The only reason I ever went to Chongqing was because I wanted to see a Buddhist sculpture complex not far from it. The only thing I KNEW about Chongqing was that it’s the biggest conglomeration in China. Apart from that, I didn’t have a single mental association. I ended up being quite… flabbergasted. Yeah. That’s a good word for it.
It is without doubt one of the strangest cities I’ve seen. It grows out of steep hills that seem to transform into tall buildings almost imperceptibly. The buildings are new, but the moist air covers them with a film of green growth, so everywhere seems at the same time very modern and derelict. Great bridges and winding flyovers span over the buildings in loose knots. Wafts of mist from the Yangtze (or maybe just smog) cover the riverbanks, hiding them from view. It’s a city from a Tarkovsky film.
My impression, for some reason, was that it’s very new. Probably because you never, ever hear it mentioned in any lectures or anything. Turns out it’s actually quite old, having been founded in the Spring and Autumn period. More recently it served as Chiang Kai-Shek’s base before he fled to Taiwan.
It’s a cliche to say that a place is full of contrasts – but Chongqing really is, more so that other cities (methinks). You can still find original dilapidating teahouses from the 20’ies and five minutes later take an escalator so long you need to get a ticket for it.
Another thing is – it really is quite un-touristy. I think the only other foreigner I’ve seen in 3 days was the Australian lady I was staying with. Once or twice a local actually stopped me on the street and asked: “So… erm… WHY are you here?” Apart from that no one paid me a lot of attention, so it was quite relaxing (except for the buses. They can be very confusing because a lot of them stop at a certain number of bus stops in one direction – and then skip a half in the other).
So there it is: a city that is never, ever mentioned when you ask for interesting places to go in China. It’s like a traveller’s black hole. Probably one of the largest cities in the world that no one has ever heard of. And yes, maybe it doesn’t have the Great Wall or the Terracotta Army, but there are some interesting places around, the people seem more chilled out, no one pesters you – and it’s just quite a unique spot in itself. I’d say try to stop by for a day or two before it loses this weird balance of dilapidating and new. PS 1: Also, if I was a man, it would’ve been the place where one of my fantasies came to life. The lady I was staying with teaches English at a school for prospective flight attendants and she asked me if I could go and have a little chat with them about myself, where I come from, my travels. I said sure. So there I was, surrounded by a whole bunch of young attractive girls looking vaguely clone-like due to their identical hairstyles, make-up and uniforms – all being trained specifically to be nice and attend to all one’s needs with maximum grace and charm (seriously. At one point they asked me if they can take a photo with me and they took me to a room with a huge mirror on the wall, like in a dance studio. Some of them were sitting cross-legged in front of it. “What are you doing?” – I asked. They answered with perfect earnestness: “We’re practicing graceful sitting!” (I have the photo, but I don’t want to post it in case I violate some privacy laws. Also, they were all elegant and made-up, whereas I had just been swimming – yes, they had a swimming pool there, because a lot of Chinese girls can’t swim and sometimes it’s necessary during a flight! – so I feel like I would be doing a huge unjustice to my appearance). PS 2: I forgot to mention it in the last post: there’s now over a hundred of you following this blog! Thanks, everyone!