Travel guide to Chongqing, China

The city of Chongqing can be best described as southwest China’s commercial capital. Since 1997, the city has become the fourth municipality, independent from Sichuan Province, to be under the direct control of the central government.

The major port of the upper Yangzi River and gateway to the famous “Three Gorges,” Chongqing now includes most of the former eastern Sichuan Province, with a population of 30 million. It is a major center of iron and steel production, motorcycle manufacturing and shipbuilding, as well as chemical and pharmaceutical production. The religious cliff sculptures of Dazu and Baodingshan and the Three Gorges scenic region of the Yangzi River are all nearby, making Chongqing an important center for tourism despite the scarcity of notable sights within the city proper.

Chongqing lies at the confluence of the Yangzi and Jialingjiang Rivers, centered on a hilly peninsula encircled by the rivers, in what was formerly the eastern part of Sichuan Province. Also known as the Mountain City, Chongqing is 1,025 km (640 miles) northwest of Hong Kong, and 1,800 km (1,120 miles) southwest of Beijing. It is one of the four “furnace cities” of China, with blazingly hot and humid summers and cold, foggy winters.

Chongqing traces its ancient history all the way back to the 13th century BC, when it was the capital of the Ba kingdom, with a distinctive local culture contemporary with the Shang. It was given its present name, which means “Double Celebration,” by the Southern Song Emperor Guangzong in 1189, to commemorate his accessions to princely and then imperial rank. At the end of the Song period, from 1242 to 1278, Song forces held off Mongol invaders in the longest continuous military campaign ever on Chinese soil, lasting some 36 years at nearby Hechuan, 60 km to the north of the city. Chongqing was opened as a treaty port to British and Japanese traders in 1890. Chongqing gained political importance following the Japanese invasions of the late 1930’s. After Nanjing fell in 1937, Chongqing became the wartime capital of the Kuomintang regime from 1938 on, and a focus for refugees and bombing raids that destroyed most of the city’s historical fabric. After the Japanese surrender in 1945 and the breakdown of U.S. sponsored negotiations held in Chongqing between the Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist leader Mao Zedong, Chongqing remained a Kuomintang stronghold until it fell to the People’s Liberation Army in 1949. Since then Chongqing has grown dramatically in population and economic importance, becoming the major industrial center of southwestern China.


The Three Gorges (San Xia) scenic area on the Yangzi River includes some 200 km of rapids and dramatic, sharp bends set close between high limestone cliffs on either side, in the area between Baidicheng in Sichuan and Yichang in Hubei Province. The scheduled completion of the Three Gorges Dam project upstream from Yichang around 2008 will raise the water levels some 100 m, forever changing some of the most historically celebrated scenery in China. The area is reached via ferries or cruise ships running downstream from Chongqing to Yichang, or on to Wuhan or all the way to Shanghai.

In earlier times all the way down to the early 20th century navigating this stretch of the Yangzi River was dangerous and back-breaking work. Upstream vessels often needed the labor of hundreds of trackers on the riverbanks who hauled boats against the current using long ropes, sometimes taking weeks. By the 1950’s the most troublesome rocks and reefs had been removed, making the river navigable to ferry boats and cruise ships.

The first stop on the route downstream from Chongqing is the town of Fuling, overlooking the mouth of the Wu River that runs south into Guizhou. In the middle of the Yangzi River here is a huge rock known as Baihe Ridge, with three carvings known as “stone fish” on one side that may have served as watermarks for navigation since ancient times. The next major town is Fengdu, 193 km (120 miles) northeast of Chongqing, and known as the “city of devils.”

The first of the three Yangzi Gorges is known as the Qutang Gorge, which, at 8 kilometers long, is the smallest and shortest of the Three Gorges, but contains the fastest water. On the north bank are remains of Warring States Period peoples who buried their dead in coffins set in crevices in high caves along the riverside cliffs. Nine coffins discovered in such crevices include bronze swords and armor from the period. The cliff sides include square holes bored into the rock to hold support timbers for plank roads and scaffolds.

Wu Gorge (Wu Xia) is about 40 km long, with sheer, narrow cliffs on either side rising up to 900 m above the water and sometimes seeming to close over approaching boats. A nearby rock inscription is attributed to Zhuge Liang of the Three Kingdoms period, and the Kong Ming tablet, a large inscribed rock slab at the foot of the Peak of the Immortals. A side trip leads to the Three Little Gorges (Xiao Sanxia) along the Daning River for 33 km, passing the Dragon Gate Gorge and remains of a Qing dynasty road cut into the cliffs.

Xiling Gorge is the longest and deepest of the three at 80 km, with cliffs that rise as high as 4,000 feet. It begins at the town of Zigui, known as the birthplace of the poet Qu Yuan of the late Warring States period (3rd century BC), whose suicide is commemorated by dragon-boat races throughout southern China. In former times this was the most dangerous gorge, negotiated only with arduous efforts by trackers on shore.  At the end of the gorge is the site of the Three Gorges Dam at Sanduoping, known as the Gezhouba (Gezhou Dam), or sometimes as the Da Ba (Big Dam). When finished the dam will be 607 ft high and 2 km (1 1/2 mi) long. It is designed to furnish one-third of the entire country’s electrical power, to alleviate flooding problems, improve river navigation, and aid the economic development of rural areas along the river.