Ciqikou is an old town area of Chongqing tucked away in a corner of Shapinba District by the Jialing River.
Its most noticeable landmark is the hilltop Buddhist temple Baolunsi 宝轮寺, easily visible when driving in or out of Shapinba across the ringroad bridge.
Ciqikou 磁器口 translates as ‘Chinaware Mouth’ or ‘inlet.’ Indeed, the area used to be a major port and stop-off point on the city’s once busy river trading route.
As years passed, along with modernisation, the river trade ceased, and Ciqikou became a low key tourist attraction by today’s standards. Its residents continued to live in the old streets, living mainly off selling artefacts, handicrafts, fortune telling and local delicacies.
I was fortunate to visit not long after my arrival in 2003. In those years, a bumby taxi ride led you to an inconspicuous open doorway, through which you walked a hundred or so metres along a narrow walkway before meeting the main street. Turning left took you uphill a few hundred metres to a dead-end, and a right turn stretched considerably further down to the Jialing riverbank.
Just before the steps leading down to the water, there was another short alley to the left where you can still visit the temple today.
Prior to the expansion, it was possible to visit on a weekday and be one of the very few around. In fact, I remember going there one cold drizzly evening with my future wife, with an English friend tagging along only to end up a wallflower. We went for a famous local delicacy called Maoxuewang 毛血旺, a large stewpot of soup, vegetables and coagulated blood. The latter still hasn’t caught on for me, but I was more than willing to have the potatoes and bean sprouts mixed in. I still remember how the streets were virtually deserted that night.
Despite the dark and quiet nocturnal atmosphere, the old streets maintained their former charm and authenticity, and it was still possible to meet original residents and their descendants among the antiquated structures.
For a time, the district experiemented with an entrance fee of around 25 Yuan, only to scrap the idea after a few months when visitor numbers plummeted further.
Calculating Marriage Prospects
In early 2005, my wife to be insisted on us visiting a fortune teller in Ciqikou to learn about our marital compatability as dictated by our birthdates and zodiac patterns. While I have an open mind towards this philosophy itself, the main source of suspicion usually rests upon the practitioner’s shoulders, as there is no shortage of imposters who can put on a convincing show.
Interestingly, though, different fortune tellers ever since has told the same story, that birthdate numerology and signs make us an ideal match, 天上一双，地上一对 (Tian shang yi shuang, di shang yi dui), a match in heaven and on earth, so the saying goes.
In my experience, there is actual methodology and consistency involved in fortune telling. Each time, and in different locations over the years, they have told us virtually the same fortune. It’s also not like they just tell you what you want to hear, as evidenced by an grimly amusing case of the parents in law, one which I’m sure you won’t fail to appreciate.
My wife’s father was once an underage conscript in the army, and they solved this issue by simply altering his official date of birth, one that was registered on all his documentation for the rest of his life, including the household booklet, ID card and passports.
Before he married, my mother in law insisted on consulting a fortune teller.
Unbeknownst to her, he offered his altered birthdate, and the result was another match made in heaven.
For the next decade and a half, the army stationed him in various cities and locations around the country, and they only ever met for a few weeks each year. Whenever they did, however, and especially following his return after his release from army duty, they would usually quarrel bitterly in each other’s presence. He would often escape the earache by taking day long fishing trips in the countryside, something he loved doing, or endless hours playing mahjong with old friends.
One day, something spurred the mother in law to question the old fortune teller’s judgement, and she finally discovered the truth from him. His true birthday was in a later year, and a subsequent fortune revealed the terrible reality. It was not so much a match made in heaven, but one in hell. The appropriate phrase was 妻离子散(Qi li zi san, wife-leave-children-scatter), basically meaning the relationship was doomed disharmony and break-up.
Fortunately, the result wasn’t so extreme, and I later became a benefactor, obviously. However, they never truly liked each other, especially once they both retired, and spent most of their days searching for escape.
The story does go to show, perhaps there is something in genuine fortune telling. Who knows?
Fun on the Riverbed
Out of the summer months, when the Jialing waters recede, large expanses of the riverbed emerge, which enterprising locals transform into buggy racing tracks, funfairs, tea gardens, barbecue stalls, and kite flying spaces. Whenever the skies clear, locals pile down to Ciqikou and the dry riverbed to take advantage.
Also, there used to be many old boats refurbished as floating restaurants (鱼舫Yu fang) moored at the banks, selling very palatable if not the cheapest dishes with fish they caught in the river.
Finally, there was small funfair on the concrete embankment at the foot of the steps, but issues over safety caused many to disappear. Inadequately pegged bouncy castles were a particular concern. A few high profile accidents were reported nationwide where strong gusts of wind swept them away into the air, carrying their unfortunate occupants along for the ride.
Later, we moved to South Korea for four years, and must have gone five or six without visiting the old town again.
In short, Ciqikou has undergone to the following changes to date, for better or worse.
The old town itself has expanded considerably, as neighbouring areas were demolished to make way for new development.
Even outside the main entrance, the surrounding roads are lined with restaurants, shops and accommodation. There are new housing developments, and modern shopping malls nearby.
Subway Line One, that will soon extend from the new Raffles City at Chaotianmen Docks all the way to Bishan out west, has a station at Ciqikou, and you will find droves of university students here on any given day who visit this way.
Ciqikou is well and truly a big stop of the domestic and foreign tourist trail. You will find hords of travel groups from all over China following guides waving their flags and yelling through loudspeakers. They often visit as part of a Yangtze Cruise, but many do come to Chongqing now for a few days to explore all the city has to offer.
All the street signs are in Chinese, English, Korean and Japanese, though knowledge of Mandarin will still make life much easier when you are here.
Ups and Downs
Clearly, in economic terms, Ciqikou is now a successful and bustling tourist attraction virtually every day of the year, but its development and newly found prosperity has come at a price.
The old town is overcrowded most of the time, and I do miss the old quieter days as I get thronged by endless crowds, and my ear drums pounded by tourist guides yelling through speakers, and shop assistants shouting out to attract passers-by.
Also, it’s rare to find any of the original residents here. Rents have skyrocketed, so rather than live with the crowds, they have taken their considerable income and moved into plusher areas of the city.
Towards the end of last week, we had an afternoon spare in Shapingba following a morning of driving duty.
The original plan was to visit Zhazidong 渣滓洞, a former coalmine on Gele Mountain歌乐山 that was converted into prison camp during the revoltionary war. It’s an important stop on the historical tourist trail, and one I want to cover in a future post.
However, a glance at Baidu Maps showed that roadworks had reduced the entire hillside ascent to a painful crawl. A plan B was in call, and so it was we decided on Ciqikou, a first visit in many a year.
It was a midweek summer’s day, and the road was brimming with traffic, the pavements thronged with tourists. We bypassed queues of vehicles vying for the dubious honour of an official carpark space, drove past and tucked into a neighbouring shopping mall carpark, one with ample space, and a ten minute walk away at most.
As expected, the entire attraction was rammed with out of town visitors, and after shuffling along to the main street, I was already looking for an escape from the crowds and oppressive humidity. Halfway towards the river, we checked out a performance hall, and decided to chill out there for the next two hours. We chose a table, ordered some dishes that proved to be worth the wait, and then sat to enjoy the loosely Sichuanese opera themed variety show.
The opening section was a set of musicians performing traditional instruments, first a bamboo flute, followed in turn by the Chinese zither, the erhu, and finally an instrument I must admit I saw for the first time ever, a so called dulcimer.
On inquiring what the instrument was, my wife and elder daughter reacted as if it were some primitive being just descended off the surrounding mountainsides, ‘It’s a Yangqin扬琴 of course, doh!’
Where have I been all these years?
The dulcimer is a zither like instrument with horizontal strings that the player hits gently with feather like bamboo sticks.
Time went quickly, and before I knew it, we needed to head back. We walked to the river, down the steps, underneath the road bridge where many pink entertain and snack stalls set up daily, then up an escalator leading back to the mall.
Despite the loss of character and authenticity, not to mention the thronging crowds, it’s still hard to say a visit to Chongqing is complete without seeing Ciqikou.
The architecture of the original town remains well preserved, and you’d barely notice the expansion if you are new to Chongqing, as the designers certainly replicated the style very convincingly.
It’s still fun to explore the cobbled streets and touristy wares, taking frequent restbites at the numerous refreshment stalls.
My favourite activity is certainly an escape into a performance hall for a relaxing and superficially cultural experience. Most tourist groups run a tight schedule, so I would recommend you visit Ciqikou independently, and spent half a day at least to take in the sights, allowing yourself the time to leisurely sit back and enjoy the atmosphere.
Ciqikou has a family run hemp flour biscuit called 陈麻花, and you can find them about halfway to the river on the left. These biscuits come in a variety of flavours, but I find the original recipe the most palatable. The only challenge is actually getting your hands on a bag of them, as people queue up a considerable amount of time for the pleasure.
You probaby won’t fail to notice the flying Indian pancakes 印度飞饼(Yin du fei bing), a stall actually staffed by a pair of Chongqing dialect speaking Indians. They are called flying pancakes because the chefs whirl the dough into thin circular pancakes around their heads before frying them. They have an insane number of flavours to choose from, but they do make for a tasty and amusing snack to keep your energy levels up.
The Baolun Temple is worth a look, and can purchase a set of candles and incense sticks as an offering when you are inside. Otherwise, the temple is not much different from others around the city, so you can choose for yourself whether to visit.