The following report is about a recent trip I did to the Chongqing area in South Central China. For a more detailed look at Chongqing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chongqing
My original intention for traveling to Chongqing was to visit and photograph a couple of significant geological landmarks in the Wulong Karst area, approximately 200 kilometres from Chongqing, but unfortunately discovered soon after my arrival that independent travel in this part of China is incredibly difficult. It was supposed to be a 10 day trip but I aborted the mission after just 5 days due to a number of reasons which I’ll explain. Within a couple of hours of booking into my hotel in Chongqing I realised virtually no one in this part of China speaks English and all of the signage (roads, directions and instructions) are in Chinese only. During my time there I only saw one other westerner. The biggest hurdles to independent travel in lesser travelled regions such as Chongqing are:
- Language difficulties – Inability to communicate
- Food – local type Chinese food only
- Restrictions on internet connectivity
I was fortunate that the hotel I booked into, the Holiday Inn Chongqing North, had a concierge who spoke reasonable English and helped me out by writing down the names of the places I wanted to visit each day in Chinese. Even so, it was still hard work. Fortunately I did manage to visit an amazing scenic attraction called the Jindao Canyon as a day trip from Chongqing. An explanation of getting to the Jindao canyon site, as an independent traveller, will follow this brief introduction.
It has to be said that tourism in the more remote regions of China, such as Chongqing, is set up for Chinese people. And, given their population of 1.4 billion, that is completely understandable. As mentioned, independent travel as a foreigner is quite difficult. For travellers wishing to travel to the Chongqing area I would recommend using a professional tour operator, familiar with the location, such as China Travel Guide: http://www.travelchinaguide.com/tour/default.htm Due to the large population in China travel by public transport – trains and busses – is always a crowded affair. On any given day, all forms of transport around the country are packed. I had intended to travel from Chongqing to Wulong by train, and even got as far as the terminal, but when I boarded the train and saw the cramped, crowded conditions, small seats, and not baggage space I realised it just wasn’t going to be a good experience for a 4 hour trip to Wulong.
If you are a person, like me, who places a lot of importance on a healthy diet then China, in this regard, may not be to your liking. Forget about the nice Chinese food you are served in western Chinese restaurants, the food in China is completely different. The Chinese are not into nutrition, they are into taste and everything they cook is swimming in oil and soya sauce and heavily laced with salt and sugar. Their meat, normally pork and chicken, as well as the vegetables are chopped into hundreds of small pieces with everything they cook. If you order a chicken dish, most of the time taken to eat your meal will be spent spitting out bone shards. If you like good quality protein, such as chicken breast or lean cuts of beef, then you’ll also be disappointed in this regard. Even in a 4 star hotel, like the Holiday Inn Chongqing North, the method of cooking western food is quite poor. Next time I go to China I’ll be sure to pack a number of cans of Tuna fish in my luggage.
For those who’ve been to China before you’ll be familiar with the restrictions the government has on internet connectivity. It’s not that the actual connections are poor, it’s just that some of the quality internet media services and social networks we take for granted in the rest of the world are banned, or blocked, in China. This includes all forms of Google, including Gmail, Facebook, YouTube and even Bloomberg. If using Gmail for your emails you will need to temporarily change to something else, such as Hotmail or Fastmail, or set up a VPN account prior to entering China. It’s no good doing it after you arrive in China because if you’re only using Gmail you will not be able to access the activation mails.
Having said all this, travelling in China can still be a memorable experience as long as you’ve got all your ducks lined up before going there. For myself, I will definitely go back but I will be more organised and do the major features, such as Wulong Karst, as part of an organised tour.
Now, back to the report on the visitation to Jindao Canyon Scenic Area:
I stayed at the Holiday Inn Chongqing North so my trip report is based from there.
Holiday Inn Chongqing North is conveniently located near to the Chongqing North Railway station; approx. 4 Kilometres straight down the road. For added convenience there is a bus stop just 50 meters from the door of the hotel which will take you directly there. Bus numbers: 141 & 354.
The entrance to the subway system for getting around Chongqing is also just 150 meters from the door of the hotel.
The best one day tour while in Chongqing is to the Jindaoxia (Jindao Canyon Scenic Area) which is approximately 81 km or 2 hours travel time from the Holiday Inn Chongqing North.
Most information on China Travel websites is sketchy when it comes to organising a day’s outing to Jindaoxia but for those willing to put in the effort it’s well worth the time and expense of going there.
Getting to Jindaoxia from the Holiday Inn Chongqing North:
- Stepping out of the hotel front entrance go immediately left and walk approx. 150 meters until you see the escalator down to the subway (line No. 6). There are three lengthy escalators down to the level with the ticketing office, and entry points to the train platforms.
- Pay 7 RMB for a ticket to Bei Bei terminal – this is the last stop so it’s not a problem. For those who want to be completely accurate, Bei Bei terminal is 16 stops from the terminal next to the Holiday Inn Chongqing North.
- When you arrive at Bei Bei terminal you have 2 options when you ascend to street level. The first, and the most convenient, is to hire a taxi for the outing. The taxis are parked directly outside the terminal exit point. The other is to try to find the Bei Bei Coach Station and figure out bus transport to Jindaoxia. The bus will cost considerably less but will be far more time consuming to organise – particularly if you don’t speak Chinese. Note: very few people in Chongqing speak English so it pays to have your plans for the day written down in Chinese before you leave the hotel. The cost of hiring a taxi for the day – 6 hours – is expensive (600 RMB) when compared to bus travel, but the convenience and quick travel time to the park entrance is worth it.
Once you’ve got your travel arrangements to Jindaoxia sorted out be sure to go to the NORTHERN GATE/ENTRANCE to start your excursion. Let me explain: there are two entrances, the Northern and Southern. The Southern isn’t the best option unless you are an exercise freak and love climbing stairs. The excursion through the canyon from the Northern end is pretty much all downhill. From the Southern end it’s an uphill slog as you ascend into the canyon and eventually top out at the Northern Gate.
Unfortunately the driver of the taxi I hired took me to the Southern gate so I ended the trek with the tough climb from the bottom of the canyon to the Northern entrance; a vertical ascent of 300 meters or so. Regardless of which end you come in from there is an entrance fee of 100 RMB (approx. USD 15). The canyon trail, from the Southern to Northern gate, is 10 kilometres and includes a loop (which can also be bypassed) through a bamboo forest at the upper end of the canyon. The lower section – the first 7 kilometres – is probably the most interesting part of the hike and can be divided into 3 sections. The first section is approx. 4 and ½ kilometres through the narrowest part of the canyon; this is where the steel walkway is literally bolted to the vertical cliff faces. Around the midpoint of the lower section there is a small lake, created by a dam across the river, where you will need to pay an additional 10 RMB to hire a punt to traverse the 200 meter stretch of water. The final 2 kilometres is where the canyon narrows once again but, just to create a bit of variety, instead of a walkway bolted to the cliff face the path is formed by the hollowed out cliff walls.
As you make your way along the walkway it undulates with the contours of the cliff walls and often crosses from one side of the canyon to the other. The river bed with its clear turquoise waters is often just 10 – 15 meters below as you make your way along. In long stretches of this lower section the cliff walls are sheer and in many places so close you can reach out over the handrail and touch the opposite cliff face. All surrounding surfaces are dripping wet from the runoff falling from the cliff tops above. The atmosphere is cool, damp and refreshing and in many spots along the cliff faces large growths of beautiful green moss create a world resembling something from Lord of The Rings. In some places it gets quite dark as the canyon walls are so close together there is only a small amount of light penetrating from above. In a number of spots there are overhangs where you will need to stoop for a few meters as you follow the walkway under the cliff face. It really is quite amazing and at times feels like one might be heading into the lost world. It is beautifully surreal and serene and one should give thanks there are such places of tranquillity still left on this planet.
After an hour or so of enjoying the surreal beauty of this narrow section of the canyon it eventually opens out to a wider area at the around the mid-point of the lower portion of the trail. A short detour off the main track takes you to a monkey enclosure for a bit of light entertainment as an employee feeds the monkeys with peanuts and fruit. This opened expanse of the trail is approximately 500 meters long and includes a covered rest area which overlooks a section of the river which has been dammed off. Take some time to sit down, enjoy a cool drink and appreciate the natural beauty of the canyon surrounds. The dammed off section of the river, as far as I could ascertain from the array of life jackets, wetsuits and canoeing helmets on display, has been created for the adventurous locals to get involved in tubing and canyoning activities. The small lake is also an impediment to moving further on foot. To progress you will need to pay an additional 10 RMB to be transported across the small lake on a punt. For this small fee you are also given a canoeing helmet, the reason for which becoming evident as you resume the hike on the upper section of the trail.
Once you get underway the open expanse of the small lake soon narrows as the boat man carefully works the punt through the contours of the canyon. As the canyon encroaches in, a close inspection of the walls reveals hand holds (formed by embedded metal rungs), steps (hewn into the rock face) and trail ropes strung along the cliff faces. From the photos on display back at the rest area it becomes evident this is a canyoning trail along the cliff faces for the adventurous wanting to test themselves against nature. After a few minutes of bumping off the cliff faces the boat man brings the punt to berth at a small jetty at the far end of the small lake. As you alight the staff waiting there indicates you should keep your safety helmets in place as you set out on the next section of the trail. A few minutes later their reason for doing so becomes completely evident; it provides head protection for the next section of the trail.
For the next two kilometres the trail has literally been hollowed out from the cliff faces. It zigzags between the two canyon walls and as you make your way along, with helmet still in place and stooping to get by some of the low points, one can only marvel at the engineering feat to create the trail. Aside from digging out the cliff faces, heavy cement columns have been installed every few feet to ensure the overhang will not collapse. To be honest I have not seen anything like this before and, given the remoteness and narrow confines of the canyon, the local workers have done a hell of a job to create this trail. On a safety note; the overcast conditions above, plus the narrowness of the canyon, combine to make low levels of ambient light. In some places, sections of the hollowed out trail are quite dark and a hand held flashlight would not be out of place to avoid stumbling over the occasional small trip hazard formed by lumps protruding at floor level. Another entertaining feature of the hollowed out trail is the painting of the support pillars. Aside from the high visibility coating of yellow paint there is also black silhouette kung-fu, or Ninja, type images. Perhaps in times past this was a remote travel route frequented by rogues and bandits?
The hollowed out trail eventually opens out to the upper part of the canyon trail and as you make your way across another suspension bridge, in the distance the trail snakes its way up a challenging vertical ascent to what appears to be the upper end. However, before beginning the winding ascent, there is one more surprise. After following the contour of the cliff line for another couple of hundred meters the trail shoots back across another suspension bridge and disappears into a black hole in the opposite cliff face. I mistakenly thought it was a cave but it is in fact an amazing man made tunnel, burrowed through the mountain, which eventually opens out on the canyon again some 200 meters further on. Upon reappearing into daylight the trail again crosses to the other side of the canyon and you begin a fairly exhausting climb up what I mistakenly thought was the high point of the canyon. In fact it is just the end point of the lower section (7 kilometres) of the canyon trail. At the top of this ascent, the trail divides and you have two options: do the 3 kilometre loop through the bamboo forest, and re-join the trail on the opposite side of the canyon for the final ascent to the top, or, miss the loop and go straight onto the exit trail. A word of advice: the exit to the northern gate is quite a tough climb so it’s well worthwhile taking a break at the rest stop at this junction point. There is a small restaurant there which serves noodles and cold drinks. The particular point in the trail is actually where the bottom terminal for the cable car service is situated. At the time I made the hike through the canyon, the cable car service wasn’t running due to maintenance work being carried out. Having completed the arduous hike up to the northern gate I would’ve opted for the cable car, if running, in a heartbeat. Hindsight, as they say, is a beautiful thing.
After the 2.5 hour hike up through the canyon a bowl of noodles is definitely a good way to replenish energy levels. No doubt it’s possible to do the 7 Kilometres in a quicker time but if you’re doing a bit of photography along the way you can go a bit slower and take time to enjoy the natural beauty of the site. Being a glutton for punishment, instead of going directly to the exit trail to the northern gate, I decided to do the loop through the bamboo forest first. Due to the fact the forest is at the top end of the canyon, the going is relatively flat most of the way. It’s a sedate, easy walk and there’s nothing really remarkable about the stands of bamboo crowding in on the trail. If anything, I’ve seen much larger bamboo growths in Thailand and Vietnam. The sameness of it all actually becomes quite boring, the only saving grace being a neat little cave towards the end of the loop. It’s a nice detour and provides a cool respite from the cloying humidity outside. Pay 10 RMB and the staff on duty will turn the lights on and take you on a relaxing little cruise in a punt along the small lake in the cave. At the end is an array of small formations with a rather weird looking face carved into one of the stalagmites. Due to the fact I don’t speak Chinese I wasn’t able to understand the dialogue, regarding the significance of the cave, provided by the boat man to the only other passenger. Fifteen minutes is enough to complete the tour into this small cave. The trail then drops down towards the bottom of the canyon again to re-join the main trail up to the northern gate.
The final ascent up the cliff face to the Northern Gate is, to be blunt, quite bloody brutal. The vertical distance is around 300 meters but, obviously, the trail snakes its way to the top and at times leaves one feeling as though it’s never going to end. I consider myself to be reasonably fit for my age (59) but this trek is a seriously hard slog. For younger and fitter types it may not seem so bad but it wasn’t hard to work out why every person I met on my way up was going in the opposite direction. It appears as though my taxi driver screwed up regarding which end to start at and I would reiterate again if you are planning to do the trek through Jindao Canyon, make sure you organise to start at the northern end first.