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Ciqikou is located in Shapingba District of Chongqing Municipality, about 17 kilometers away from the Liberation Monument.
It was early morning as I strolled through Ciqikou before the ancient town became customarily festooned with tourists. Its gray-brick houses, with black-tiled roofs and carved doors and windows, nestle in the hills. Walking along the damp stone paths, I marveled inwardly at the peace and ease of this small town.
Ciqikou is located in Shapingba District of Chongqing Municipality, about 17 kilometers away from the Liberation Monument (Yuzhong District), which marks the center of the city. It is easily accessible by subway Line 1. Ciqikou Station is always busy. From there tourists do not need to ask for directions to the old town – the crowd leads the way.
At first sight, Ciqikou may appear to be another of China's commercialized tourist attractions. However, behind the buzz stands a serene town of alleys dotted with residents’ homes.
Ciqikou ancient town, hills and lower reaches of the Jialing
River enhance each other's beauty,
presenting a harmonious image.
Natural Museum of Ancient Architecture
Ciqikou was carved out of its surrounding hills. The town, hills and lower reaches of the Jialing River enhance each other's beauty, presenting a harmonious image. In the past, Ciqikou served as the north gate of old Chongqing and an important port along the river. Its prosperity was recorded in local ballads. The town was first built during the reign of Emperor Zhenzong (998-1022) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Its original name, Baiyanchang (white rock field), was derived from the white precipices on a hill nearby. It is said that the second emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Zhu Yunwen, fled the Imperial Palace after his uncle Zhu Di usurped the throne. He shaved his head to resemble a monk and hid for several years in the Baolun Temple on the mountain with white precipices. On hearing this story, local people changed the name of the temple to Longyin meaning hidden dragon. Baiyanchang was accordingly renamed Longyin Town. In the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the name of the town was changed to Ciqikou since it had developed into a production and transportation center for porcelain, Ciqi in Chinese.
Ciqikou is an ancient town close to a big city, marked by a large pailou (memorial archway) with the gilded Chinese characters for Ciqikou.
Buildings in this area are mainly residential houses and shops dating back to the period from the late Qing Dynasty to the Republic of China (1912-1949). Various kinds of constructions can be found here, forming a natural museum of traditional Chongqing architecture. Although most of them have been rebuilt, the original styles are well preserved.
At the main entrance to the town stands another, much-photographed pailou that leads to a narrow alley, Huangjiaoping, which opens up onto Zhengjie Street, the town’s longest street. During festivals and holidays it is crowded with tourists, making it hard to go anywhere in a hurry. Therefore, this area is best visited in the early morning. Likewise, the commercial area of the town is best avoided. Along the small alleys is where you will find the soul of Ciqikou.
Old towns are blessed with unfading charm.
A Stone Path Leads to a Time-honored Town
Old towns are blessed with unfading charm. Time has endowed them with their own appeal. But to really get a feeling of what an old town was like in its heyday, you must ignore the commercialism of the central districts and venture deep into the town’s alleys.
Ciqikou is a small town composed of two parts: the busy district around Zhengjie Street and quiet side streets with boutiques and shops.
Standing at the junction of Huangjiaoping Alley and Zhengjie Street boutiques and shops, visitors need to make a choice. To the left is a quiet area with art galleries and teahouses where one could sit in a cozy corner, sipping a cup of tea while enjoying a moment of relaxation. To the right, a crowded stone path will lead you to the banks of the Jialing River. At the end of the path, you will see an ancient pailou, discolored over time but full of antique beauty, marking Longyinmen (Longyin Gate).
A few steps back from Longyin Gate is Hengjie Street, which intersects Zhengjie Street, the main street of the town. Apart from several fortune tellers’ stalls, Hengjie Street is full of alluring boutiques.
Hengjie Street was the most impressive part of town for me. Ancient buildings, rows of lanterns, delicious home-cooked snacks, colorful postcards, remarkable pictures on blackboards, vendors carrying shoulder poles, and shoemakers patiently waiting for customers all create attractive scenes for amateur photographers and young arts and culture fans. Unusually for a tourist hotspot, the salespeople here are not pushy. Instead, they smile at visitors and continue with their work.
Time flies. An easy morning had passed as I wandered through this ancient town. I realized that the tranquility would soon be broken as wave upon wave of tourists flooded into the town. I left the small shops and started sightseeing along with the crowd.
A Fascinating Book along the Jialing Riverbank
The main scenic spots in Ciqikou include the Zhong Family Courtyard, the Imperial Academy, Baolun Temple and Wenchang Taoist Temple. The Zhong Family Courtyard is located near the entrance to the town. It combines two different styles of traditional Chinese courtyard dwellings. The spacious entrance and the symmetrical layout present a style that is often seen in imperial gardens in North China. At the same time, the building materials and architectural structures represent the style of South China residences. Its owner Zhong Yunting worked for the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) and was in charge of purchasing rare treasures. This explains why the compound was constructed on such a lavish scale.
The Imperial Academy, now a teahouse, was originally a private school founded by the Sun family in the late Qing Dynasty. At that time, three students from this school passed the imperial examinations at the provincial level. What’s more, another two students passed the highest imperial civil service examinations and were appointed as officials attached to the Imperial Academy. The school consequently earned a good reputation.
Baolun Temple, also known as Longyin Temple, is situated on Hengjie Street. The sound of drums in the morning and bells in the evening emanating from the temple never stops and acts as call to its large numbers of worshippers and pilgrims. Climbing the stone steps, I arrived at the Tianwangdian (Hall of the Heavenly King) where a panorama of the town unfolds. Next to it is a depository of Buddhist sutras. From the top floor you can see the layout of the entire temple. What we see today dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when it was expanded. It is said that not a single metal nail was used in the construction of this resplendent and magnificent wood-structure hall.
Jinbi, Ma’an and Fenghuang are three major mountains in this area. The Wenchang Taoist Temple is on Jinbi Mountain and can be seen from the boats sailing along the Jialing River. Built in the Ming Dynasty, the temple enshrines Emperor Wenchang, the deity of scholarly honor and official ranks.
No visit to Ciqikou would be complete without sampling the local cuisine. Duck’s blood in chili sauce, braised tofu and peanuts with pepper and salt are vaunted as the three most delicious dishes of Ciqikou. Home-cooked hot and sour rice noodles, glutinous rice cake and chicken giblets with pickled pepper are similarly tantalizing. But the most popular food is mahua (fried dough twist) and there is no better brand than Chen Changyin. Be sure not to miss this tasty, crispy pastry.
Half a day is not long enough to fully experience Ciqikou, but I feel lucky to have had the chance to relax there and take some great photos of this lovely town. As a famous tourist destination, Ciqikou is inevitably influenced by commercial elements, but these are just superficial. Scratch the surface and you will find a town in mint condition lying on the banks of the Jialing River waiting for us to visit and reflect on in peace and quiet.
Prosperous in the past and ever popular in the present, Ciqikou retains its old style and simplicity. In which way will it develop in the future? How do we maintain its vitality? Will we still find a peaceful and serene corner at the end of those alleys? These questions played on my mind as I left the town. But I’m sure I will come back one day with great expectations.