Chongqing: Escaping the furnace with 18 Steps

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: May 12th, 2011 | Updated: May 12th, 2011 | Comments
One of the "three furnaces of China," Chongqing is known for its oppressively humid, searing summers. A former resident of this hotter-than-hell city, Sascha Matuszak tips us off on where to cool off with the locals as the mercury rises, and how this unusual spot came to be.>>> I praised the Lord the day I found the old air raid tunnel  in a  soulful, rundown district just south of downtown Jie Fang Bei Pedestrian Street. I wasn't sure if the city could give me fatal vertigo, but like all animals I struggled against the coming darkness with all my might. I left Jie Fang Bei behind me and headed for an open space between two skyscrapers. I reached a small plaza and reached out for support, huffing like a smoker as the air shimmered into water and then back into air... I looked up at the pole and saw a sign above the rough staircase cut out of the cliff. The  sign said 十八梯 (Shi ba Ti/18 Steps) and with an enigmatic name like that, I just had to follow the steps down. Lord knows I was already in hell and 18 steps further down couldn't do me any more harm.


Smiles on the faces of wrinkled peasants and a hawker wordlessly handing out iced sugar water in exchange for coins — an exchange that was so automatic that I just fell in line with the rest — tipped me off: this might be that little island in the underworld where the penitent wait. I followed an old couple, head bowed with my lips trembling above the straw, toward a gathering of people, sitting on mats... ...and then suddenly... ...a blast of cool air and the unmistakable sound of angels laughing. Like a man saved I walked with outstretched arms, head thrown back and smiling as a sheen of grime and sweat and clinging half-solid air droplets were blown away. I sat and drank my sugar water and looked around. Grandparents with little ones — the old folk doting and the young ones scribbling homework. A young man lying on his stomach reading as his girlfriend leaned back with her head in that little dip between back and butt. She had her eyes closed and lips parted. A black hole, 20ft (6 m) tall and twice as many wide was the source of all that cool air. The massive mouth of the black tunnel had a gate keeping us out. I walked up to it and felt the rush of air, strong enough to make me brace myself. It must be a very deep tunnel, I thought to myself. Three old men, the proprietors I suppose, hobbled up to me and smiled, waiting for me to show that I was neither deaf nor mute.

The history of 18 Steps

Chongqing was my first experience living in China, way back in the late summer of 2000. I took a job as an English teacher at Southwest Agricultural University and showed up with books and manuals that gathered dust in my sweaty apartment at the top of the hill, overlooking a singing jungle pierced by the crumbling roofs of my colleagues' homes. Colleague. Seems like a joke for a 22-year-old kid to call an 80-year-old professor of History by that title. But he referred to me in that way, old Shen Hong, as we got drunk off of his homemade baijiu and talked politics and history. Luo Shifu the handyman kept me drunk too and helped me with the little things in life... hot water from the shower, stomach pills for mornings after, phrases to help me get by. I spent two years in Chongqing and the chaos and the heat and the willful, defiantly gruff nature of the locals was normal to me. I had nothing to compare the city with, really, because Chongqing was all I knew of China. The heat was just part of the scenery. After two years I left Chongqing and found Chengdu and realized then that I had been missing out on the comforts we Westerners can enjoy out here, even in the far west province of Sichuan. But that time served in Chongqing, and another six years in Chengdu had taught me enough of the local dialect that when these three old guys sauntered up with curiosity painted all over their faces, all I had to do was say: "Zhego dongdong daodi si sazo? (What's this hole all about?) ... to instantly change curiosity into delighted shock. It took but a second for them to brush off the anomaly of a Chongqing-hua spitting Westerner and just answer me as if I were a barefoot peasant from the country on his first trip to the Big City. "Aiya! Fangkongdong ni dou buxiaode so? Zhego dong, wo gei ni jiang, you lishi ..." (Aiya! You don't even know an air raid tunnel when you see one? Let me tell you son, this tunnel here has some history... ) And then he told me about the night of December 5-6, 1941, when residents fled to this tunnel to escape the Japanese bombing run. Thousands tried to fit into the tunnel and as the night went on, and people began to die. Way in the back, women passed their children forward and men groaned their last with loved ones pressed too tightly against their chest. More than 3000 people suffocated to death that night, as outside the bombs rained down and killed thousands more. Chongqing is riddled with these tunnels, all built during WWII to protect machinery and civilians, and there are probably several other tunnels that harbor the ghosts of those they were meant to protect. As the old man finished the tale, I became convinced that the cold air blowing past me was actually the  moans of those who died in an airless coffin of heat, rushing up from Hell itself to cool us down.

Step back in time

The draw of 18 Steps today is not only the giant air conditioner that blows non-stop, but also the nostalgia for the old days. Most of Chongqing was either bombed into rubble by the Japanese or knocked over to make room for the New China; 18 Steps has remained as it always was. All over the country streets like these are being preserved, renovated and turned over to tourism officials to do with as they please. That day is coming for 18 steps, too. There will still be little noodle shops and hot pot restaurants and old people playing mahjong in front of the tunnel, but the life will leave. It will all become a spectacle, instead of an oasis of community in a city too big, too fast and too crowded to care about each other anymore. In 18 Steps, people smile at each other, they slide over to make room on a bench outside of the noodle shop. Neighbors stop and talk to each other and ask about each others' kids. It's a small little neighborhood that was ignored by the wrecking balls for a long time. At the top of the steps is an amazing little teahouse, Lao Jie Xi Cha Lou, chock full of 20th century memorabilia. They also serve a great pot of tea. Down at the bottom of the steps a couple of hot pot restaurants serve up some of the most delicious fare in the city. On your way down, you'll pass the tunnel, several noodle shops and a couple barbers. Chongqing was a very international city at one time. The whole nation crowded in here during the war and there were hundreds of Westerners here proselytizing, fighting, writing and taking pictures. 18 Steps might have been a grand lady during those years, it's hard to tell now. But you can still see several large European-style mansions down the side streets off of the steps that were used by Western journalists, Shanghai gangsters and other important persons of the last century. Now they drip with laundry and shake with the loud yelling of 40-something women arguing good-naturedly about something or other. The authentic feel is interesting for Westerners and quaint for visitors, but for the locals the revamping of the district and the cash inflows that accompany that are very welcome. Running water, reliable electricity and prompt garbage disposal are quality of life issues that trump nostalgia any day. They're not going to block the tunnel though, that would be an act of murder. So if you find yourself in Chongqing, waiting for your flight or cruise to deliver you from the heat, take heart: salvation is just 18 steps away from the city center.

How to get there:

Walk southwest from Jie Fang Bei (解放杯/Liberation Monument) until you reach a small plaza called Jiao Chang Kou (较场口/Crossroads Plaza). There are often singing groups and musicians playing for the masses in this plaza. Just to the right of you, you'll see the old two-story Lao Jie Cha Lou (老街茶楼/Old Street Teahouse) and the steps leading down to Shi Ba Ti (十八梯/18 Steps) are just to the right of the teahouse.
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