MATHEWS KABAMBA, Chongqing, China
CHONGQING city is not among the most famed of China’s cities like Beijing, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shanghai, and when it was listed on our group itinerary, I did not know what to expect.
I arrived in China’s capital, Beijing, on November 12 as part of a 22-member team of media personnel from Zambia for a media seminar, which included learning about the Asian country’s culture and history.
After spending two weeks in Beijing, wowed by its infrastructure and technology, it was time to fly to little-publicised Chongqing city.
Lying south-west of Beijing, Chongqing is one of four municipalities administered directly by the central government. Others are Shanghai, Tianjin and of course Beijing.
The city, which has a population of 30 million, sits at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers and was an important trading route in the past.
After a two-and-half hours flight from Beijing, we arrived at Chongqing International Airport and were greeted by humid air, a relief from the chilly weather we had endured in Beijing.
A drive through the city revealed that Chongqing seemingly has an equal share when it comes to skyscrapers compared to Beijing.
In some cases, mountains firmly anchor tall buildings in a manner that seems precarious. And here, railroads and motorways do not snake around mountains, they run through them.
Yes, Chongqing is a city of road tunnels, some as long as four kilometres.
The infrastructure in this city is an engineering marvel, with trains that pass right through tall buildings.
Chongqing has a complex network of ring roads, bridges and rail lines. Thankfully I did not have to drive and find my way around the city.
There are so many ways to describe Chongqing.
Its mountainous landscape has given it the name ‘Mountain City’, while others call it the ‘Fog City’ because of the fog that usually engulfs the city.
But Chongqing is also famous for three “hots”, one tour guide told us.
“It is known for the hot pot, hot weather and hot girls,” she said.
The hot pot refers to a particular spicy dish prepared and served from a hot pot, which is famous among the residents.
We stayed at the four-star Plaza Hotel, which turned out to be a perfect spot to appreciate the sights, sounds and smells of Chongqing.
There are many restaurants on the narrow streets around the hotel, each, it seemed, serving a different dish from the next.
One little restaurant next to the Plaza Hotel served nothing but noodles, and at lunchtime, people sat on small stools on the pavement tucking into their small bowls with chopsticks.
And there was one restaurant a few blocks away that only served duck.
About 300 metres from the hotel was a public square sandwiched between the imposing Three Gorges Museum and the magnificent Great Hall of the People – a dome-shaped building painted in emerald-green.
At any particular time of the day, there were crowds on the square – elderly women exercising and young women taking selfies against the huge dome.
A group of elderly men usually played a board game under a tree.
Walking dogs is also a common pastime in Chongqing. Some of the dogs were dressed in fancy outfits.
Unlike Beijing, Chongqing has a human face – friendly, enchanting and welcoming.
The Three Gorges Museum is named after the Three Gorges Dam.
Sitting on 30,000 square metres of land, the museum is a masterpiece boasting of a series of exhibition halls which attract over 1.7 million visitors annually.
Typical of Chinese people, their history is well documented and this museum serves as one of the many locker rooms for relics from the past.
There are several collections to appreciate at the museum, among them bronze ware from the Ba and Shu states period to some human fossils.
Other marvels in this museum are sculptures from the Han dynasty, including porcelain ware.
Drive 80 kilometres to Dazu district and you find the Buddha ‘country’.
There are over 10,000 Buddha carvings at the Dazu Rock Carvings, some dating back to the 7th century, dotted around the mountainous landscape.
Carved with attention to the art of architecture and culture, the carvings at Dazu relate to three Chinese traditions, Buddhism, Taoists and Confucianism.
Buddhism is China’s most popular religion that was introduced in the country over 300 years ago, although many citizens are irreligious.
As I muse on the beautiful piece of art, I cannot help but wonder how such elaborate sculptures were crafted with only basic hand tools.
There are a number of brilliantly crafted gods and goddesses on various rocks. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate the remarkable aesthetic quality.
The Dazu Rock Carvings are ranked among the best preserved form of Chinese cave temple art, and are now listed as a world heritage site.
Out of all carvings I viewed, nothing was more awe-striking than the enormous statue of Guan Yin – revered by her followers as the goddess of mercy and compassion.
Guan Yin has one thousand hands with one eye in each palm facing the altar.
Seated on a throne with two priestly statues on either side, the scenery at Guan Yin’s altar epitomises a place of worship and reverence for her devotees.
And twice every year, on her birthday (she has two birthdays), tens of thousands of Buddhists come to pay homage to her.
“This remains one of the most sacred places at the rock carvings. Many worshippers from around the world come to offer their supplications here,” said Cynthia, who was our tour guide.
This magnificent goddess was almost ruined because of age, but was recently restored at a huge cost.
Eight kilogrammes of gold was used to repaint her. That amount of gold alone cost K3.5 million (at today’s gold price).
Guan Yin is not the only awe-inspiring statue here. Other sculptures such as the circle of life, the hands of Buddha and the 18 layers of hell have similar effect.
Dazu district is, however, not all about the carvings; it is also the place renowned to have been governed by China’s only female emperor – Wu Zetian.
Such is the history embedded in Chongqing.
A visit to Chongqing was a worthwhile experience, a city that has much more to offer than my schedule could accommodate.
I hope to go there again.