Spectacular natural world heritage sites, rock carvings and old walled towns — Chongqing is much more than just a place to kill time, says Madhu Shetty

We took the last flight into Chongqing and were picked up by Jimmy, our guide for the next few days. The city lights appeared blurry through the haze and traffic was heavy all the way to our hotel. Our friends' remonstration kept ringing in our ears: “Chongqing is a dirty smoggy city. Why would you spend four days there?” We busied ourselves with checking into our hotel and ordered room service — Dan Dan Mian — a spicy Sichuan noodle dish typically served for breakfast. The numbing tingle of Sichuan peppers hit the right spots and we just knew we were going to have a great time.

Day one began with a trip to the Furong Cave and Natural Three Bridges — both UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites — in Wulong County. The journey by itself, on the new expressway through so many of the longest tunnels we had ever seen, was worthwhile. The cave was spectacular: the stalagmites and stalactites are surreal. You can also zip line across the river Wu or catch a raft at the base of the cave.

The Natural Three Bridges is a geological wonder. You descend to the bottom of the gorge in a glass elevator. From here it is a one-hour walk through pristine scenery and then a 30-minute climb up some steps to reach the top again. In China both natural and manmade sights vie with each other in grandeur.

Day two was free time in Chongqing. We visited the Great Hall of the People and the Three Gorges Museum and browsed through Hongyadong, a recreation of old Chongqing architecture with many small souvenir shops. In the food court on the top floor a Tamil boy from Madurai served us banana pancakes.

Later, back on Jiefangbei Pedestrian Street, we had a fantastic Hot Pot lunch — an assortment of raw vegetables and meats cooked at the table in a fiery boiling soup. I would return just for this! Next we shopped for DVDs at a small shop nearby and then drove to Ciqikou — the very touristy old walled town — finally ending at the docks.

Although technically the largest city in China in surface area, Chongqing (pronounced Chonching) felt a bit rough around the edges, not as sanitised as Beijing, Shanghai or even Xian. We stopped for tea at a roadside tea house where ordinary people were sipping tea and playing cards. A wonderful opportunity to watch people, with endless cups of tea for just 4 yuan per person.

Next morning Jimmy, contemptuous of our 5-star hotel food, decided to show us how real Dan Dan noodles were made, at a nearby restaurant. He ordered medium spice noodles for us and full spice for himself. Pure inferno! Definitely not for the weak of heart (or stomach or taste buds). And they have that for breakfast!

The Dazu Rock Caves — another world heritage site — are located within the steep hillsides throughout Dazu County, the highlights being on Mount Baoding and Mount Beishan. Past the entrance you walk into a wooded area and suddenly come upon this breathtaking series of sculptures carved into the mountainside and painted in vivid colour. The Wheel of life, the Eighteen Hells and the 102-ft long reclining Buddha are part of a treasure trove of about fifty thousand images beautifully illustrating the daily life of the Chinese between the ninth and thirteenth centuries.

The temple in Baoding looked uninteresting at first glance but was really lovely as you climbed higher and higher and the piece de resistance was the golden statue of the 1,000-hand Buddha in the innermost sanctum. Beautiful!

Our last daytrip to Laitan, considered one of the 10 most beautiful ancient towns in China, turned out to be the highlight of our entire trip. The Sunday market outside the gates provided endless photo ops of rural women and children and men in straw hats with baskets full of produce hung from shoulders poles. This was the China we had come to see.

But the old town! I cannot begin to describe the little town! “Gobsmackingly beautiful,” had said a previous visitor whose description inspired us in the first place. You walk through the ancient gates — not a tourist in sight — and down narrow streets. Head down some steps to a temple. Be careful as you go: don't fall over admiring the stunning view of the valley below. Inside the temple is the second-largest Buddha in all of China. It is carved into the mountain. It was Diwali back home and we lit incense and felt blessed to be in this beautiful temple.

Getting there:

Cathay Pacific and Dragon Air fly the shortest routes from many cities in China. Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport has daily flights to and from anywhere in China including Hong Kong and several international cities. Best time to visit is between October and March, when temperatures are bearable.