Vacay.ca occasionally publishes content featuring destinations outside of Canada. Our editor Adrian Brijbassi recently toured China’s Chongqing region and returns with this story about the journey.
Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
CHONGQING, CHINA — A legend of a dragon is at the heart of the origin of Baidi City, a mysterious destination in southwestern China that is teeming with spectacular views and intense stories from its past.
Political and corporate machinations often make China seem uninviting, or at least mysterious, to the public in the west. As Stephen Mathieson of British Columbia has discovered, though, the people of China are not representative of the North American headlines about their government’s sometimes provocative stances. Mathieson, a retiree living on Mayne Island between Victoria and Vancouver, recently toured the coastal towns and cities along the Yangtze River for the second time in six years. His affection for China is tied to the generosity of spirit he and his wife found in the people they met.
“I found the helpfulness of strangers, who had not seen many foreigners in their life, endearing,” Mathieson says, recounting episodes where residents helped him and his wife find comfort during their travels.
It’s true that in some parts of the world residents will look askance at strangers — and those looks can be encountered many times in China, too — but more often than not you will find people who are intrigued about who you are, where you come from, and what life is like abroad.
Although the phenomenon of Chinese travellers has gripped the global tourism industry, the fact is only 8.7 per cent (120 million) of China’s citizens have travel passports. The government has restrictions on who they let venture abroad and the ones that can go tend to be the wealthy and politically connected.
So, a traveller’s arrival in China — as Mathieson discovered — is akin to bringing the world to its people since the overwhelming number of them can’t go to the world. Along with the kind exchanges of culture and amusing moments of language confusion, the other takeaway for many visitors is the Chinese people’s keen interest in getting to know their own history.
I discovered this fact while touring Chongqing, the former seat of government that retains a hold on the imagination of the nation. Chongqing, whose name means “double happiness”, was vitally important to the unification period of China, and features culturally important attractions such as museums, temples, and architecture. It has seen a boom in tourism in the past few years, but the tourists are almost exclusively domestic travellers. Promotion of the destination has expanded to international markets, with one of the main draws being a Yangtze River cruise that departs from Chongqing on a one-week round-trip journey stopping at locales that would be hard to reach by land.
Of those places, Baidi City is the most fascinating. Dubbed the White Emperor City because of a legend related to its founding, Baidi City sits at the mouth of a tributary leading into the Three Gorges, a river system with historical and contemporary importance. A focus of military leaders in centuries past, the Three Gorges was a key to modernizing southwest China at the turn of the 21st century. The world’s largest hydroelectric dam was built at the confluence of the waterways. The dam project caused many changes to the landscape of the Chongqing municipality (a region of 33 million people), including turning Baidi City into an island. Raised water levels cut it off from the mainland, until bridges were built to allow visitors to reach it.
From Baidi City, you can view an iconic scene of cliffs climbing to the sky as the river drifts off into the distance, sailing through the landscape. The image is captured on the 10 yuan (Remnibi) bank note. It’s visible from various viewpoints in the White Emperor City, which is built atop a large hill in Chongqing’s Fengjie district. To reach the summit, travellers must climb 362 steps until the temple of Baidi City appears.
The colorful temple gate leads into what would have been a fort with a complex containing buildings for worship and ceremonies, and an expansive open space for spying approaching intruders. Today, it provides a panoramic view of the river and its surrounding mountains, a scenic delight where you might imagine the wisps of white smoke — or if your mind is particularly active — the tail of a white dragon that inspired the city’s nickname. (As he neared the summit for the first time, a warrior named Gongsun Shu reputedly saw a white dragon, which legend says heralds an emperor. So, naturally, Gongsun declared himself the White Emperor. The “dragon”, however, was a cloud of sulphur released from the ground after a heavy rainfall that proved serendipitous for Gongsun.)
Baidi City’s history extends far beyond that moment in the first century. The original residents were living in the area 30,000 years before Gongsun saw white smoke in the sky. They were the Bo people who — much like the Indigenous Haida of northwestern British Columbia — entombed their dead in coffins that were hung from trees. Some of those coffins are on view in a museum in Baidi City. Much more recently, Baidi City was known as a city of poetry thanks to the scribes who would find inspiration in the scenery. Many of the nation’s politicians and luminaries have made the trek to Baidi City, signing their names in calligraphy, some of which is on display.
While it became prominent because of an anomalous cloud, Baidi City has not evaporated from the conscience of the Chinese. Nor, likely, from any foreigner who visits it.
MORE ABOUT VISITING CHONGQING
Getting There: There are no direct flights to Chongqing from Canada. Flights from Toronto and Vancouver connect via Beijing or Shanghai. Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport is modern and easy to navigate. A train line connects travellers to Chongqing’s urban core.
Language: In the urban core, you will find many English speakers, but knowing some Mandarin phrases will help make your travels much easier. Road signs are in Mandarin and English. Not all restaurants have English menus, so you may want to scout out the places you plan on dining before your visit or ask your hotel concierge.
Currency: Canadians enjoy a favourable exchange rate with China’s currency; $1 CAD is roughly equal to 5 CN¥.
Visas: Canadians need a visa to enter China. I recommend travellers hire an agent who can help secure the visa from the nearest Chinese Embassy or Consulate General. I obtained mine through China Travel Service Inc. in Vancouver.