Chongqing Travelogue(2371 views)

Release date:2011-02-22 00:39:35

At sunset, we walked down to the harbor to board our ship for the Yangtze River boat cruise that my mom had booked us on.

As we neared the water, five men, bony, with thick, tanned, and weathered skin, walked towards us. After walking a little closer, they called out to us, asking to help us take our bags to the boats. Before waiting for our answers, they walked closer still, their voices cutting sharper through the air. Finally they reached us and skulked around, while my mom hesitated. While she deliberated, they repeatedly offered their help to take our luggage, speaking in what they thought of us soothing voices, gently massaging us into letting us help them. But I could still hear the urgency with which they pronounced their words.

Finally, my mom let them take our stuff up to the boat, and they hoisted our bags onto their backs and speed-walked them the remaining 50 meters to the dock and up the boat plank. As a 12-year-old who lead a sheltered life in the suburbs of Boston, I found this aggressive display, a little sad, terrifying, and frankly, irritating.

Everything about Chongqing made me feel this way. The minute we drove into the city, on a day in late August 2001, the trash and its smell crowding the streets, and in the overrun grocery stores where we looked for jellies and instant noodles rushed towards my eyes, my nose, all my senses. The pollution created nearly opaque blankets of smog; the heat bore down and wrung every drop of sweat that my body had ever held. And when our tour guide told us that we had to try Chongqing hot pot, that it was even more renowned than Chengdu’s in flavor and five-alarm spiciness, I eagerly bit into a piece of meat that had been soaked into the red, oily soup, and also bit down on a small but lethal hua jiao. After hearing the sickening crunch, I gagged as an acrid, numbing flavor spread across my tongue. My disgust grew when I realized that we were eating frog.

We stayed here for a week, touring the Chongqing Museum, and this city’s answer to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. While visiting all of these sites, I thought only of returning to our air-conditioned hotel room, and continuing to read Gone With the Wind. When we stepped into several nondescript Buddhist temples that were crammed into the narrow, pedestrian-only alleyways slanting upward on the hills of the central district, my hyper-articulate 12-year-old brain kept thinking, “This place is like San Francisco, only not clean or cool.”

Then my mom and I caught a long bus ride to Ciqikou, a town located within the municipality with a thousand-year history. As a remnant of ancient Chongqing, the town boasts flagstone streets, rows of porcelain shops, reflecting its history as a center of porcelain production dating back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and teahouses, where we nursed glasses of green tea, and people watched. From there, we saw the Dazu Rock Carvings, depicting detailed engravings of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian figures, as well as inscriptions bearing over 100,000 Chinese characters in total.

For our last two days in Chongqing, we traveled to the Wulong Karst National Geography Park, and toured the Three Natural Bridges, all named after dragons and carved into a huge, white, limestone gorge, dotted with greenery and pagodas, and the Furong Cave, featuring a stone waterfall, and a pool of jutting coral-colored calcite flowers, among other colorful, twisted rock formations. While taking in these sites, I relaxed a little bit in Chongqing. The city couldn’t be that bad if there were places like this.

So it was jarring for me to meet those young men who wanted to desperately carry our bags for a measly 10 RMB. They embodied something that made me uncomfortable about China, a reminder that this country was not like the one I was currently growing up in. Yet now that I’m grown up, and have been back several more times, I am used to the in-your-face manner of the workers, the smells, the weather, the pollution, alongside the natural beauty and fascinating history of this civilization. In fact, I embrace it.

A couple of years ago, I read an article about the redevelopment of Chongqing, how it has become a modernized, fashionable city full of lit-up glass skyscrapers, in the mode of Shanghai and any other major Chinese metropolis. My 12-year-old self would have liked that city better, but now I find myself hoping that Chongqing has retained some of its old character, as a dirty, belligerent gateway to some of western China’s most stunning natural sites.

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