Everest to Shenzhen
An overland journey from one side of China to the other
Part VII: Hot Pot and Hotsprings – 24 Hours in Chongqing, China
Chongqing is a huge city. Many in China claim it is the world’s largest city. If you count all of the rural areas inside the government’s administrative boundaries, they are right. The administrative area of Chongqing has an estimated population of just over 30 million. The urban area of Chongqing, however, has a population closer to 18 million making it China’s third largest city behind Shanghai and Beijing.
When you are in a taxi heading across a huge city, the difference between 30 million and 18 million feels largely academic. It took us more than an hour to get from the train station to our hotel in the Shapingba district on the city’s western edge. After two days on the train from Lhasa, we were ready for a shower and some real food.
Chongqing Hot Pot
We met up with a friend, Matt, in our Shapingba hotel who guided us to a bus to find some food at one of Matt’s his favorite hot-pot spots in Chongqing. Congqing is famous for its hot pot. Hot Pot is one of those foods with massive regional variation. In most places hot pot is prepared using a soupy stock. Customers order different meats and vegetables to cook in the stock – a bit like Fondu. In Chongqing, though, hot pot is prepared in a thick, spicy oil that is unique to Sichuan province.
We found the Yao Jie Hot Pot just off of a highway in an alleyway half hidden by the roadside foliage. Five tables sat on a cement pad under a tattered awning. A tiny, drab hut for food preparation adjoined the little patio. It looked like no one was around so Matt asked the neighbors if the restaurant would open. They replied that it opened in half an hour. We grabbed three plastic stools chose the table that looked cleanest and swatted at pesky flies as we chatted and waited for the restaurant to open.
Once the restaurant opened it didn’t take long for every table to fill up. A crowded restaurant is a good sign when it comes to food safety. We ordered our food and waited for the pot to heat up. Then I cooked and ate some of the oiliest and spiciest food I’ve ever tried. Mushrooms and meat and cabbage and greens – I tossed them into the bubbling, red oil waited a few minutes and then fished them out with chopsticks. By the time we finished our meal, sweat dripped down my forehead and I felt like I’d eaten a lead cannon ball. There is nothing like Chongqing Hot Pot.
Click here for more on what to eat in Chongqing from Travel China Guide.
A Roof With a View
We climbed the crumbling concrete steps to the top of Ping ding shan. My belly still rumbled and groaned under the weight of the spicy oil from the Hot Pot. A concrete building that looked like it was once a fancy restaurant perched on top of the mountain. In the parking lot, a woman on a scooter stopped and started in fits as she learned to ride a scooter. It seemed like the perfect place to learn to ride – quiet and mostly empty.
‘There used to be stairs here…’ Matt mused as he led us to one side of the building. Sure enough, a crumbling set of concrete stairs wound up to a rooftop courtyard area.
I could see how this spot might once have been a lovely scenic oasis. A handful of kite flyers stood placidly among the cracked and broken cement tiles to take advantage of the high-rise-free air currents. Young trees that once stood as green ornaments to a now forgotten dream stood brown and leafless in crumbling rooftop planters.
I stepped around a mound of human excrement to catch the view of the city. Tall housing developments stretched for as far as I could see in any direction. For a moment I felt like I was on top of one bar of the 3D bar graph – the ultimate ‘rugged-fitness-landscape.’ This is Chongqing! We watched the city until the sun dipped below the line of haze and then walked down the stairs to wait for our Uber.
Ciqikou Ancient Town
Our Uber dropped us by the gate leading into Ciqikou Ancient Town. Ciqikou is a big draw for both local and foreign tourists in Chongqing. Cobbled pedestrian streets and low houses line the two narrow streets that play host to a variety of souvenir shops.
We wandered the dark, crowded streets. From time to time we stopped in a shop to admire some hand-carved wood sculptures or machine-made scarves. One shop sold cheap, sweat-shop souvenirs piled high in baskets, the next sold fine silk scarves. Ancient towns like this one are really commercial tourism zones. Everything is a souvenir and very little is authentic to culture or place. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t fun to mingle with the mostly Chinese crowds and wander the narrow streets.
As we wandered the cobbled streets, I spied the most unique cotton candy I’ve ever seen – spun to resemble an ornate flower. We chose a design, picked some colors, and watched as a candy-floss artist crafted a bright flower out of spun sugar. After some photographs, we dug into the sugary sweetness. It didn’t take long to destroy the masterpiece one bite at a time.
How to get there: There is a Ciqikou stop on line 1 of of the CRT (Chongqing Rail Transit) or you can take a taxi (name in Chinese: 磁器口).
We chose our hotel in Shapingba because of it’s proximity to the Ronghui hot springs. The city of Chongqing has long been known for its thermal waters. In fact, some credit Jinyun Shan “North Hot Springs” as the birthplace of hot springs in China. Chongqing is home to the South hot springs, Xiang Hai hot springs (香海温泉), Tongjing hot springs(统景温泉), and several hot spring resorts including Banyan Tree, and Tianci hot springs.
Ronghui ( 融汇温泉) is one of Chongqing’s finest hot spring resorts. Dozens of infused pools at various temperatures dot the hillside. Each pool has a placard explaining the herbal properties and the temperature. The complex also has a play area for children (though it was closed for renovation when we were there in June, 2016) and several small waterslides.
When we arrived we were given plastic bracelets to record any purchases, and were shown to the locker room where we rinsed off, changed into our bathing suits, stashed our things, and set out to relax in the aromatic thermal waters. Lavender, Lemon Grass, Aloa, Ginger, Red Wine, Rice Wine, hot plunge pools…steam rooms, we tried them all.
I stood alone by the abandoned trolley car on the quay at the heart of Chongqing. Tall glass buildings stretched above me, many still adorned by yellow and orange construction cranes. I left my friends at the Ronghui Hot Springs because he next leg of my journey is solo. Tonight I sail down the Yangtze River.