The sublime chaos of Chongqing

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Of all the places in China that I’ve gotten lost in, my favorite might be Chongqing.  More specifically, its central district of Yuzhong has a unique geography and history that make it simply a joy to explore.

There are two parts to that geography.  First, downtown Chongqing is surrounded by water on nearly every side, as the Yangtze and Jialing rivers snake around it and meet on its northeast tip.  There’s a narrow strip of land connecting it to the ‘mainland’ on the west, but for the most part Yuzhong is as isolated from the rest of Chongqing as Manhattan is from New York’s other boroughs – and just as dense.  Second, there’s nary a flat patch of ground over the whole of Yuzhong, whose urban landscape is contorted by steep hills and plunging ridges.

Chinese planners starting fresh might have plowed Yuzhong over with their rigid street grids, but the district had a centuries’ long head start on them. Chongqing’s old walled imperial city was sited at the peninsula’s eastern edge, and its development has more or less grown organically from there, sprawling outward amid the vicissitudes of World War II (when Chongqing got a battlefield promotion to capital of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Free China), the privations of the Mao years, and more recently the reform era’s boom economy. Yuzhong’s streets and neighborhoods thus are in a constant state of rising, falling, and twisting along the peninsula’s hillsides. I’m hard-pressed to think of a Chinese downtown that so much more beholden to the natural landscape than the whims of planners – which is one of the things that makes it so much fun to explore.

A few years ago, I tried to capture Yuzhong’s exuberant chaos by taking a satellite image and tracing over every single building in black and white. You can immediately see why so many people consider Chongqing such a maddening place to get around.  (Try comparing this image to the straight, orderly San Francisco masses and voids I put up a few years ago).

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Enough with the bird’s eye view and abstractions! Lets dive in for a look at some of Yuzhong’s most worthy sights.

I’ll more or less proceed according to the numbered areas in the map below:

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1. Liberation Monument (Jiefangbei)

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Photo from www.nipic.com

The Liberation Monument is where a lot of Chongqing journeys begin. The monument itself used to be one of Yuzhong’s standout features, but now its dwarfed by big, boxy department stores and skyscrapers. The surrounding pedestrian plaza throbs with the familiar rhythms of downtown Chinese shopping districts. Which is exactly why its a good idea to move on quickly to the more unique spaces Chongqing has on offer.

2. Thirteen Steps neighborhood

The masses and voids map shows this as one of the densest places in Chongqing, with a huge number of tiny buildings crowded into a confined space. Inside the neighborhood has an air of informality, with lots of low-rise houses buttressed by haphazard additions and expansions.

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The picture above also gives a good first glimpse at the omnipresent verticality of neighborhood life in Yuzhong, where an outdoor stroll involves trudging up and down staircase after staircase.

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Single-storey houses mix company with high-rises down in the Thirteen Steps.

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This is my single favorite informal addition in the Thirteen Steps, observed in July 2011.  Somehow they managed to perch an entire second-floor room on top of a trio of spider-leg stilts – which neighbors have to walk under every day!

If the Thirteen Steps seems like too much of a eyesore for image-conscious city leaders to stomach for long, then you guessed right. I recently heard they started redeveloping the area, and sure enough, Google Earth imagery from late 2015 shows the neighborhood being demolished, beginning near the riverbank and (presumably) moving north.

3. Zhongshan 2nd Road

Zhongshan 2nd Road meanders along near the top of one of Yuzhong’s more prominent ridges, occasionally offering good views of Yuzhong from up high.

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Somewhere near Zhongshan 2nd Road I took the picture below, which depicts a classic Yuzhong scene. I had been walking along a sidewalk on a busy street when I noticed a rail guarding the entrance to a mid-rise apartment block.  I approached and saw I wasn’t on solid ground at all – part of my sidewalk was suspended above an abyss that plunged a good ten stories down.  The building was actually a high rise – our sidewalk accessed its ‘front door’ on the 10th floor or so. In Yuzhong, it’s often impossible to tell if you are on solid ground, or just wandering along some precarious piece of infrastructure connecting one hilltop to another.

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4.  Chongqing People’s Square

Along with the area around Liberation Monument, this is one of the only flat, empty spaces in Yuzhong.  It’s bounded on the east by the Chongqing People’s Auditorium (where I once sneaked in to watch the whole of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie), on the west by the Three Gorges Museum. I rarely saw that many people in the park or the accompanying square – maybe because it was in the middle of one of Chongqing’s famously fiery summers.

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5. Yuzhong Pedestrian Path

In western Yuzhong there is an area where the oddities of Chongqing’s geography and urban form align such that a person can traverse the entire peninsula north-south while almost never encountering a lane of car traffic.  Even if it occurred more by happenstance than design (a High Line it is not), this walking path remains something of a miracle for urban China, where scampering across busy six-lane highways is a depressingly common fact of pedestrian life.

Chongqing’s government must have thought it was pretty cool too, since they posted signs highlighting the route.

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The pedestrian path is barely longer than a mile as the crow flies, but you’ll get plenty of exercise trying to walk the whole thing, given the path’s twists, turns, and stairs.

Oh yes, the stairs. I hinted at it before, but it bears repeating here – there are stairs all over Yuzhong. I wouldn’t be surprised if the stairs per capita here is among the highest in the world.  Chongqing is sometimes called the ‘City of Bridges’ for all the bridges spanning its major rivers, but I think ‘City of Stairs’ would be far more fitting.

Gasping and sweating one’s way up and down all of Yuzhong’s stairs might seem like a hassle, but it’s also the key ingredient to keeping cars at bay.  Yuzhong’s hills send roads curving along the gentler slopes while pedestrian paths plow right on up via stairs, separating the two modes of traffic and making the walk through one of China’s most crowded urban areas surprisingly peaceful.

Travelers will enjoy walking free of the screeching of horns, but this situation is even better for residents, who can emerge from their homes and wander through neighborhoods sprinkled with staircases and thus blissfully free of noisy traffic and exhaust fumes.  The result is street scenes like the one below, where families can enjoy a outdoor hotpot dinner right along the stairs that other residents use to carry groceries home.

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I can’t begin to emphasize how enjoyable the streetlife looks in Yuzhong. It certainly beats the way I remember the much ballyhooed hutong neighborhoods of Beijing, whose alleys were never quite narrow enough to prevent Volkswagen Santanas from rolling through honking at every man, woman, child, and pet that failed to press itself against a wall to grant passage.

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Another Yuzhong streetscape. In other Chinese cities you might expect to find scenes like this in public parks, or inside of peaceful grounds of gated (and exclusive) residential communities. But in Chongqing, it all happens right on the ‘streets’ outside of residents front doors – but it just so happens that the streets here are full of stairs and empty of cars.

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Here a bridge extends from a hillside to enter the middle levels of a housing block.   I missed them in the photo, but there were kids playing on the ground shouting up at others crouching on the bridge in some kind of elaborate, vertical game of hide-and-seek. Growing up in Yuzhong must be adventurous.

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Having come close to praising the urbanism of Yuzhong a little too effusively, let me take a step back.  Most of the district’s neighborhoods suffer from the same problem as Beijing’s more famous hutongs – they’re atmospheric, quaint, and embody the heart and soul of their cities, but the residences themselves are kind of terrible places to live – aging housing stock left over from a much earlier phase of China’s development, when homes were tiny and families often shared kitchens and bathrooms with neighbors.  Much of Yuzhong feels grungy compared to the gleaming, master-planned new districts the Chongqing government is building beyond the peninsula.  The towering housing blocks are not as simple to redevelop as low-rise neighborhoods like Thirteen Steps, so it remains an open question what will become of Yuzhong as Chongqing develops. Hopefully they can preserve some of its unique lifestyle and urban form in the process.

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