Chongqing Municipality, 334km (208 miles) SE of Chengdu, 1,346km (836 miles) S of Xi'an, 1,000km (620 miles) upstream of Three Gorges Dam

If other major cities in China are undergoing face-lifts, Chongqing is having radical reconstructive surgery: In 1997, it became the fourth city to achieve the status of municipality (after Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai). With summers so hot it's been dubbed one of China's Three Furnaces, and streets so steep that no one rides a bike, weather and terrain were once its chief claims to fame. Now, this cliff-side city overlooking the confluence of the Chang and Jialing rivers has much to boast about. Chongqing is the biggest metropolitan area in the world (surpassing Tokyo); it's got the world's biggest dam site downriver; and it's in the midst of building the world's tallest skyscraper (the Chongqing Tower). But whether all this development is a boom or a binge is yet to be seen.

As recently as the 19th century, Chongqing was a remote walled city. Even after the steam engine eased passage through the Three Gorges, few Easterners had any reason or desire to make the trip. That all changed in 1938, when Hankou fell to the Japanese and downriver residents made a mass exodus up the Chang Jiang (Yangzi River). Chongqing became China's last wartime capital, and after withstanding 3 years of Japanese bombing, the city never looked back. Very few of the old ramshackle neighborhoods rebuilt after the war have survived "urban improvement," and except for an old prison complex and a few small museums and memorials there is little evidence of earlier eras.

Most travelers come to Chongqing because it's the first or last stop on a Three Gorges cruise. Levels of sulfur dioxide and suspended air particles used to be so high that visitors couldn't wait to leave. As the city implements pollution control programs, that seems to be gradually changing. Chongqing's pleasures are modest, but there's enough here to make a 2- or 3-day stay enjoyable. The city is also just a 2-hour bus ride from the Buddhist Grottoes at Dazu.