Mega-cities are usually quite famous. Iconic New York City, sprawling Los Angeles, teeming Mexico City and modern Tokyo are well-known to everyone. Even people who have never visited these places talk about them with a tone of familiarity.
In terms of overall metropolitan population, Tokyo tops the rankings. And most people will find they are on familiar terms with those cities ranked just below Tokyo — except one.
First designated as a “municipality” in 1997 after a period of unbelievably rapid growth, the southern Chinese metropolis of Chongqing has largely escaped the world's notice despite a massive population (though the now-outdated romanization Chungking might seem vaguely familiar).
Chongqing has always been an important port city. It sits on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River at the confluence of one of its major tributaries, the Jialing. Many of the historical sites in the city trace their roots back to World War II, when Chungking was the provisional capital of China not under Japanese occupation. The house of legendary American military figure Joseph Stillwell, credited with the strategies that helped defeat Japan in China during the war, is kept as a museum in the heart of the city.
Today, Chongqing's status as a major river port makes it a center for manufacturing and shipping. The city is one of the largest manufacturers of domestically produced cars and motorcycles as well as an important hub for agriculture and mining.
Chongqing isn't a metropolis in the usual sense. Its urban core covers 2,100 square miles and has a population of about 7.5 million by the latest estimates. However, the official municipality covers more than 31,000 square miles and is home to almost 30 million people.
The Qutang Gorge is in Fengjie County of Chongqing municipality. (Photo: Tomasz Dunn/Flickr)
Many farming and mining communities make up the endless “suburbs.” Because of the mountainous geography, many of these places feel like small provincial towns. This dynamic has led many geographers to leave Chongqing off their lists of the world's biggest cities.
With a rough-around-the-edges feel, Chongqing is not really considered a tourist destination. The densely populated urban core is known for its haze-filled air as much as anything. Most tourists rush through the city on their way from the airport to the luxury boats that offer cruises on the Yangtze.
Some pockets of history exist amid the gritty urban landscapes. Ciqikou, the Old Town area that was a Ming Dynasty port where porcelain was made and shipped, is now a popular place to glimpse bygone Chungking. Chongqing also has a number of hot springs, with many hotels and high-end spas offering a soak in mineral-rich waters. Neighborhoods of traditional houses still stand in areas that have not been overwhelmed by modernization, and the city's dockside scenes have changed little over the decades. You will still see porters loading riverboats by hand, balancing two pieces of cargo on either side of a stick slung over their shoulders.
If you visit popular restaurant street Nanbin Lu, on the far side of the Yangtze, at night, you will see an impressive big-city skyline. From this vantage point, the development is easy to see, and there are no signs it is slowing. As the building continues, people will have to stop arguing about population statistics and the definition of “city” and “metropolis.” Chongqing will be one of be one of the world's largest cities, period.
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