Saturday, July 28, 2012

Summer 2012: Chongqing

Summer holiday. It's here. June 30 to August 8. Though I had visions of sitting around, doing nothing but taking bike rides 'round Beijing, hosting couch surfers from all corners of the globe, and reading until my eyes bled, a plethora of trips grabbed me by the neck and by the wallet and pulled me, gasping and struggling, away from the northern capital for a spell.

Summer 2012, Installment the Third: Chongqing, Chongqing Municipality, People's Republic of China

Our four-day cruised deposited Yan and me unceremoniously at Chaotianmen, the tip of the peninsula formed by the Jialing and the Yangtze Rivers, in Chongqing, early on the morning of Saturday, July 14. We’d had a glimpse of the metropolis the night before and then watched the sun rise over some of its high-rises before clearing up and clearing out. I was pretty excited about Chongqing; for some reason, it seemed like an important, happenin’ city.

Chongqing is both a city and a municipality, like Beijing. There are some seven million folks living in the urban area, and twenty-eight million in the municipality at large. In the past century the city seems to have gained quite a bit of importance and prominence, but before that it doesn't seem to have an incredible amount of historical importance. Chongqing was the capital for Chiang Kai Shek and the KMT around the time of WWII, and then later the city was upgraded in status to one of five "national central cities" that hold quite a bit of sway in certain chunks of China. There has also been some political sketchiness in the past couple years in Chongqing, political sketchiness that I am not going to comment on, lest something sketchy happen to me. Additionally, the cuisine in the city is known for being spicy and hot, and, apparently, so are the girls (Yan called them “spicy girls,” and when she wanted me to tell her some other English nomenclature for attractive females, I shared with her the terminology “mad honies” and “biddies”; then I told her to call the men “hunks,” even though she seemed more keen on praising the Chongqing women instead).

And, it's pretty hot there.

Yan had scoped Chongqing out quite well before we arrived, and so we had quite a few clear-cut objectives, all of which we accomplished without too much logistical trouble. Here are the activities and sights that we experienced:

1. Ciqikou (translation: "porcelain port"; it's like "toilet port," but not quite). Basically this area was a restored ancient part of town; now, it seemed like a seething, kitschy center of shopping and eating tourism. We slowly plodded through its narrow streets, stopping here or there to tinker with some bells or go through a haunted house (it would have been more frightening – in fact, I can safely say that I would have urinated in my pants – had the sixteen-year-old haunted house proprietor, who was very, very excited to obtain my business, not gone through the dark hallways before me, setting off all the ghosts and zombies that jumped out and could have startled me). After a while it got to be a lot of the same shops and foods, but near the end I did venture into a cool alley off to the side that had a bunch of cafes and coffee shops.

2. Independence Monument. We didn’t find any information that explained whom independence was gained from, but additional research tells us that it commemorates the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1945. This tower seemed like a pretty popular central point for…whoever was in the area, I guess. Many people hanging out, taking pictures, or getting checked out by us.

3. Hong Ya Dong. This proved to be another massive, similar-shop-havin’ tourism project, although it had some cooler additions, like a Mary Kay managerial promotion ceremony, a waterfall thing, some giant swans, a cool wall, and 酸梅汤. Mmm.

4. A cable car. Yan and I rode this mother from the southern part of the city center, the part that lies on the peninsula, over the Yangtze River hundreds of feet below us to the south shore. The cable car (Yan said that in Chinese, “cable car” is translated as “lazy car”) was way more interesting than taking a taxi or a bus, way quicker than walking, and way safer and drier than swimming.

5. Yi Ke Shu. The reason for the cable car trip and the accompanying and terrifying tri-ped ride was to reach the top of the hill that provided the best night view of downtown Chongqing. The cable car, the tri-ped, and the tumultuous trip home that took at least a hundred man-hours were all worth it. There was the top of the hill and its view, and then there was this UFO-like observation building, which had multiple viewing decks and multiple giant green laser pointers. And a lot of Chinese people. But I couldn’t blame them for being there, because Yi Ke Shu was pretty neat.

6. Wulong Karst Three Natural Bridges. The opposite of the previous day (1-5), Sunday saw Yan and I on a bus heading south for about one hundred and one man-hours to Xianniushan Town, at times wondering if this venture would be worth it. Wulong (the county in which this wildness was located) Karst (a rocky landscape formation formed when water dissolves) Three (this is a number) Natural Bridges (basically when there's rock forming a bridge; it sort of looks like a cave...see below) was this enormous natural bridge complex, as the name subtly implies. We took an elevator down and just followed a path until we got to the end. The ticket was expensive but the set-up was really simple and straightforward; just walk and gawk.

Wulong's national park has three bridges called Tianlong ("sky dragon"), Qinglong ("azure dragon"), and Heilong ("black dragon"), and the park is part of a World UNESCO Heritage Site. These bridges are 771, 922, and 732 feet high, respectively.

And, lastly, it’s really difficult to accurately convey how huge these cliff bridges were. When I look at the photos, I am not very impressed. Being there, however, was jaw-dropping.

7. After we finished the exploration of the natural bridges o' Wulong, our journey through the natural underworld was not finished. A shuttle bus took us over to Furong Cave, which was this alarmingly deep ravine, complete with - you guessed it - a cave. There was a ton down at the bottom. Like, the huge cave. And a waterfall. And some rapids. And a super relaxing walk through this insanely deep and colorful gully. Again, the scale was enormous, and that is one thing that made the Furong complex awesome, even though, again, a simple camera cannot truly do that place justice. Another reason was how green it was. The weather continued to be dark and rainy, but that just brings out the green, which stood out quite starkly in the dark of the deep.

Some farmer dudes apparently discovered the cave in 1993. I don't know how a person "discovers" something this enormous; it seems like locals would have to know about it. But, then again, China is huge. Despite its hugeness, though, the PRC only has one cave on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, and Furong is it.

There are three parts to the Wulong Karst National Park; the Three Natural Bridges, Furong Cave, and then this even cooler-looking sinkhole called Qiankou Tiankeng, which looks completely sweet but which we didn't have time to visit. I'm sure it's not going anywhere, though, so.

8. Baodingshan Cliff Carvings in Dazu County. This World UNESCO Heritage Site was about 160 kilometers (100 miles! I knew this off the top of my head without having to look it up!) northwest of Chongqing and was the only thing I knew I wanted to see before arriving in the city. We took a bus directly to the carving compound and paraded through in probably like an hour. It was cool, but not as incredible as I was waiting for it to be in my mind. Not as big, more domesticated. Similar to Wulong Karst National Park, Baodingshan a clear path to follow from which we could check out the sights; however, the path through the ravine was nice because it kept tourists from getting lost and dying, while the path through the cliff carvings made the sculptures seem like they were in a museum, even though they weren’t and didn’t look like they should be.

The pertinent info on the Baodingshan carvings, one of the two best known rock carvings in Dazu, the other being Beishan: they were put together in the 12th century by a monk Zhao Zhifeng, who spent seventy years working on them. And you thought your grad school thesis was long. The other carvings in other spots around Dazu were put together in the 6th (a few) and the 9th (a lot) centuries by monks, nuns, and random, normal citizens who felt led to contribute. In total, there are over 100,000 characters carved at seventy-five different statue spots around the ol' county. Boom.

Also, apparently the carvings survived the Cultural Revolution because up until 1961, these things weren't available for viewing by anyone; some crappy dirt road was the only access route from from any major town to the different carvings. Breathe a sigh of relief.

The coolest part was all covered up by repair junk, which sucked; it was the Golden Hands Buddha surrounded by 1,007 golden hands. A picture of what it could look like is here. The glimpses I got are below.

9. Spicy food. Chongqing and the neighboring province – Sichuan – and probably all kinds of places down in southern China are known for having bangin’ spicy food, most notably hot pot. They put these little round seed things called huājiāo that have a unique, numbing spiciness. I don’t really like this spice that much, but while we were in Chongqing, I had two of those meals, while Yan (pictured below, so hungry that she started eating her purse), who went to bed early without dinner one night, only had one! What! What!

Chongqing. I liked it there. It was a pretty slick city, but it retained a lot of traditional life. For instance, we got off the bus after the Wulong Karst excursion, and there was a big crowd of old people dancing to old-person Chinese music and selling watermelons off the back of carts. Then we crossed the street and that block contained a bunch of skyscrapers, a square surrounded by fifteen-foot fashion ads and kids rollerblading, a subway station, and fresh modernity. Then we crossed the street on the other side of that block and walked through this alley to get to our extremely well-hidden hostel, and the alley was full of people playing mahjong in their shops and ducks/geese and meat that had super recently been ducks/geese and people living the way they had been living for seventy years. That sort of feel was all over; lots of sleek new stuff right next to hole-in-the-wall old stuff. All of it good, too.

There was a lot to do and see, and we only saw a little bit of the city. Not that I am a Hong Kong expert, but Chongqing reminded both Yan and me of Hong Kong. Windy streets, hills, spectacular skyline, busy. I left with a good taste in my mouth, not only the taste of huājiāo, but of the whole experience in general, and headed back on some plane to Nanyuan Airport south of Beijing, a place I didn’t know existed until I was checking in to fly there.

A good eight days, if I may say so myself. Yan was a ballin’ traveling companion, very assertive and quite good at speaking Chinese, apt in dealing with crappy black taxi drivers, inquisitive and interested in conversation, and as much of a camera-totin’ tourist as I was. Phase one of the summer holiday’s travels: complete. A few days of down, and then off to the next destination: Mongolia.

To be continued...