Historical travel guide to Jingangbei, a Qing dynasty-era port town that shipped coal down the Yangtze River until WW2.
Located in an overgrown ravine flowing into the Jianling river is an abandoned town overtaken by its modern neighbor. Now a semi-removed suburb of the massive city of Chongqing, Beibei is more well known for its hot springs and university. However, this small town holds a history dating back to World War 2 and the Qing dynasty that can still be seen today in the ruins of Jingangbei.
The Jingangbei Ancient Town is a coal-mining town from the late Qing dynasty located on the Jialing River, upstream from Chongqing. It was used as a shipping port to send coal from Jinyun Mountain to the Yangtze River before being abandoned in the mid-1900s. Today, it is a ghost town reclaimed by the forest.
This is the story of Jingangbei, one of Chongqing’s lesser-known “ancient towns”. Here, you’ll learn about its history and everything you need to visit for yourself.
The Story of Jingangbei Ancient Town
Throughout the centuries, Chongqing’s position on the convergence of the Jialing and Yangtze Rivers made it an important port and entryway into remote inland China. However, Chongqing was not alone in utilizing the river for trade, and small port towns sprung up as specialized goods needed to be shipped out. Chongqing’s famous Ciqikou, for example, grew as a shipping outpost for porcelain until it was eventually absorbed into Chongqing city.
Other towns on rivers or streams have not shared the same fate of Ciqikou and have simply faded into memory. One of these is Jinggangbei in Chongqing’s northern Beibei District. Nestled into a small ravine dominated by out-of-place steepled homes on the hilltop above, this small village has been almost totally grown over by the surrounding forest.
Jingangbei as a Coal Mining Town
During the late Qing dynasty, Jingangbei existed as a port town on the Jialing River. Its location at the immediate eastern foot of Jinyun Mountain positioned it to load up barges on the shallow river and ship them downstream to Chongqing, where they could be sent anywhere on the Yangtze River.
The mining operation was run by the Baoyuan Mining Company. According to a recent historical study on the town, their average output of coal from Jinyun Mountain could reach 125,085 tons in the pre-war era between 1926-1933 CE.
The same study details that the stone was manually taken from the mountain through the rock-paved paths of Jingangbei. During this time, it developed into a fully-functioning town with dining, a school, and all that would be expected in a small town of the era.
Jingangbei During World War 2 & the Anti-Japanese War
During the era preceding and during World War 2, China was occupied by the Japanese Empire. This occupation was focused on the coastal areas, forcing the Chinese to move their government inland to Chongqing in a provisional capacity. During this time, Jingangbei and Beibei expanded in importance and several government officials and even important universities relocated to this otherwise remote area.
This influx of new population and influence took over Jingangbei and was the seed for modern Beibei. A number of prominent government officials had mansions built in the area. The migration of Fuzhou University here influenced the town of Beibei to become a remote center for education, resulting in the modern Southwestern University campus, which attracts an unusual amount of foreign exchange students, including my friend Matt.
Following WW2, Jingangbei became overshadowed by the more modern growth occurring in the nearby settlement in the open valley to the south. It eventually was entirely abandoned as Beibei took over, becoming the ruined “ancient town” that it is there today.
Restoration and Reopening Jingangbei
In 2018, news came out that authorities were beginning to repair the Jingangbei in order to turn it into a tourist attraction. The most curious part of this is that Jingangbei has been a staple on Chongqing subway advertisements for years.
However, this began after I left China, so I am unsure of the current status of the project. My initial visit was in 2016. News in 2018 stated that the core area was expected to be restored by the end of 2018 and the entire project to be completed by 2020.
The Fate of Ancient Towns in China
“Pretty much every ancient town I’ve been to in China was built in the last 20 years.” This cynical, yet succinct statement was from Sabrina, another friend in Chongqing that I met at the same time as Matt. And while it might seem farcical at first glance, I soon came to see what she meant.
During my time in China, I visited around a dozen of the “ancient towns” with varying degrees of ancient-ness. While Sabrina’s sentiment is not universally true, it is true for most of the towns that gain any kind of official recognition as a potential tourist location. While Zhongdian (renamed Shangri-La for tourism purposes) is perhaps the prime example of this, Ciqikou in Chongqing is another.
When these towns (and many others) were taken up as tourist destinations, much of the historic infrastructure is replaced with newer imitations, turning places like Ciqikou into more of a theme park than a historic site.
This change can happen in a number of ways. In places like Ciqikou, it happens gradually as new people and businesses move in to take up the opportunities of tourism. In Luodai, outside of Chengdu, there existed a small tangle of streets in the true “ancient town”. Meanwhile, a completely new “ancient town” was being built in a similar style adjacent to these streets. This brand new “ancient town” would effectively double or triple the size of Luodai.
In the most extreme case, the entire town was rebuilt following a city-wide fire. In 2014, the town of Zhongdian experienced a disastrous fire. Being that most of the traditional, old-style homes making up this quasi-Tibetan mountain valley town were made of wood, they were quickly burned through. The town of Zhongdian was subsequently re-branded as Shangri-La and rebuilt with entirely new materials in the style of the prior town. This process was still underway during my visit in 2016.
All that said, there are a number of actual “ancient towns” to be found throughout China. However, these won’t be the ones you commonly read of in tourist literature and will rarely be referred to as “ancient towns”. Many of these are just remote, rural towns that have remained unchanged over several decades of modern development.
Visiting Jingangbei Ancient Town
Beibei today holds the hallmarks of a standard small, but modern Chinese town, with the exception of its popularity as a hot spring resort for people from the city to make day trips or the occasional overnight weekend. It’s also home to Southwestern University, which gains exchange students from an unexpectedly large number of counties for a university in the middle of nowhere.
But, a short walk down the road from central Beibei and the nearby Southwestern University, you’ll be thrown into the heart of the forgotten town of Jinggangbei.
On my first visit, Matt was once again our guide. Although Ida and I had tried to come here once before, it was nearing sundown and the local taxi drivers advised us that it was neither a good or safe idea. So now, Matt, Ida, and newcomer Nikki and I all loaded into a taxi from central Beibei to Jingangbei. When we arrived nearby, the taxi refused to take us any further than the main street, as it is very difficult for them to get back out.
So we were left on the roadside to find our own way. Luckily Matt knew and so we followed him down the one-lane pavement. As the inclined road gradually dropped toward the river, the landscape to our left gave way much quickly into a dense ravine or valley. Over the nearby hilltop, we saw a line of steepled homes that Matt described as Eastern European.
Very quickly derelict buildings began to become obvious in the ravine, but they didn’t seem to be in the same vein as the abandoned town I had heard about. Instead, these seemed to be a collection of trash locals had strewn about the roadside. Among the oddest finds was a smash box full of jars of chili oil.
Further down the road, we came to a small parking area and a gate. Shiny and made of a cheap silver metal, this gate was brand new according to Matt. However, another local man with a guitar made use of a series of holes in a building and instructed us how to do the same to get in. Luckily Matt and Ida understood.
Once inside the gate, we were literally in the center of the Jingangbei Old Town.
The immediate feel was much more akin to Northern Michigan ghost towns I had been to rather than the Chinese ancient towns Ida and I had seen so many of. Buildings are not ancient, but relatively modern, being made of glass and concrete. And yet they are very clearly uninhabited and overgrown.
Once we made it to what could be described as the ‘town square” one thing became very obvious – this was not some hastily-constructed, haphazard town. The paving stones and the railings we very carefully placed for being an abandoned place. Great care had been put into planning this small town.
Matt relayed the story of his last time here when there were no people, less a single inhabitant in one of the old buildings who sold tea. This tea seller seemed to have turned into a venue as our friend with the guitar began to set up across from the tea seller’s home. Despite those efforts, there were less than 10 people in the whole area.
Further in from the town square, we encountered a cement wall in place that was obviously brand new. Matt also added that it had not been there before. He pointed out that despite having the aforementioned silver gate at the entrance, this was an attraction advertised regularly on the Chongqing subway, which he admitted was premature. Although, sites as far away as Guilin are advertised in the Chongqing subway.
Because it was a rainy day, the pavement stones, as impressive as they were, were slippery. This presented a problem with the number of old stairs we found in an environment not too dissimilar from Chongqing city’s hilly terrain. From the main street, a good number of homes and areas were accessible by stairway. We followed one in particular that led up a hill past a rather large building whose barred off window seemed more like a prison, though its architecture suggests something a bit more official.
As we continued up the stairs, the wet day made things less and less accessible – not that we knew what was even up the stairs we were ascending. One building we passed was obviously a public toilet, reminiscent of those seen in downtown Chongqing. Even the entrance was the same.
The Beibei Jialing Riverwalk
After exiting Jingangbei, we were along the rocky bank of the Jialing River. This paved walkway runs along the west bank of the Jialing River from the bridge out of the town center (where numerous riverboats dock for nightly dinner cruises) down past impressive natural scenery, all the way to the entrance to Jingangbei, and further.
Our group, however, took the opposite path, choosing to head back into town from Jingangbei. On this somewhat drizzly day, the rocky stairs and smaller paths leading off the main riverwalk were more slippery than expected. However, after a nice 20-30 minute slow walk through the grey, foggy day, we were back in the town of Beibei, where Matt brought us to Uyghur Xinjiang-style restaurant, something none of us had ever tried before.
How to Get to Jingangbei Ancient Town
GPS Coordinates: 29.84303, 106.42317
The Jingangbei Ancient Town is located 5 km outside of the center of Beibei, the final town and subway station on Line 6 of the Chongqing Subway (CRT) system. The Beibei station is located in the town center and can serve as a starting point to get to Jingangbei.
From central Beibei, there are 2 ways to reach Jingangbei Ancient Town.
The first is by taxi. To do this, you’ll need the driver to know exactly where you’re going. Simply showing the name in Chinese may not be enough, as many of the local drivers base their directions on landmarks instead of addresses or names.
The second way, and easier way to get there by yourself, is first walking toward the Jialing River, which has a pleasant, paved riverwalk leading north of the town. If you follow this riverwalk north for a little over 1 km, you’ll eventually come to a red sign pointing out Jingangbei, (the 3 Chinese characters and the 3 transliterations). There is a nearby path leading up the hill into the forest, where the abandoned town is located.
Name: Jingangbei Ancient Town
Where: Beibei, Chongqing, China
Location: 29.84303, 106.42317
Description: Jingangbei is an abandoned village dating back to the Qing dynasty as a riverside coal port. Its role expanded during World War 2, but it is now empty on the outskirts of the modern town of Beibei.
Getting there: Jingangbei can be reached by taxi from Beibei town center or by the Jialing riverwalk..
ancient town (古鎮)
A historical town in China that retains many of its pre-industrial characteristics.
War taking place between 1937-1945, which overlapped with World War 2 in China, in which the Chinese Nationalist Government was fighting the occupying Japanese Empire.
City in southwest China known for its mountainous landscape and spicy food.
Legendary mountain paradise first mentioned in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon.
World War II
Major war taking place between 1939-1945 involving countries around the world.
Major river through China beginning in Sichuan province and flowing eastward until it empties into the Pacific Ocean near Shanghai.
- Chen, Zhao Dong, et al. “Ancient Villages Protection on Urban Fringe – Case Study on Jingangbei Village.” Applied Mechanics and Materials, Trans Tech Publications Ltd, 14 May 2012, www.scientific.net/AMM.174-177.2352.
- “复旦大学很少见到刘林，值得参观贝贝.” 复旦大学很少见到刘林，值得参观贝贝 – 800全讯白菜官方网站, 5 Feb. 2021, cdpida.com/industry/128.html.
- 金刚碑古村落 修旧如旧明年竣工-新华网, 12 Apr. 2018, m.xinhuanet.com/cq/2018-04/12/c_1122669539.htm.