For centuries, Chongqing was the end of the world, an outpost defined by its isolation.
The Yangtze, one of China's two great rivers, flows from the Tibetan plateau down to the Pacific Ocean; it passes through a series of gorges and hairpin turns close to where the ancient city of Chongqing was built on a finger of land near the Yangtze's convergence with the smaller Jialing River. Steep cliffs rise up on either side, and fog blankets the mountains for half the year. Farmers once built houses on wooden stilts, perched on stony bluffs. It is always raining, or about to rain, in the mountainous city; the only difference from ancient times is that now the fog, mixed with smog, obscures the tops of the skyscrapers. Most of China's big cities are vast and flat, but in Chongqing everything is going up or coming down. It is possible to see where something begins, but not where it ends. Roads disappear suddenly into tunnels or veer off along overpasses. The mist means taxi drivers must swerve around corners on instinct as much as vision. It's a city where no one really knows quite where they're going.
Chongqing was long a holdout against the cycles of history, the major port of unruly Sichuan province, which repelled successive waves of invasion and defied assimilation with China's east. "It has lived behind its forbidding mountain barriers as a law unto itself throughout Chinese history," as Theodore White, a Time correspondent in Chongqing in the 1940s, and Annalee Jacoby wrote in Thunder Out of China. "Its remoteness and self-sufficiency set the province apart from the main stream of national events. It figures in legend and history as a mystic land far back of beyond."
Chongqing's people were wary of outsiders; legends and charms were devoted to keeping the world at bay. The mist, it was said, was there to insulate them. Connections to the outside world encroached slowly. The first telephone company set up shop in 1931; reliable electricity came in 1935.
And then, quite suddenly, Chongqing's mountain isolation attracted people to it. In 1938, the vulnerability of China's eastern coastal cities to Japanese bombers led Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek to select the remote city as his wartime capital. Chiang's government moved military facilities and factories to the relative safety of its surrounding mountains. Refugees descended on the city, its population swelling to a million in less than a year. This gave Chongqing a new energy. It also attracted heavy bombing from the Japanese, whose air raids transformed muddy hillsides into cemeteries and ancient walls into rubble.
When the fighting -- and the Chinese Civil War that overlapped it -- ended, China's new Communist government officially demoted the city, folding it back into Sichuan province. As White and Jacoby wrote, "London, Paris, Moscow, and Washington are great cities still, centers of command and decision; the same great names live on in them, the same friends meet at old familiar rendezvous. But Chungking was a function of war alone, a point in time; it is dead, and the great hopes and lofty promises with which it once kindled all China are dead with it."
But today Chongqing is not dead, and it is no longer the end of the world.
It was the Soviets who first helped re-engineer the city, assisting with the first bridge over the formidable Yangtze, completed in 1965. Today, there are a dozen life links across the river that once separated the isolated villages; one of the latest is a replica of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Few physical traces of the past remain, though near the riverfront there is now a modern re-creation of what the ancient city looked like, with its spindly stacked houses on stilts, fashioned in concrete to look like wood, and housing crowded noodle shops and stores selling knickknacks. A Starbucks recently opened on the top level.
In 1983, shortly after the launch of China's market reforms, Chongqing became the country's first inland port open to foreign trade; that year it was designated by Beijing as one of a handful of cities allowed to experiment with a more liberal economic policy, which gave Chongqing an early advantage. Since then, the city has turned its old geographic burdens into blessings -- of a sort.
The construction of the Three Gorges Dam, bridging a series of dramatic ravines downstream from Chongqing, began in 1994, sending a torrent of 1 million refugees from their homes along the riverbanks and forcing a massive social and economic reinvention of the nearby city. To address the huge influx, China's central government elevated Chongqing to "direct city" status in 1997 that made it tantamount to a province and allowed it to join Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin as the only cities in China not under the thumb of a regional government. Its territory was also enlarged, giving its municipal government rare jurisdiction over adjacent rural districts -- and a nearly unchecked ability to convert that land for development.