Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Three China: Chongqing’s Rivers, Chongqing’s Hills


 When I arrive in a new place, I like to try to walk to wherever I’m spending the night. Long hikes from train stations and wharves might not be the most relaxing way to spend my first stretch of time in an unfamiliar locale, but it helps me learn how to get around. (Sometimes, as in Tokyo, I substitute metro trains for my feet. Learning the systems of public transit can often be just as rewarding and interesting as wandering through neighborhoods.)

Chongqing defeated me. After an undetermined amount of time trying to navigate its irregular roads, with thick fog obscuring any landmarks on the horizon, I gave up and hailed a taxi. It promptly turned back the way I had come.


It was a repetitive theme during my time in Chongqing, which is odd, considering that the area where I stayed was near downtown, somewhat close to a metro station and sandwiched between two rivers. Navigation should have been a snap. But in this city, where a third dimension is very much relevant, flat maps are only loose guides: roads that look like thoroughfares peter out after climbing up (and sometimes into) steep hills, roads wind around like paths in a labyrinth, and staircases shoot into the sky in surprising and (to this flatlander) distressing ways. Once I walked down the Jialing River’s bank, dipped into the interior looking for a nearby park, and after failing to find it, tried to retrace my steps. I ended up, disbelievingly at first, standing on a hill overlooking the Yangtze. I had traversed the Chongqing peninsula and ended up on the southern shore instead of the northern: in other words, I had managed to do everything perfectly, seamlessly wrong.


Luckily, getting things like this wrong doesn’t bother me much. It was Chongqing’s gridless, rambling quality that gave it more character than any of the other cities I saw in China: a neighborhood parking spot carved out of sheer mountain rock is always going to have more charm than a concrete parking garage. And the vistas were gorgeous, and gorgeously obscured by the constant fog rolling off the rivers. (I met a British traveler in my hostel – the Yangtze River Hostel – who arrived the day I left. I mentioned the beautiful view over the Jialing, and he told me matter-of-factly that he had checked the weather schedule and was waiting for the fog to subside before taking in the valleys. I had a momentary jolt of confusion: when I said the view was beautiful, I meant the fog.)


The city might be eminently picturesque, but it’s very far from idyllic. I’ve never before seen so much ongoing construction: half the streets remotely close to the city center seemed to support a complex ecosystem of cranes, scaffolding and builders scurrying about like worker ants. The metro system, which during my visit consisted of just one line (a lovely jaunt high above the Jialing’s shore), is being ambitiously expanded, and the empty, half-built tracks look ironically like shattered postapocalyptic remains. All this exists side-by-side with locals lugging huge baskets of goods up the steep grades.

This juxtaposition of the rural and urban was stronger in Chongqing than anywhere else I went. The city has the requisite modern core complete with cafes, upscale clothing boutiques and booksellers (like the Xinhua Bookstore, which organized its tomes into such categories as “Humorous Joke,” “The Foreign Chinese Uses the Book” and “Text Uses the Book Abundantly”), but rusticity is only a reasonable stroll from downtown. One day I took a vertical way up and around to cliffs adorned with huts, where I could see bridges crossing the Yangzte which disappeared into the haze before they reached the opposite shore. On my way down I walked through a market that squeezed through alleys and sprawled out onto sidewalks.


And my hostel, typically, was a mix as well. I had complimentary wifi in the lobby, but I was also given free “traditional Chinese medicine” by a concerned staff member after she heard my pathetic sniffling from an incipient cold. This was just one gracious act by the hostel staff, who quickly became my favorite hosts during my trip. Partly this was because, immediately upon my arrival, the girl checking me in had the charming audacity to compliment my Chinese intonation (which mostly consisted of the names of cities). As the check-in proceeded another staff member rounded the corner and stopped dead in her tracks, staring at my hair. “Wow, curly,” she said in English. “Is it natural?”

One day I had afternoon tea with the staff and we sipped from teacups the size of half-walnuts; another time I sought help in using a phone card I had purchased in Shanghai. The instructions were entirely in Chinese. The clerk took one look at the card and informed me that it only worked within Shanghai. “Disaster,” she added. I agreed. They took a genuine interest in their guests and had an easy, natural manner that made me a bit sad to leave after only two nights.

But leave I did. Sunday night I pulled on my jacket, grabbed my bags and wound my scarf. (This was gifted to me before I left the Philippines; it is not a “real” scarf, but something Filipinos use as a scarf. I could explain it further, but I think one of the Yangtze River Hostel staff put it most succinctly when, after I unwound it so she could see examine it, she nodded sagely: “Ah,” she said, “Tablecloth.”) I hopped into my second and last taxi – this one necessary due to distance, not navigational uncertainty – and arrived at the train station steeling myself for my longest trip yet.


It was two nights back to the coast, but fortified with convenience-store snacks (which did not include cucumber-flavored potato chips, which I bought for my first train ride and now consider to be my single greatest error), I settled in for the long haul to Guangzhou.

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