Chongqing is sometimes erroneously described as being the most populated city in the world at thirty plus million inhabitants.
The problem is that the actual city of Chongqing has around 11 million, with the rest shared between other cities in the larger Chongqing Municipality, which covers an area similar in size to England.
The municipality is divided into 38 administrative regions known as districts区(Qu), counties县(Xian) or self governing counties自治区(Zi zhi qu).
Apart from differences in governance, districts tend to be more urban and developed than counties.
A good friend of ours works in the Chongqing travel industry, and it often happens that events take place where a foreign face, expecially one that speaks Chinese, can bring added attention and glamour. On such occasions, I am often invited to give short speeches on stage, take part in photo shoots or just sit pretty at official banquets.
In ancient times, there was a Ba Country general by the name of Ba Manzi巴蔓子. Eager to defend his lands against an internal rebellion, he approached the country of Chu楚国 and offered three towns in return for military reinforcements.
Come the time for him to fulfill his promise, he reneagued on the basis that he could never give up part of his homeland under any circumstances. Yet, bound by honour to relingquish the three towns, he offered his own head in redemption.
It is said the Ba Country rulers were so touched by his service and act of personal sacrifice that they named this city Zhongzhou忠州, as the word ‘zhong忠‘ means loyalty.
The first evening
Not fancying the thought of a return trip on the same day, I insisted that we drive out the evening before and come back the next afternoon.
The drive took the best part of three hours, and we pulled up at the hotel, where two friendly security guards had us park at the main steps.
After a little fuss over my Chinese ID card, they finally sent us up to the room. It was a little basic, but comfortable enough for a single night.
My head had hit the pillow a while when a telephone call came through. The directors had arrived for the night upstairs, and wanted to go over the next day’s proceedings.
Keen not to offend the hosts, I dragged myself out of bed and upstairs in my pyjamas and found their door wide open.
The director himself was a smartly dressed and trimmed man in his mid to late twenties, and certainly possessed the demeanour of a budding artistic filmographer.
Once they were happy I could understand them, they told me to be ready in the lobby at 7:15am, and that I was going to film some promotional material for the museum and neighbouring temple a few kilometres away, and that we’d be done by mid morning.
With everyone happy, they soon bade me goodnight, and that was the last thing to happen that night.
The museum was a mere ten minute drive away, and after a little resistance from the carpark attendant, he finally relented and allowed us in to film the promotion.
A striking feature of Zhongxian is that despite the city of Chongqing itself being known as ‘Mountain City,’ the roads here were generally much steeper, and the city tower blocks perched much more highly over the precipitous riverbanks.
I have experience filming promotional material. A few years ago, I was invited by the famous Chongqing director Vernon Chen to film an advertisement for the Hyatt Hotel in Guanyinqiao.
Before the action started, we had a look around some of the exhibits. Outside in the courtyard, there were setups of local traditional homes with equipment for making the local speciality ‘Tofu milk豆腐乳.’ On another side were model rooms for traditional weddings and celebrating the first month of a child’s life. Finally, there was also a room of wax models mimicking a dance where the men’s heads were covered, and faces drawn on their abdomens.
Compared with past experiences, the director was actually not very demanding, and he was satisfied with the playbacks after just a few reruns.
In the first scene, I walked into the upstairs hall holding my daughter’s hand, and pretended to point out and explain an amazing exhibit as we walked past the camera. In actuality, I was pointing out steam belching from a teapot at a desk behind.
The other scenes were mostly of myself studying the glass cabinets, and the final shoot was of me walking up the large flight of stairs flanked by a wall made up of multiple subterranean layers of rock and soil dating back to the neolithic age.
After this, we left the museum and walked to the neighbouring Baigongci Temple 白公祠, first built during the Song Dynasty in honour of the Tang poet Bai juyi白居易. At the top of the hill was a number of buildings that were relocated here before the Three gorges reservoir flooded their original locations.
The most notable example was the ‘Hanque汉阙,’ A Han Dynasty style commemorative building. Looking oddly out of place due to its colourful ornaments in an otherwise stone and mortar environment, I was motivated enough to climb the steps to the top and have a look before the day’s work was over.
My final scene was simple standing still and moving my head slowly from right to left with an expression of awe. It took a few shots to get the expression right, and the cameramen went to unusual lengths to make sure the lighting was just right, like crouching under a large jacket and holding a bunch of crystals next to the lens.
Spot on at 10am, we were done. The director and assistant thanked me for my work, and that was that!
Shibao Fortress 石宝寨
Our good friend who arranged this whole trip insisted we go and check out the famous Shibaozhai fortress. It’s a temple mounted on an island now only accessible by a large wooden drawbridge, and involved driving an hour through some lovely but remote countryside.
Shibao is technically not in Zhongxian, but rather Shizhu County石柱县 next door, bordering on Hubei Province, but its location makes it a good destination to visit as part of the same trip.
The weather that morning had been overcast, but come late morning, the skies cleared and the sun blazed as we pulled up outside the ticket office.
Perhaps people don’t normally park here, as when I made the turn, some crazy guy ran out into the street after us yelling something. I might have stopped, but I was so disturbed by this act that I stepped on the accelerator and breathed a sigh of relief when he gave up chasing us.
The narrow street turned into a dead end right next to the ticket office. It was a Monday morning out of peak season, and nobody else was around. Again, a younger version of myself might have decided we couldn’t park here, but I turned the car and left it close to the side of a building.
The area was almost completely deserted, yet an entire street of shops, restaurants and vendors were all open with their wares in complete view and encroaching on the streetside.
A shop owner where we tucked into some lunch before going home told us they were expecting a Three Gorges cruise ship to moor up later that day, with hundreds of tourists expected to pass through and check out of the fortress.
He told us with some amusement how many tourists were so fat they wouldn’t even attemp to climb the mount, and instead spend more time patronsing the establishments outside.
We called our friend and handed the phone over to the ticket inspector. Whatever was said worked, as he showed us through with a beaming smile, and we were happy to get through having not paid 150 Yuan’s worth of tickets between us.
By now the weather was glorious, and the Yangtze spread out in front of our eyes over fields of rapeseed and a background of lush mountain gorges.
We walked round the other side of the island, and entered the temple that led to the top, about ten floors of steep wooden steps. It is a marvel of engineering for the time how the structure has stood all this time without the use of nails or rivets.
At the top, we were treated to some stunning views of the Yangtze and Shibao town. Inside the temple were a series of statues featuring past generals, Buddhist gods and popular deities. My wife placed some money in the first donation box, and to find more in each exhibit we passed through.
We must have spent a good hour and a half exploring the sight, doing a spot of tourist shopping and tucking into some lunch.
With some guests coming to our home at 7pm, we jumped in the car and made the three hour journey home, fortunately again with barely any delays for traffic.