Chongqing isn't a tourist's town. Bearing testament to this fact, Frommer's, Lonely Planet and the like are content to give Chongqing the gloss-over. Instead they highlight neighbouring Sichuan's panda sanctuary and Chengdu's easy pace and casual yet cosmopolitan flavour. I can't blame them. No matter how much Chongqing's PR machine plugs away at promoting hot pot and hot women, other locales will probably continue to outshine Chongqing on the pages of travel magazines, guides and websites.
It's not that Chongqing isn't interesting—it is, immensely so. Once a person commits to living here, getting to know the place becomes an exercise in discovery. Chongqing is a great city to explore with its winding walkways, stairways and banyan besieged older neighbourhoods. Its locals are frank and honest and delightfully playful. They're great for a good chat if you're willing to learn the local dialect. And despite the glossy, generic version of itself that Chongqing tries to project, its true texture is a wonderful variety of gritty that even New York can't hold a candle to.
While the wonderfully subtle features that make Chongqing a great place to live take time to appreciate, there are some immediate benefits to putting down roots here. It took living in Chongqing for a year before it started to grow on me, but in the meantime I stuck it out because of these perks. With that in mind, and without further ado, here my top three reasons to live in Chongqing.
Reason number 1: location, location, location
With the eastbound Yangtze river tours and the westbound Qinghai-Lhasa railway both sourcing out of Chongqing, access is the word. For the weekend traveller, Chengdu and Sichuan's pandas are anywhere between 45 minutes and four hours out and Yunnan's mountains and valleys are a sleeper train away. While its inhabitants are largely Han, Chongqing's central location offers cultural variety in all directions, with Chongqing's Tujia and Miao Autonomous regions to the near southeast, Xinjiang's Central Asian cultures to the far northwest and Yunnan's many minority groups and Buddhist/Thai-influenced cultures to the south. There's also Southeast Asia on the opposite side of the southern border and Himalayan culture to the far west, all easily accessible from Chongqing.
Let's put it this way: In the U.S., Fargo, Fort Wayne, Omaha, St. Louis and even Pittsburgh all lay claim to a special regional title, but in the Middle Kingdom, Chongqing holds exclusive rights as China's one and only, true and veritable "Gateway to the West." As such, Chongqing offers the adventurous paid-vacation-time-packing expat a great base. On the other hand, Chongqing is well-connected by highways, airways and railways to the East, with reasonable (if not cheap) fares to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. That's what I call the best of all worlds.
Reason number 2: city living without the price tag
Chongqing's GDP and per capita income haven't caught up with the coast, yet there's still strong incentive for companies to lure potential foreign employees inland with attractive compensation. The math is simple: foreigners are fewer and farther between the farther inland you go, but Chongqing's rate of growth and the foreign investment it has attracted has meant an increasing demand for foreign experts and competent English speakers. Not to mention the shortage of capable teachers—teachers that the children of the ever-growing middle-class and nouveau riche will require in order to secure an education adequate to compete with their coastal counterparts for positions in top universities. My experience is that English training centres in this city are quite accommodating and offer a very competitive package in order to draw in much needed expertise that would otherwise be diverted to the coast.
While wages and benefits for foreign experts in Chongqing are only slightly lower than those offered in big-name Tier 1 cities, the cost of living is a lot lower. A liveable apartment in a convenient, central location will set you back about 1000 to 1500 RMB per month. Food is cheap and cab fare starts at 8 RMB (8.9 RMB at night). Unless you're seeking out the super swanky spots, an expensive night out likely won't top 300 RMB. In the case of hotpot and KTV that amount might cover the whole group.
That means you get to pocket a bigger chunk of your earnings while enjoying access to the same amenities that one would expect in Tier 1 cities (good public transportation, central locations, shopping and coffee, etc) While some foreigners may find the relative lack of conveniently located non-Chinese food a drawback, it's easier to avoid the temptation to “live like a foreigner,” a factor that goes a long way to bumping up your savings.
Hearteningly, it is possible to get Western goodies and essentials at stores like Metro and gourmet European grocer Ole, whose brand new locations in Jiefangbei and Jiangbei have been a God-send to local expats. Subways and Starbucks are plentiful, and new restaurants and authentic Western-style restaurants and cafes are sprouting up all over the city.
Reason number 3: changing Chongqing, changing China
When I first came to Chongqing, I had little concept of the impact that China's changes have had on the lay of the land. That was until I returned from my first Christmas break to an entirely revamped neighbourhood that had apparently, in the month that I was gone, warped in from a parallel universe.
An oft-cited statistic is that Chongqing is the fastest growing metropolis on the face of the planet at this moment in time. The countryside is vaporizing as developers plough outward from Chongqing's metro-area. Within well-established urban neighbourhoods, change is subsuming even areas whose way of life has been more or less the same for as long as anyone can remember. But the beauty is that this change is spotty. The blanket of glitz, gilt and city lights that officials and developers are tugging over the city is shot through with pockets of resiliency and poverty that belie the reality of China's real and less-than-glamorous inequalities. What one realises while living here is that there is no need to get out and “see the real China.” This is the real china—its dreams and regrets, its light and dark, its growth and stagnancy all embodied within one massive, sprawling experiment in change. Chongqing is a microcosm.
A final note
My initial response to Chongqing was to be overwhelmed and a little revolted. But that response has blossomed into a complex and beautiful relationship with this city. Yeah, it's gritty (often tipping toward the downright dirty end of the spectrum). Yeah, it's got a flair for the overblown. Yeah, it's got a PR campaign that's a little too easy to make fun of. But this city is an exploring city, a discovering city, and in its labyrinthine capacity, it is a city for the intrepid and brave traveller who embraces the kind of flavour and density of experience that living abroad in this country offers.
Admittedly, Chongqing may not always make the list of top tourist cities in China. But so far as I'm concerned, I'm content to offer this variation on an old adage: it ain't a great place to visit, but I sure do like living here!
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Wow! Great reviews and answered so many questions through the subtext! Thanx guys!.... I spent one night and a morning in Chongqing with an American colleague who accompanied me on a journey through China after completing a teaching contract in Thailand. I got a good impression about the city then and its potential. It sort of ear-marked Our journey from Kunming to Beijing! Especially enjoyed climbing down the winding steps to the Ferry that we took up the Yangzte to Hubei, where we jumped ship and got a bus and then train to Beijing. Excellent times! Chongqing was the Old Capital of Kunmingtang or Nationalist Government, and like the US Confederacy did to my city of Liverpool, held their last represenation there. Awesome! A real connection to China's past and a growing gateway to its future.
Jun 23, 2012 09:34 Report Abuse
Micah, I agree completely with your focus on Chongqing...as a expat from New York City I wanted to settle in a non-tourist environment, and have no regrets living in Chongqing for retirement. My expectations to experience real China from old and new has been rewarding, and for the past six years its hard to leave even for a two or three weeks visit to the states seeing family. The excitement I get moving about the city by walking, taxi and public buses is an adventure I really enjoy. The people and lifestyle here compare to other eastern cities (I've been to Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, and not what I expected) Chongqing has a beauty and spirit all its own like a rare flower unfolding slowly. The history and development here is so awesome, and access to other ethnic communities especially in the surrounding countryside is really an adventure. For me this is my life hometown, I am married to a wonderful local wife and extended family making me feel Chongqing is my heaven on earth.
Apr 21, 2012 18:18 Report Abuse