If you've already exhausted your patience at Luodai, Huanglongxi, Ping'le, Anren, and other not-particularly-remarkable old towns around Chengdu, take your old-town visiting to another level by hopping on the fast train to Chongqing and plodding around Ciqikou (磁器口).
Chongqing, the sprawling metropolis that split off from Sichuan Province to become one of China's municipalities in 1997, is never mentioned without a remark (or an entire diatribe) on its overwhelming massiveness, its emphatic and stereotypical modern-day China juxtaposition of old and new, of crumbling past and rising future—and the pocket of the city that is Ciqikou is a microcosm of all of those. Stretched out over a massive 1.2 square kilometers, its12 alleys and lanes of shopping, strolling, sightseeing, and snacking seem sprawling compared to the usual one-main-road event.
Ciqikou butts up against one of Chongqing's several busy city centers, in the heart of the Shapingba district, where the Technicolor lights atop the clusters of buildings advertise the offerings within, and where a ride up to the umpteenth floor in a slow, tiny elevator makes you wonder if you're at this very moment in the original Chungking Mansion. The architecture in the old town itself dates back nearly 2,000 years, to the Qing and Ming Dynasties, but today most everything is reconstructed or under reconstruction. However, make a wrong turn down a lane and you'll stumble across the unscrubbed version of an old town, where skeletons of gutted buildings stand empty, left to rot from the inside out.
The old town itself, with its proximity to the Jialing River (like the renowned motor-engine manufacturer), was once a trading port, well documented for its bustling activity. It was also a center of porcelain production—and it is from this reputation that its name stems.
Today, some of the small shops lining the lanes still sell porcelain, among a plethora of other trinkets. There's no shortage of obligatory restaurants, teahouses, temples, or spicy-snack vendors. But there are also the outstanding oddities that make Ciqikou worth a look even for the seasoned old-town-goer, such as the dough-twirling Indian man in a small but prominently displayed Indian-food stand; a lane of nearly bare shops save for a single writing desk seated at which there is a sleepy fortune teller ready to tell passersby their fate; and silk stores, where you can watch a live demonstration of silk spinning.
Getting and Staying There
The hills and brilliant, multi-layered-pedestrian-bridge traffic engineering is enough to leave even the most robust panting for breath, so take a bus or cab and ride in comfort.
Despite the abundance of three-star hotels in the neighborhood, finding foreigner-friendly accommodations is a trick, we found out the hard way. However, the Perfect Time International Youth Hostel welcomes foreign-passport holders, is located right in the old town, and offers beds for as low as RMB10 per night (single and double rooms also available).
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 41 ("ice, ice, baby).