Category: Dazu.

Chongqing: Mega metropolis


The city of Chongqing overwhelms with its size and population, but moments of quiet can still be found on the side streets and outskirts.

WHEN you sail upstream on the Changjiang (Yangtze River) into the suburbs of the megacity of Chongqing, the change in landscape can be quite startling.

After you exit the idyllic Three Gorges, the river becomes flatter and wider. High-rise constructions, many with tower cranes on top, appear on the banks, followed by scenes that hark back to the early days of the Industrial Revolution, of factory vents and chimneys belching steam and smoke into a colourless sky.

Big changes: Expensive high-rises, many still under construction, line the riverbank in Chongqing, a city known for its fog, humidity and boiling summers with temperatures over 40°C.

After sailing 660km upstream from Yichang, our cruise ship docked in Chongqing city shortly after breakfast and we made way ashore via a pontoon bridge and up a flight of steps to our waiting coach. The Changjiang’s water had changed to brown; the morning was drab and so hazy that when, to underscore the importance of Chongqing as an inland port and transportation hub, our guide pointed out the confluence of the Changjiang and the Jialing River, we could just barely make out the divide between the tributary’s clear water and the murky Yangtze.

It is hard to put a finger on this gritty, foggy industrial city whose name meaning “double happiness” was coined 800 years ago in the southern Song dynasty.

Some say the city was capital of the vanished Ba kingdom before it was crushed by the Qin who eventually united the Middle Kingdom 22 centuries ago. But it is perhaps best remembered as Chiang Kaishek’s hilly war time capital from 1937 to 1945 during the Japanese War. Our guide pointed out a tiny island in the middle of the Changjiang that served as an airstrip for the Flying Tigers, American pilots who fought with the Chinese against the Japanese.

In 1997, Chongqing came under the direct supervision of the central government and was expanded to absorb surrounding cities and counties, forming a municipality of over 82,000sq km (one quarter the size of Malaysia) with a population of 33 million.

Consequently its city centre is witnessing a spate of reconstruction and renewal, with boisterous hotpot restaurants, high-end shopping centres and expensive new apartments. The diaojialou stilt-houses at Hongyadong, a slum where labourers used to live, have been rebuilt, expanded and converted into a shopping and food mall.

The Three Saints of the Huayan school at Dazu’s Baodingshan carved over 800 years ago. The stone pagoda in Manjusri’s hand (far left) is said to weigh 500kg.

The thousand-year-old ceramic trading centre of Ciqikouzhen has also been refurbished into a tourist attraction offering local snacks and crafts, though away from the main street, one can still find vestiges of the old life, with temples and tea-houses in small courtyards.

In the city’s outskirts is a completely different world of farmers which comprise some 70% of Chongqing’s population, of which over 8 million have become migrant workers, according to a July 2010 report in Xinhuanet.

We drove through a countryside of rice fields and bamboo on our way to Dazu, 130km west of the city and en route, stopped at a farming village evidently in transition.

It was a mix of well-worn traditional farmhouses and new two-storey blocks, some still incomplete. A migrant worker had returned home to celebrate his 60th birthday and the piles of mutton skewers, fried bread, vegetables and pickles at the village feast point to an improved standard of living for those able to find work in the city.

The grottoes of Dazu, listed as a Unesco World Heritage since 1999, are indisputably the key attraction of Chongqing municipality. The site is spread over several mountains and unlike the earlier Buddhist grottoes of Yungang, Longmen and Dunhuang in north China, Dazu’s 50,000 statues, carved mostly in the 600 years between early Tang and Song dynasties, draw their themes from not only Buddhism, but also Daoism and even Confucianism.

We visited the picturesque Baodingshan (Baoding Hill) site which winds around a wooded valley in a park-like setting with a stream running through it.

Baodingshan’s 10,000 carvings which stretch 2.5km were initiated by the monk Zhao Zhifeng of the southern Song 800 years ago. Leaning out beneath overhangs and popping out from rockfaces are Buddhas and Boddhisattvas with elaborate headdresses and beautifully modelled faces. Reminiscent of the secular Song dynasty sculptures of Taiyuan’s Jinci Temple in Shanxi province, their robes fall in soft, sumptuous folds so expertly carved one feels tempted to reach out and feel their creamy texture.

While similar caves in China were ravaged by foreign treasure hunters and the Cultural Revolution, Baodingshan’s sculptures appear well-preserved, some with their indigo, turquoise and vermilion paint still visible. Further, unlike some of the earlier grottoes whose carvings exhibit an otherworldly religious and meditative quality, many themes at Baodingshan are didactic. Besides staples like the wheel of life, punishments for sinners are vividly depicted, the most graphic being the Niche of the Netherworld with 18 hells in two tiers below the buddhas and boddhisattvas.

Whether as a religious or purely cultural experience, the leafy serenity of Dazu provides welcome respite from Chongqing’s hard-edged centre. Hopefully, small, leisurely courtyards like the ones at Ciqikouzhen, too, will be given a place in modern Chongqing.

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Category: Dazu