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Sailing through China’s Chongqing region


The entrance to the 3 Gorges waterway system is an iconic vista in China. It can be seen from inside the gates of Baidi City. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

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.


Stephen Mathieson of British Columbia recalls fond memories of his vacations in southwestern China. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

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.


The colourful entrance to Baidi City is a special place in Chinese history. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

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.


The pedestrian bridge to Baidi City leads visitors to the hilltop attraction overlooking outstanding scenery in rural China. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

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.)

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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.


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.

Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.

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