CHONGQING — One of the highlights of my short trip to Chongqing was, believe it or not, riding the rapid transit monorail.

Until 2005, Chongqing — a city of 5 million in the urban area alone — had no rapid transit system. Getting around the Mountain City meant riding one of the bajillion city buses or taxicabs plying the helter-skelter maze of streets. The national government’s ambitious Western Development plan, however, aimed to change that situation. Within the next few decades, Chongqing will have a network of six rapid-transit lines on a par with Beijing’s existing metro system.

So far, only one line, Chongqing Rapid Transit #2, has been completed. It’s about 19 km long and runs roughly north to south like a backwards question mark. I rode it between Yangjiaping and Linjiangmen last Wednesday.

CRT map

Monorail systems, I have learned, are easier to build, have a smaller footprint, and are easily adapted to hilly terrain, such as Chongqing’s. Since the cars run on rubber tires, they are surprisingly quiet. It took me a day to realize my hotel was not even two blocks away from the rail line. (The trains rarely sound their horns, since there are no surface grade crossings.) Even walking below the track it was hard to tell when a train was approaching.

In the Yangjiaping district, line 2 is about three stories above ground. We took the stairs and escalators to the ticketing section, paid our 3 yuan one-way fare, and waited for the next train. (Bus fares are 1-2 yuan. Taxis start at 5 yuan. So the CRT fare is a good deal.)

CRT station

CRT station

The stations are clearly laid out, with sign boards announcing arrivals in Chinese and English. Attendants warn people to step away from the barriers when a train is due to arrive, since the trains are so quiet.

CRT train approaching station

CRT train approaching station

The trains are made up of four articulated segments. There are no communicating doors as with subway cars. The ride was smooth and quiet, but I was expecting more of a “gliding on air” sensation. The traction surface is not apparently as flat as a pane of glass, so there was some up and down movement, sort of like riding in a Caddy on a rough stretch of interstate highway.

CRT train interior

CRT train interior

I couldn’t really judge the speed too well. Maybe we peaked at 60 kph in a few places. Anyway, it was faster and more comfortable than riding the buses, so I am not complaining by any means.

In general, I found Chongqing an interesting place to visit, but not as exciting as Hong Kong or Beijing. If you love to shop, though, it’s a virtual paradise. The #2 line passes right through the middle of at least two pedestrians-only shopping districts, including Yangjiaping where I was.

I visited the Ciqikou old town, which reminded me a lot of Fenghuang near Jishou, except it is a lot more crowded, and the Three Gorges/Chongqing Museum. (The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River is downstream from Chongqing. The city itself is on the confluence of the Jialing and the Yangtze Rivers.) The museum contains many ancient relics retrieved before the dam flooded the upstream valleys, as well as exhibits of Chongqing’s long history.

After visiting the riverfront on Wednesday, my friends took me a new “cultural center” designed to look like a building from the Qing dynasty. Imagine an American downtown galleria crossed with colonial Williamsburg and you’ll get a mental image of what it looks like. Tacky.

The cultural center’s main theme was really commerce, not history or culture. There were various kinds of (overpriced) cultural arts and crafts to buy, as well as the mass-produced trinkets sold in Ciqikou and Fenghuang, The food was good, although the restaurants were little more than shoeboxes.

At the pinnacle of the “cultural center” are three icons of Chinese culture: an imitation pirate ship (Arrrhhh! Give me all your movies and mp3’s!), a Subway and a … Dairy Queen. We didn’t eat at either joint. Instead we went back to Yangjiaping to eat at a Western-style steak place called Houcaller Beefsteak (the Anglicized version of its real name, Hao Ke Lai Niu Pai). I shocked my companions by ordering chicken breasts; they figured I would order a steak. I didn’t bother to explain that my last attempts to get a Western-style medium rare steak resulted in first one that was barely cooked and second (a few minutes later) one that was over cooked. I figured chicken is more foolproof, and I was right. It was tasty. Even the mashed potatoes were done right.