Steamy Chongqing, from hot springs to hotpot

The city of Chongqing in China is hot, and not just because of its spicy food - the area is also famed for its hot springs

I get insomnia whenever I travel, but the Banyan Tree Chongqing Beibei has the cure for that - my very own hot spring bath out on the balcony of my room.

The water, piped directly from nearby natural hot springs, has a constant temperature of 38 deg C. It casts a soporific spell over me and after a 15-minute soak, I sleep like a baby.

Luxury hospitality operator Banyan Tree's maiden hot spring resort, which is sited near the foot of the mist-shrouded Jinyun Mountain in the municipality of Chongqing, boasts 107 suites and villas, each equipped with a hot spring jacuzzi.

There are also sauna-like indoor communal pools, separated by gender, and five outdoor baths scented with aromatics such as rose and peppermint.

I find myself drawn to the outdoor baths often during my four-day visit.

The baths provide serene refuge and a luxurious respite for my limbs aching after a day of exploring the surrounding countryside.

Chongqing, in south-west China, is famed for its hot springs, so little wonder then that domestic tourists are drawn here like bees to honey.

Public spring baths and exclusive resorts dot the mountainside; there is a hot spring soak to suit every budget.

It helps, too, that there is plenty to see and do despite my resort's relatively secluded location, roughly about a 40-minute drive away from downtown Chongqing.

My first full day is spent traipsing around a fruit orchard before I join a horde of day-tripping families and sprightly elderly folk in making the 20-minute climb to a pagoda on top of one of Jinyun Mountain's nine peaks.

The vendors peddling food and knick knacks in charming bamboo tree-lined clearings are a nice distraction on my way to the top, and I cannot resist a hot snack of sticky rice studded with crunchy peanuts and bits of meat and steamed in bamboo tubes.

The reward for clambering up the countless steps is an unrestricted glimpse of Bei Bei - a district north of Chongqing known for being an educational hub with its universities and colleges.

Then it is off to catch an idyllic cruise on a river ferry, which chugs down a gorge along the Heishuitan to Pianyan Old Town, a 300-year- old town that was once a powerful business centre in ancient China.

Here, among the crumbling vestiges of traditional houses, bubbling streams and narrow streets paved with blue stone slabs, we rest at a charming old teahouse, sipping tea and eating peanuts as we watch a bunch of garrulous retirees playing a boisterous game of cards.

I soon find myself hankering for Chongqing's bustling city life, and make the drive downtown for a ride on its famous cable car.

Packed like sardines among other passengers in a carriage, I traverse the vast expanse of the Yangtze River and catch a glimpse of the city's impressive skyline, which locals inform me, appears to be almost permanently shrouded in fog, lending it a surreal quality.

My next stop is a tour of Ciqikou (Porcelain Port), a well-known market town and trading port during the 15th-century Ming dynasty.

I get swept along with the throngs of local tourists along its narrow and steep pedestrian streets, stopping occasionally to look and stock up on the different kinds of snacks on offer.

Here, you can see plenty of evidence of the local people's love of spicy food - shops with strings of chilli peppers strung up and displayed in baskets are the norm here.

Those eager for more shopping can also head to Hongya Cave, a multi-storied maze of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops carved into a cliffside that looks out onto the Jialing River, and built in the traditional stilted-house architectural style of the Bayu tribe.

And there is also the more familiar sight of glitzy designer boutiques and upscale department stores at the pedestrianised Jiefang Bei, located at the heart of the city's busy central business district.

Having had my fill of the local cuisine, I decide to head back to Banyan Tree for a taste of what its three restaurants have to offer - Bai Yun serves fine Cantonese food, Jin Yao Xuan allows you to enjoy the ubiquitous Chongqing hotpot in a luxe setting while Ming Yue, complete with al fresco seating, offers Hong Kong-style dimsum and international breakfast buffets.

After my meal, I make a beeline for my private hot spring jacuzzi, before a session at the 1,200 sq m spa. The Yin Yang Rainmist, Banyan Tree's signature hydrothermal treatment blending a rain shower, steam bath, body scrub and traditional massage, is just the ticket after a long day out.

A leisurely stroll through the resort's grounds, which feature a strong Min Guo-era aesthetic with villas that resemble traditional Chongqing multi-storey folk houses, is the perfect way to sign off on a rejuvenative experience.

My earlier insomnia has all but vanished. Chongqing's charms, as I discover, encompass the body, mind and soul.

•The writer's trip was sponsored by Banyan Tree.


Spice world

Is there anyone in Chongqing who does not like spicy food, I foolishly ask a fellow diner at dinner on a whim.

"Bie sha le (don't be silly)," she chides. "Any self-respecting local cannot live without two things - chilli in our meals and mala huoguo."

Chongqing used to be part of Sichuan province, but in 1997, it split off and became a municipality. Nonetheless, Chongqing retains Sichuan's gastronomy background - evident by how the people of Chongqing treat hot pot, or mala huoguo, restaurants with a passion bordering on religious fervour.


Spicy broths containing frogs and jerk filefish at Ceng Lao Yao Yu Zhuang restaurant. ST PHOTO: LEE MIN KOK

Which is how I find myself in scruffy basement eatery Tang Kee Mang, a local favourite where the wait for a table can stretch up to two hours.

It is not for the faint of mouth. Forehead damp with perspiration, I gamely dunk beef tripe, duck's blood and other assorted animal innards in a fiery, bubbling broth laced with Sichuan peppers and chillies that numb my tongue.

  • GETTING THERE

    From Singapore, I fly by SilkAir to Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport. The flight takes about 4 1/2 hours.

    SilkAir flies to Chongqing five times a week (Monday and Tuesday and Friday to Sunday). Fares start at $599.

    Banyan Tree resort charges $480 a night for its Hot Spring Retreat for two.

    Deluxe rooms and Hot Spring Villas are also available. For more information, go to www.banyantree.com/en/cn-china-chongqing-beibei

Even as I attempt to cool off with a bowl of silky, slightly sweet beancurd pudding - a staple that is part of almost every meal - I am reminded of how much the people here love their heat.

"The best way to eat your beancurd is to mix it with chilli oil," someone offers helpfully.

Small wonder then, that huddling around what is essentially a pot of liquid magma is a communal ritual practised even during Chongqing's scorching summers, when temperatures can peak at a searing 45 deg C.

But despite the city's seemingly one-note dining scene, there is novelty to be found.

I also visit another local establishment that set up shop in a man-made cave, a relic of the Second Sino-Japanese War, carved into the city fringe's hilly terrain.

Once a safe haven for citizens sheltering from frequent bombing by Japanese planes, it is now known for a homespun delicacy - fresh whole bullfrogs or tender fillets of jerk filefish, a saltwater species eaten frequently in China.

The food is cooked in a pot the size of a kitchen sink filled with a crimson broth of chilli oil, dried chillies and sichuan peppercorns.

In between meals, I sneak an afternoon snack of suan la fen - sweet potato glass noodles swimming in a spicy and sour soup topped with herbs, crunchy peanuts, chilli oil and copious amounts of vinegar (about 15 yuan, or S$3.30, a bowl) - from a famous roadside stall along Jiefang Bei.

I eat out of a paper bowl while standing on the sidewalk with a crowd of locals slurping up the long chewy strands. They appear oblivious to the almost unbearable level of spiciness.

My throbbing, chilli-stung lips, however, scream otherwise.

WHERE TO EAT

Tang Kee Mang Hotpot

No. 7 Luzumiao (Flower Market), Jiefang Bei, Yuzhong District

Ceng Lao Yao Yu Zhuang (Cave Restaurant)

No. 220 Changbin Road, Chaotianmen, Yuzhong District

Suan La Fen (Nice And Hot And Sour Powder)

Food Street, Bayi Road, Jiefang Bei, Yuzhong District

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2015, with the headline 'Hot and steamy in Chongqing '. Print Edition | Subscribe