Saturday, 5 March 2011

Chongqing, Real China, 7-9 January 2011

Countryside passing by
The high speed train service was an incredible experience, especially after chugging through Siberia at 50km/h this seemed supersonic. In my half drunken state, I sat there watching the green fields and small villages shoot past the window. The scenery was beautiful and it installed excitement in me that overthrew the hangover. Every time I get on a train or a bus, I feel the excitement build within me as I'm heading further than I've every been and going to somewhere I don't know. Before I entered China, I had no idea where I wanted to go. The country is so vast and having only thirty days to explore it is not enough time. When I was thinking about the whole voyage back at home, I was thinking to heavily into details and looking at train times, booking hostels and creating a route. Now I have completely changed my attitude, I only think about one stop in the future and then from there I will find out where I should go next and how I should get to there. My top tip is, don't do too much planning, you will bog yourself down with too much information and will not be able to enjoy the freedom that spontaneity brings you. To a certain extent, I would even say get rid of the guide books and discover with your own eyes, ask people about things and if you want to know more check on the internet.

The train pulled into the station around 8pm and it was already pitch black. The station had been recently revamped to allow for the increase in passengers from the high speed route. I paused for a minute to catch some fresh air before hoisting my backpack on and exiting the platform in search of quick easy food as my appetite was now back to where it should be. After getting some food from a fast food place, I followed the signs towards the taxi rank and was shocked when I saw the huge queue that stretched across the concourse. I must have waited in line for thirty minutes before finally barging my way through to get a taxi. The taxi driver drove out of the station nearly colliding with another whilst looking closely at the small address written on the flyer I gave him. He picked up his mobile phone and dialled the number to the hostel for better directions. In hindsight I now understand why as the streets of Chongqing are incredibly maze like, there are many levels rising, falling and interweaving heading to different locations. The taxi driver thought he was a formula one racing driver as he always drove as fast as he could squeezing in between cars which made you breath in and close your eyes. Needless to say I made it to the hostel alive and in super fast time and I wasn't concerned about the fee as the hostel had agreed to pick up the cost of a taxi in a previous email to me.

Chongqing is usually visited by tourists that are either on their way down the Yangtze River or have just come upstream on a cruise. I was myself there to get on a cruise and head downstream towards Shanghai, so the first thing I did was look at the options and decided to book a two night three day cruise down the Yangstze, through the three gorges towards the Three Gorges Damn ending in Wuhan.

Sandwiched between the banks
Chongqing was an interesting city that is perched on the banks of the Yangtze and Jialing River. The city is a mixture of high rise buildings and shanty towns. It is a perfect example of a failing communist society where they feel it is OK to spend millions of Yuan on building skyscrapers but leave the poor housing to slowly rot away. Surely communism is about the fair and equal distribution of wealth so instead of building skyscrapers they should have built smaller mediocre buildings and brought the standards of the housing up at the same time. Walking through the streets of the poorer streets of Chongqing is far more rewarding than the modern, corporative streets as the people are friendlier and there is a real sense of living.

Whilst sitting in the hostel restaurant enjoying some sort of spicy beef dish and reading the outlawed Lonely Planet I became aware that somebody was staring at me. I looked up and it was Raymond, whom I met it in Ulan Bator when he was in my hostel looking for people to go on a trip with him. I asked him to join me and we spent a while catching up with each others experiences since we last met. He told me that he tried to contact me in Beijing via the hostel as he bumped into Caué at the train station who told him I was there, unfortunately the hostel staff misunderstood and said that I wasn't staying there. Raymond was in Chongqing for the same reason, he wanted to get on a cruise down the Yangtze, I told him that I had booked my ticket so he went ahead and got on the same one.

One evening a group of us decided that we should go and enjoy a traditional Chongqing Hot Pot which is supposed to be even hotter than the illustrious Sichuan Hot Pot. I was joined by; Michael, a Chinese entrepreneur who seemed to trade in anything that would make money from pens to wine. Michelle, a Chinese girl from Hangzhou who had lived in Brighton for years working at a casino. Raymond and another Dutch man who was travelling round Asia for a while. The phrase, 'It's nothing serious', got coined as a classic as Michael uttered these words many times. On one such occasion the waitress was looking at the flame heating the pot, she had left the gas seeping out whilst looking at it and the Dutch men and I created distance as we thought it was going to blow. Michael, being very confident, assured us that it was 'nothing serious' and she lit it and an explosion erupted from under the table sending a fire bowl out through the gaps next to the bowl.

The hot pot was spicy and interesting as we were eating all sorts of different things including sheep's brain. I didn't like the brain, mainly because of the texture as it slimmed its way down my oesophagus towards my stomach. It didn't taste of anything much but it may have also been that it was sitting in front of my for at least thirty minutes before we started to cook it. The whole concept of hot pot is a good one but it is a little too much hassle for my liking as I would rather go to a restaurant where my food is already prepared for me and I can sit back and enjoy it instead of having to cook it myself.

On the walk home Michelle asked me a question that had been bugging her since living in the UK. She asked me why people in the street shouted out “big tissue!”. For a moment I was unaware of what she was talking about and thought she had gone crazy as I had never heard that. I asked her who shouted this and she replied poor people with magazines. Now I completely understood and revealed that they were shouting “Big Issue!” not “Big Tissue!” and told her that it was a magazine created by homeless people and sold by homeless people for homeless people. I could tell that she was very relieved to have finally discovered the truth behind this mystery.

The last day was a day of walking, a day of exploring and a day of dog eating. Raymond and I decided that it would be a good idea to get a cable car over to the other side of the Yangtze River and have a look at what's over there. Initially it took us a while to actually find the cable car station as we headed up and followed the cables but kept finding the maze of streets coming to a dead end. Eventually we made it and boarded the cable car across the river. The other side was a lot quieter than what we had left behind which was nice and we ended up walking around for a long time. We visited the Chinese version of the KL towers which were being finished off and will be home to an international trading centre as Chongqing is one of the biggest shipping and distribution centres in China. After making a loop and returning back to the under construction promenade on the river, we decided that we were going to head to the bridge and use it to get to the third part of Chongqing across the Jialing River that plays host to the opera house. A gentleman from Hong Kong, who I met in the hostel, was telling me about Chinese architecture and informed me that China didn't like to create their own unique buildings, instead they would copy other notable buildings of the world, such as the KL tower. This is also true when it comes to Chongqing's opera house and bridge, which they have tried very hard to recreate a modern version of Sydney harbour. 

The walk to the bridge, however, was a lot further than imagined and it seemed as though we would never get there. Even when we got to the bridge we discovered that we would have to walk further up the hill to get on it but on our way up beneath the bridge we stumbled across a small local market selling food so we stopped to enjoy some kind of pizza slices. Whilst digesting the slices, we were joined by a rather poor looking local who wanted to know what we were doing. He spoke no Chinese and we barely had a conversation but managed to create humour between us and he graciously offered us nuts but wouldn't accept anything in return from us. This is an example of generosity that I am continually finding across the world. Poor people offering what little they have to perfect strangers.

Once we finally made it across the bridge to the other side we were aware that the we still had a long way to go to get to the opera house and the cable car station which would take us back to our third of Chongqing. The shortest route seemed to have been through a construction site. The terrain was not the easiest, as soon as we hopped the fence we were confronted with a steep slope which we needed to descend by using the drainage pipes. At the bottom we realised we had gone the wrong way because we were confronted with a sheer drop of at least three metres. How were we going to get down, Raymond had an idea and that was to climb down a man hole cover but before he did I made sure I got his last words just in case it ended badly. He soon returned stating that there wasn't a way down and the ladder just ended. We stood there for a while considering our options, we were both reluctant to head all the way back to the main road and there was no way we were going to jump down but we saw a group of workman over to our left and made our way to them as they must have got there somehow. It was the right move, the way we should have gone to start with as we found a track which took us down through the wasteland towards the road along the river.

After visiting the enormous opera house which exudes white light out over the river, we made our way back across the Jialing River and towards our hostel. We stopped at a local restaurant to grab a meal before reaching the hostel. Not being able to read anything is always an issue when it comes to ordering food but there is usually somebody having something that you can just point at and say I want that one. This time, we seriously wish we hadn't done this as it may or may not have been dog... The meal was disgusting and we felt as though we were cheated!

We returned to the hostel to find the karaoke had begun but the only people participating were the Chinese girls that worked there but it was fun to watch them.

Next Time... Yangtze River Cruise

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