Chongqing is a “megapolis” (what city in China isn’t though?) that as you can see from the above links is the subject of recent newsworthy growth and expansion. Home to where the Yangtze meets the Jialing river and about 32 million people (depending on how you draw the lines), Chongqing served as the wartime capital for Chiang Kai Shek in the 1940’s when it was bombed to oblivion by the Japanese. An mountainous inland port, far from the eastern coastal cities and a once key player in the unruly-ness of the Sichuan province, Chongqing now holds the title of “fastest growing city in the world” and because of its topography development is literally, vertical.
Friday night Phil, me and two friends, Cassandra and Taylor, took a impulsive last minute trip to Chongqing, about a 2 1/2 hour bullet train ride southeast of Chengdu. You would think we were tired of traveling, having just returned from South Africa about five days prior. Well we were, but here’s how the travel arrangements came to be on gchat one afternoon:
Cassandra: We should all do dinner this weekend.
Cassandra: We should do hotpot!
Cassandra: We should do Chongqing style hotpot.
Phil: yes…Chongqing style hotpot…in Chongqing??
Cassandra: yes, we’re in.
Phil: Hold on, I have to ask Ashley.
And thus our plans were made, we were going to stay the night in Chongqing for the sole reason of having the city/province’s most famous dish, hotpot or in mandarin, huǒ guō (火鍋). Translated as “fire pot,” this version of hotpot (of which there are many) involves a boiling bowl of 3 parts oil and 1 part broth accompanied by loads of our ever favorite Sichuan seasoning ma and la.
To engage in hot pot you sit around the bowl with an array of small dishes containing raw slices of meat, vegetables, noodles, dumplings and cook them by putting them into the boiling broth and then taking them out when cooked. Chongqing hotpot is not for the faint of heart, it is extremely spicy, steamy and social. It’s an attack on the senses (and on the bowels the morning after). If you are willing to take it on though it’s the perfect meal in wintertime and one of the best ways to clear your sinuses and defrost your body from the cold.
We arrived in Chongqing late Friday night and battled the taxi line at the train station for about 30 minutes. Taylor had booked us rooms in a hostel in the Ciqikou ancient town right on the river, and, since the tourist area closes down pretty early, it took us a while to find our way through the dark and deserted alleys (deserted, by the way, in China, is rare, and we felt like it was a good setting for a mob or horror movie). When we were finally ready to do what we had in fact come to Chongqing to do, eat hotpot, it was already quite late.
Hot pot is serious business in Chongqing, and it was easy to find a restaurant because there is one on almost every street corner. As it was so late our taxi took us to a small strip of restaurants who all looked closed or closing. That night we had very tame hotpot, as we were the only ones in the restaurant, we didn’t overly gorge ourselves on food and beer and while we sampled the local brew (Shancheng beer, which we’re convinced has high, hangover inducing, levels of formaldehyde) and discovered decent local aged beef, we needed more…we were going to have hot pot…for breakfast.
After a near freezing experience in our hostel with a heater that merely moved air instead of warmed it up, Phil and I walked around the ancient town a bit the next morning, finding residential neighborhoods built in the side of the rolling hills of the city and marveling at how small (and open air) personal living quarters are. Meeting up with our friends we sampled some of the street food (a personal favorite is a crunchy sweet sunflower and sesame seed bar) and head off to find breakfast hot pot.
We asked the taxi to find us a hot pot that was, “bustling” “jamming” and “steamy.” Don’t ask me how that translates into Chinese but our taxi driver delivered, the windows of this expansive restaurant on the second floor were dripping with condensation. This was the real deal. We overindulged only as one should when in Chongqing eating hotpot for the second time in 12 hours.
After walking off the indigestion we bid farewell, not before making a quick trip to the Liberation monument (which gave us a glimpse of what a city of 35 million feels like) and the Chongqing planning exhibition gallery (which shows how Chongqing is approaching its rapid urbanization and where it expects to be in the next decade). Chongqing is definitely an interesting place and I’m glad we went (if only to gain perspective on how much cleaner and smaller Chengdu is) and we’ve been renewed in our motivation to do more small trips in and around Sichuan, so watch this space, who knows if we’ll stay home next weekend!