A mountain metropolis

TUESDAY, MAY 29, 2012

It's the fastest-growing city in the world, but Chongqing still has plenty of old-world charm

Located on the northern edge of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau in China’s southwest, near where the mighty Yangtze converges with the smaller Jialing River, the ancient city of Chongqing or Chungking has had many different names during its 3,000 year history. It received its current name in 1189, after Prince Zhao Dun of the Southern Song Dynasty described his crowning as king and then Emperor Guangzong as a “Shuangchong Ciqing” or “double celebration”.

Chongqing was historically and culturally part of southeast Sichuan until the central government made it one of the four municipalities in China. The other three are Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin. 
Nestled in the mountains with blanketed by fog for at least half the year, the city has often been dubbed “Mountainous City” and the “Foggy City” and the only difference from ancient times is that today the fog, mixed with smog, veils the tops of the skyscrapers.
In Chongqing everything is either going up or coming down. Roads suddenly disappear into tunnels or shift to overpasses. The first floor of the building you see from the street may actually be the third floor when you get inside the building.
On the surface Chongqing, with more than 32 million people, appears rough and a bit grungy but become one with the crowd on the street, sample the spicy Sichuan peppercorn hot pot (má là hot pot) from a street stall, and the true character of the city is gradually revealed. 
Dwarfed by the skyscrapers, the old-style markets in many alleys still have a buzz. Here, people bargaining in Sichuan dialect, groups of students enjoy breakfast before running off to school, mothers carry their babies in baskets on their backs and porters with bamboo poles earn their living by carrying heavy stuff for those who are willing to pay for the service.
Huguang Guild Hall is the place to dig deeper into the history of the city. Located at East Shuimen Street, Huguang Guild Hall was first built for the immigrants in the Qing Dynasty. At that time, the population in Sichuan had declined dramatically thus the rulers ordered people from the Hu (Hunan, Hubei) and Guang (Guangdong, Guangxi) areas to move to Sichuan to cultivate the land. That policy was called the Huguang Filling of Sichuan Movement, from which the name Huguang is originated. 
The elegant complex consists of a number of meeting rooms, courtyards, gardens, traditional theatres and rooms. A part of the compound is now a museum dedicated to the history of Chongqing’s immigrants.
One building is dedicated to Emperor Yu, who was known throughout the country as “Yu The Great controls the waters” (Dà Yu Zhì Shui) for his work in fighting the great floods of  ancient times. Da Yu successfully subdued floods through river dredging rather than blocking and damming.
“Da Yu was so dedicated to his work that in more than a decade of flood control, he passed his home several times without entering it. Hence the Chinese saying, ‘three times he passed the door of his house without going in’,” explains Somchai, our Chinese guide who likes to use a Thai nickname.
A drive three hours west of Chongqing city  takes us to the Dazu Rock Carvings. Influenced by Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist beliefs, these spectacular carvings date from the 9th to the 13th centuries and are listed as an Unesco World Heritage Site. More than 50,000 grotto statues and over 100,000 characters of inscriptions have been preserved and are connected by walkways and paths. The carvings depict both religious and everyday secular motifs. They provide remarkable evidence of the harmonious synthesis of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
The most remarkable carvings are at Baoding Shan and are the life work of the monk Zhao Zhifeng, who raised the money and designed the carving work between 1179 and 1245. 
The Cave of Full Enlightenment shows the artist’s talent in ornamenting, draining and lighting. The pathway from the entrance with stone lion-guarded is quite dark but once in the grotto, a Vairocana triad (Shakyamuni,Vairocana, Amitabha) at the rear wall with a kneeling Bodhisattva beam in the soft light that passes through the duct. Twelve Bodhisattvas line up six on a side of a triad and above them a carving of a dragon serves as a channel to carry off rainwater to the gutter on the ground. 
Another scenic spot in Chongqing is the Three Natural Bridges (Tiansheng San Qiáo)) in Wulong County, three hours drive southeast of Chongqing City. It is a part of the South China Karst-Wulong Karst Unesco World Heritage Site. The bridges are all named after dragons, namely the Sky Dragon (Tianlóng), Azure Dragon (Qinglóng) and Black Dragon (Heilóng) bridges.
Looking down from the path leading to a passage between Sky Dragon Bridge and Azure Dragon Bridge, my eyes come to rest on an ancient Tang dynasty inn sitting gracefully between the limestone cliffs. 
Somchai follows my gaze. “There was an inn there in ancient times but fell into ruins. The one you see is the product of Zhang Yimou, the world famous Chinese film director. His team built the inn to film a fighting scene in ‘Curse of the Golden Flower’, which stars Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li and Jay Chou,” said Somchai.
A place where man-made artistry truly complements the natural wonders of the world is rare to find but this is a fine example. The sight of a graceful yet humble inn, surrounded by the natural beauty of wonderful arches and high mountains, explains the philosophy behind living harmoniously with nature.
The writer travelled as a guest of Thai AirAsia and Chongqing Municipal Government.
      If you go
Thai AirAsia flies daily from Bangkok to Chongqing. Visit www.AirAsia.com/th.