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Chongqing revisited through my lens

Posted on Apr 18, 2017 By Bruce Connolly, China Daily

Traditional 'Old Chongqing' - staircase street 1994. (Photo taken by Bruce Connolly)

Two days downriver from Leshan in Sichuan I arrived at Chongqing, at Chaotianmen. It was July 1994 and I was on a journey by boat following the Changjiang. Although a major inland port there were no docks or quays - seasonal water flow variations meant vessels either tied up at a series of pontoon piers or simply beached on muddy shores with passengers disembarking via wooden planks. Chaotianmen historically has been the gateway and transhipment point to the city - at 160 metres altitude it is the lowest point in central Chongqing.

'Chongqing, rising high above the confluence of the Changjiang and Jialingjiang, is both a 'City on Rivers' and a 'Mountain City'- a reflection not just of its spectacular backdrop but also the steepness of the city's many hills that render use of traditional bicycles almost impossible. The arduous climb up a long flight of stone steps from the river banks at Chaotianmen helps reinforce Chongqing's reputation as one of the 'Three Furnaces of China''. (Bruce Connolly 1994)

Apart from comfortable 'Three Gorges' cruise ships, jaz watch few passenger boats today traverse the waters of the Changjiang. In March this year I arrived by overnight train from Beijing at modern Chongqing North Station. Onward connection to downtown dramatically illustrated Chongqing's contemporary infrastructure. Unlike most Chinese cities where metros burrow under ground Chongqing has operated since 2005 a unique 'straddle-like' monorail system carrying passengers mostly above ground. This provides not only magnificent views of the city but at night crossing Niujiaotou Jialingjiang Bridge the strings of lights illuminating riverside buildings and bridges.

The monorail brought me near Jiefang Square, effectively the city centre. In 1994 this was a traffic roundabout surrounded mainly by low-rise buildings housing domestic department stores. Today, pedestrianised and with modern architecture, it is home to international fashion brands, coffee shops and more. Nearby, with a unique red and black exterior, rises Chongqing Art Gallery (Jiefangbei Guotai Arts Centre). In March 'Chaotianmen Image Exhibition' featured an extensive photography collection detailing the story of Chaotianmen - its relationship between the rivers and the city. It was an honour to have several of my 1994 images included.

Jiefang and Chaotianmen are within Yuzhong, the fascinating 'Old City' of Chongqing. Physically restricted space, narrow roads, buildings high and close together creates a feeling of 'buzz', of vibrant street life, of a people's city.

Traditional 'Old Chongqing' - staircase street 1994. (Photo taken by Bruce Connolly)

Yuzhong's location, effectively resembling a peninsula enclosed by two major rivers, presented serious challenges for development and planning resulting in world-leading infrastructure projects. Bridge building started with Niujiatou Jialing Qiao connecting with Jiangbei in 1958. Changjiang Bridge opened in 1977. Having walked across the latter in 1994 I returned by metro to Qixinggang, a bustling local area. Narrow paths led down to tree-covered cliffs above Shibanpo with a view not only of the bridge but of the rise of a modern Chongqing spreading across Nan'an on the far banks. Since my first visit Chongqing has become a 'World Capital of Bridges' with around 15 Changjiang and 14 Jialingjiang crossings within the urban area alone. They are aesthetic engineering masterpieces, several being twin-decked carrying both road and metro. Passing beneath them river freighters continue to carry minerals and containers downriver as far as Shanghai.

Chongqing Changjiang Bridge 2017. (Photo taken by Bruce Connolly)

Chongqing Changjiang Bridge 1994. (Photo taken by Bruce Connolly)

Yuzhong spreads along a geological syncline dipping 'gently' towards Chaotianmen but steeply down to both rivers. Renmin Park, close to Jiefang Square is a series of terraces, linked by stairs, dropping southeast towards the Changjiang - a great place for observing everyday life or relaxing over tea.

Towards Chaotianmen and overlooking the Jialingjiang is Hongya Cave - an extensive tourist development, resembling a mountain village. Rooftop terraces provide panoramic views of busy river life and of Qiansimen Bridge with metro trains regularly crossing on the lower deck of this massive red metal structure to the newer area of Jiangbei that includes the iconic riverside Grand Theatre (2009). Dominating the immediate skyline is on-going construction of Raffles City which will soon emerge as a futuristic symbol, a 21st century Chaotianmen gateway to contemporary Chongqing.

Qiansimen Bridge, Chongqing 2017. (Photo taken by Bruce Connolly)
An enormous time piece the Rolex GMT is a mark of respect to the developing capabilities of rolex replica watches .

Chongqing Monorail Line 2 at Niujiaotou. 2017. (Photo taken by Bruce Connolly)

The staircase streets and tramways down to the former piers along the Jialingjiang have gone - the very streets I photographed in 1994 are preserved only as images and diary notes.

'Modern apartments are gradually replacing the more traditional riverside areas but it is still possible to find tiny wooden, bamboo or stone dwellings clinging tightly to the steep, winding staircase streets. Commerce thrives with small guesthouses, shops supplying essentials for river travellers; repairmen who seemingly can fix anything; entertainers performing for a few kuai! Constant streams of porters, 'bang-bang' men, carry a plethora of goods suspended from bamboo shoulder poles uphill from river boats past compact food stalls and teahouses where locals sit for hours playing board games in the hot, humid air rich with the aroma of spices. These make useful resting places on the climb to witness a way of life increasingly disappearing in modern China'. ( Bruce Connolly 1994)

River boat at Chaotianmen 1994. (Photo taken by Bruce Connolly)

River boat at Chaotianmen 2017. (Photo taken by Bruce Connolly)

River boat at Chaotianmen 2017. (Photo taken by Bruce Connolly) But not all staircase streets have gone. From Shaanxi Road a network of steps lead down towards the Changjiang. Although the temporary bamboo structures have disappeared many aspects of Old Chongqing remain - 'bang-bang' men continue their uphill toil; at regular landings food sellers and tiny restaurants prevail alongside 'walk-up' hotels and souvenir stalls for some surviving 'streets' have become tourist attractions.

Along the Changjiang pontoons landing stages now serve downriver cruise boats. At Chaotianmen crowds of visitors sit on landscaped river embankments looking towards one of the world's longest arched bridges. River boats no longer disembark passengers from Fuling or Fengdu - instead tourists board modern vessels to experience the 'City of Bridges' or at night a 'City of Lights'.

I headed back uphill to a bustling staircase alley, hauled myself up the steps and along the now familiar streets of Yuzhong to arrive at the tranquil Arhat Temple near Jiefang Square.

Chongqing, like most Chinese cities, has developed, it has modernity, a world-leading infrastructure but at its heart it still retains the feeling of vibrancy - a 'People's City' to which I hope to return for there is much, much more to explore.

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