The megacity of Chongqing may not be tops on most itineraries, but this economic hotspot—millions have poured in from the countryside in recent years to get in on the boom times—is well worth the visit if you want to see what the "real China" is up to in the 21st century.
With well over 30 million inhabitants, Chongqing, one of China's four provincial-level municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin are the others) is all about building the prosperous and modern nation that generations of Chinese have aspired to. It can be a dirty, raucous affair—construction dust and noise are primary features of today's Chongqing landscape—but the hope and energy in the air can be almost as palpable as the strong smell of Chongqing's dominant spicy Sichuanese cuisine and diesel exhaust.
The "Mountain City" lies at the intersection of the Yangzi and Jialing rivers and, surprisingly for a city so far inland, is a major port, having long played the role of a transfer point for Sichuan's agricultural riches (and more recently its prodigious industrial output) en route downriver to eastern China. This has given rise to the city's notorious dockside culture—blamed for everything from swearing to the creation of hot pot—make for a lively spectacle.
Take a few hours to wander down to the Chaotianmen Docks for some street noodles and to take in the colorful comings and goings along the wide river's banks, crowded with massive cargo vessels. Climb back up the steep hills—or cheat and head up on the funicular rail—and explore the remaining parts of Ciqukou Ancient Town with its narrow streets and picturesque buildings (wartime bombing and recent construction have left little of Old Chongqing). There are plenty of attractions in and around Chongqing's urban core, but it seems you always come back to the Yangzi, which provides the best way to move on from Chongqing, via a cruise down to the Three Gorges.