth. Best hot pot I’ve ever had! #chongqing #china #threegorges #hotpot #food #culinary #asia #travel #dining
Once sated, Movie City continues to charm. A large staircase leads from the six blocks of the town that wouldn’t look out of place on a Universal Studios site to a picturesque riverside that features moored sampans (flat-bottomed riverboats), a pagoda, and a lovely pedestrian bridge. Back in the main section of Movie City, actors can be seen in period costume — including men dressed as Chiang and his rival, Mao Zedong. They sing anthems and parade through the streets in performances that are surprisingly, and refreshingly, campy.
Movie City debuted in 2016 with the intention to attract filmmakers as well as tourists. It is accomplishing both goals, bringing tourism revenue and awareness of the excitement growing in Chongqing.
This “next” city for the world’s most populous nation began growing in 1997 when the government removed it from Sichuan province to make it the heart of a new megalopolis. The urban area of Chongqing has a population of about 8 million while the broader municipality — China’s largest — has an additional 25 million people. These 33 million citizens live within Chongqing’s 38 districts that are spread across 32,000 square miles (82,000 square kilometres) — or roughly the size of Austria.
An industrial free-trade zone, similar to the one in Shanghai, allows manufacturers in Chongqing to avoid duties on raw and finished products exported to the rest of the world. So much computer manufacturing takes place in Chongqing that it produces more than one-third of the 250 million laptops built globally each year. In less than 20 years, the main urban area has blossomed from rice fields and dilapidated houses to a gotham with a skyline similar to Manhattan. Yet, several of the skyscrapers along the Yangtze River are under-occupied, and infamously so, proving to critics that the government’s fervor to establish Chongqing as a mighty mega-city is more glass-and-mirrors than substance.
There’s an energy here, though. One that is filled with the kind of zeal and hope that prosperity brings. The make-work projects that built Chongqing have increased wealth in the region, allowing more fathers and mothers to stay close to home rather than relocate to Shanghai or Beijing for employment.
Now, with tourists visiting, attractions and transpiration are improving. Along with Movie City, activities include a ride on the Yangtze River Cableway, which runs 3,825 feet (1,166 meters) over the waterway and is the only such transportation in the country. It was renovated in 2014 and now takes more than 3 million people a year on scenic cable-car trips across the river (a one-way fare costs less than $3 USD).
In the heart of the urban center is the People’s Great Hall of Chongqing, which is similar in style to the much-photographed Temple of Heaven in Beijing. It’s on one end of People’s Square, a large and attractive public gathering place. On the opposite side is the Three Gorges Museum, which features artifacts and exhibits related to the epic and controversial hydro-electric project that is the world’s largest power station.
The Three Gorges Dam project displaced 1.3 million people, and also spurred the formation of the Chongqing municipality and investment into the area. The museum recounts the feat of engineering as well as the long history of human activity in the region. Not far away is the dockside where cruise tourists can board boats for sailings down the Yangtze River and to the Three Gorges Dam itself. It’s one way to see the vast municipality of Chongqing, whose name means “double happiness”. It’s a fitting description for a region of China that seems determined to reclaim the spirit of its golden age.
MORE ABOUT VISITING CHONGQING
Getting There: Direct flights to Chongqing from North America are sparse, but they are available from west-coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Flights connecting from Beijing or Shanghai take about 2.5 hours to reach Chongqing. Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport is modern and easy to navigate. A train line connects travellers to Chongqing’s urban core.
Language: In the urban core, you will find many English speakers, but knowing some Mandarin phrases will help make your travels much easier. Road signs are in Mandarin and English. Not all restaurants have English menus, so you may want to scout out the places you plan on dining before your visit or ask your hotel concierge.
Currency: Americans enjoy a favorable exchange rate with China’s yuan (Remnibi); $1 USD is roughly equal to 7 CN¥.
Visas: Americans and Canadians need a visa to enter China for longer than three days. I recommend travelers hire an agent who can help secure the visa from the nearest Chinese Embassy or Consulate General. Since 2013, China has offered a 72-hour visa-free transit option that allows air passengers from 53 countries, including Canada and the United States, to transit and stay for up to 72 hours in 18 cities, including Chongqing. Travelers looking to take advantage of the 72-hour visa-free option must have their departing flight booked before entering China.