Chongqing madness

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: October 28th, 2011 | Updated: April 28th, 2012 | Comments
China travel_Chinese cities_China travel destinations China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>> Chongqing is a difficult place for foreigners to accept. It's easy to write phrases like "largest city in the world" or "China's most populous urban area" and just assume that the meaning will get across. But if you have never been to Chongqing, then you can't possibly imagine the madness. Or the method. I actually had vertigo several times in Chongqing. I would watch tens of thousands of humans walk past me in the span of 45 seconds or so and the sheer weight of all those thoughts, hopes, dreams, purposes, fears and shoe styles and hair styles and those with glasses, those without, the slutty girls and the old women, the skinny punks, the peasants, and the fat old bastards just sent me spinning. I swooned in a tiny no-name square between high rises, linked via alleys wet with air conditioner run-off and restaurant slime to another square, where the millions become one squirming mass again. And again. And again. If Chongqing were flat the situation would quickly degenerate into ritual massacre. But the hills save the people from themselves. The city's buildings are stilts for the invisible municipal bubble that extends over a swath of sweaty jungle and red clay that was once Sichuan, but now is independent of pretty much everyone. They stand straight, more or less, but some are thin and tall, others squat and towering; some buildings are linked via 12th floor stairways, themselves attached to a cliff that bulges up for several hundred meters before disappearing in a spiral of lights, steam, and concrete into the star-spangled blackness of street level life. Plazas tilt and roll from one flashing mall to another. Bridges were built long after the need for them became painfully clear, so crossing the Yangtze or the Jialing is an exercise in impatience. The bridges seem annoyed with themselves, as if the city said, "Yes, yes yes another bridge or the whole thing will lock up. I know. I KNOW. We'll have it up soon ...." It's a city bursting out of itself yet holding back to make sure things stay Chongqing, lest the city do something unnatural and grow comfortable. Faster than Shanghai, spicier than Chengdu, more commie than Beijing, more gangster than Guangzhou, more peasant than Henan and grittier than Wuhan, Shenyang or all of Shanxi combined: Chongqing: China encapsulated.

Things to see and do

For foreigners, Chongqing is a tourist city, if it is anything at all. Even the big businessmen safe from the madding crowd in their Jiangbei offices are there short term, to meet a deadline, and then they leave. Nobody truly wants to live in Chongqing except for those born there or nearby. I lived there for a little over a year and I am here to tell you that summer in Chongqing is a season of woe and suffering and only the insane or the genetically modified can endure it. Beware the ides of July, O Traveler, for it is the time of 3-a-day showers and voice games with the fan.... Go to Chongqing in the spring and be dazzled. The women. Nightlife dripping into dawnlife. Afternoon naps with the window open so you can hear it all happening (that way your dreams prepare you for the evening strolls, the nighttime food sessions, the rivers lit up from above and below). There are a few tourist destinations in Chongqing, but they're low quality and serve only to distract from the life. But here they are, nonetheless: Ciqikou "Old Town," a shabby attempt at the renovated Qing Dynasty-style tourist street that tries to hide greed behind a thin facade of culture. It fails to do so, but if you wander out of the central hawking realm, you'll find run down ruins where women hang undies up to dry, kids chase each other through spider-infested bamboo groves and old men play checkers and smoke pipes. It's that real China feel that you came here for in the first place. The rivers are beautiful at night, grimy by day. The cruise from Chongqing down through the Three Gorges to Yichang and beyond is still the largest tourist draw. But those cruise ships leave Chongqing for scenery up ahead; for the river as it is in the city, take a Yangtze River cruise starting from Chaotianmen (Cháotiānmén, 朝天门) or Nanping (Nánpíng, 南坪). The river cruise takes about an hour and you'll coast from bridge to bridge straining to get the entire skyline in your picture frame and failing because the buildings weren't built according to a method, or a view or anything other than the following maxim: We can fit one here. The Arhat Temple downtown and the cable car rides nearby are an old stand-by for tourists coming to Chongqing and, sure, it's worth the trip. Another favorite of mine is the river pavilion walkway along the south side of the Yangtze River, in the Nanping district. There is not a whole lot there to see, but the view across to downtown is good; the tea houses along the river are quite comfortable if the weather permits, and at the far end of the river walkway is a Western restaurant inside the old French Mission built in the late 19th century. The restaurant does an okay job, but the grounds are beautiful and little tid bits pop out here and there, like a plaque commemorating the return of a French botanist from upriver dated 1889 and paintings from that era on the walls of the restaurant. Everyone should hang out at Jiefangbei for a few hours and get vertigo like I did. The Chinese say that Jiefangbei in Chongqing is the best place to see beautiful women. The pedestrian street is right in the heart of the city and is surrounded by hotels and restaurants. It's a good place to start or finish your day—the night food down the side streets off of Jiefangbei is amazing.

Other spots

Two other spots I really like are the 18 Steps old part of the city—perhaps already crumbling under the wrecking ball, and the Dazu Buddhist Stone Carvings. Dazu was the first place I visited when I arrived in Chongqing more than a decade ago. It was one of the trips that seared itself into my brain because at the time the faces and positions of the various Buddhist demons were new and fresh to me and the stonework was impressive. I witnessed the source and legacy of the stone carving after I saw locals hew rock out of a cliff side near my house, chop them into blocks and then build a wall. 18 Steps was also an encounter I'll never forget. The history of the place plus the vital and relaxed position it occupies among the locals made it an important discovery for me. I hope they don't completely wipe out the old madness of Chongqing in their drive to become more than they are. I always respected Chongqing for being defiantly chaotic and irreverent—even violent sometimes. It's a vitality that a lot of cities express in different ways, with much less flavor. Another favorite pastime is to take the Chongqing Metro Line 2 from Jiaochangkou (Jiàochǎngkǒu, 较场口) to Yangjiaping (Yángjiāpíng, 杨家坪). The monorail line has a great view of the river and the city below and Yangjiaping is a bar and club district with cold drinks and hot women. Good city for a weekend of craziness. Bad city to live in.
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