On my first morning in Chongqing, a relatively low-tourism city in China's Sichuan region, our guide handed us a business card that read "Please Help Me" in Chinese and English.
The idea, she explained, was to make sure we could find our way back to our hotel if we got lost, since the chances of meeting someone on the street who spoke English were slim to none.
For despite being the third-largest city in China, with about 34 million inhabitants, Chongqing is not even remotely on the radar of most American tourists.
The reason we visited the city in the first place was so that we could experience the new nonstop flight to New York via Hainan Air, but I wouldn't have missed it. This would be a vacation experience either for a repeat visitor to China, someone who speaks some Chinese or who books a guide for at least some of the experiences the city has to offer.
Part of the city's charm is its topography. Chongqing is so hilly that instead of the throngs of cyclists you're likely to see elsewhere in China, most locals rely on scooters and cars. Home to several international brands of automakers, including Ford, Chongqing bustles with everyday life, and the skyline is striated with skyscrapers that are illuminated in bright colors at night.
Located at the junction of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers in the Sichuan Basin, the city is considered a gateway to southwest China.
The Jiefangbei Guotai Arts Centre is a destination for fans of modern art in Chongqing. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
We stayed at the JW Marriott Chongqing, a modern, 454-room hotel — one of the tallest skyscrapers in a city full of tall buildings — with a club floor, an indoor swimming pool, fitness center, several eateries and a robust business clientele.
Because the city is so big, we did some of our sightseeing by car. A highlight was the pedestrian shopping street of Jiefangbei, where we wandered in and out of tiny stores that sold food and handicrafts to mostly locals, who thronged the tiny alleyways.
The top attraction in the area is Hongya Cave, which is less a cave than a stilt house built vertically into a massive cliff and lit up at night like a Christmas tree. Although the attraction is a replica of an ancient fortress, the effect is eye-popping and feels very authentic.
Here we tucked into a traditional hot pot dinner at Cygnet restaurant, where for the most part I had no idea what I was eating but just went for it with varying degrees of success. Another top activity in Chongqing is the Cable Car ride — be prepared to wait in line for this one — across the Yangtze River for a nighttime view of the city at its sparkling finest.
One of Chongqing's most famous attractions is a natural wonder called the Three Gorges — namely Qutang, Wu and Xiling — where visitors can cruise along the river either for a few hours or several days, taking in the scenery.
We learned that the gorges were the site of a huge and ongoing controversial engineering project that involved the construction of a hydroelectric dam to generate electrical power and supply water and facilitate shipping to northern China. Our tour guide was frank about the downsides of the project, which was undertaken within the last decade, noting that ancient archaeological treasures were flooded, more than a million people were displaced and that there have been negative environmental consequences, especially for marine life.
On the plus side, Chinese archaeologists were able to excavate and preserve many of the artifacts from the area around the gorges before it was flooded, and we saw a sampling of these at the Three Gorges Museum Chongqing, which houses a fascinating collection of relics as well as a theater-in-the-round depiction of the dam project.
Meanwhile, fans of modern art can wander through the Chongqing Art Gallery, otherwise known as the Jiefangbei Guotai Arts Centre, or simply gawk at the ultracontemporary exterior of the building, which looks like it was constructed with giant, bright-red pick-up sticks.
Those with more time can venture outside the city center to Ciqikou, an ancient town on the Jialing River with tiny pedestrian streets with all manner of crafts to purchase and local foods to taste and even a centuries-old Buddhist temple.