Ni hao! I’m sat writing this on the 21-hour train ride from Chongqing to Guilin. I’m sat up in bed whilst Emma sits on the bunk above coughing her lungs up whilst painting her nails, I’m sure the vapour of the varnish is really helping her cold! Everything’s just gone dark as we pass through another long section of tunnel before emerging on another lush expanse of green countryside, every square inch of which has been farmed. The landscape is a patchwork of rivers that have cut their way down through the hills, the farmers have terraced the land and flooded areas to grow rice. We’ve just left a station where the staff have changed over, all the fresh guys have metal tins on them and are queuing past our door to collect their breakfast. The Chinese guy sat opposite me is watching American TV on his tablet PC. The Chinese girl above him (opposite Emma) is ill like us and has been coughing her guts up too. She woke in the night and left to use the toilet, some chancer must have been lingering in the corridor and tried to claim her bed. I woke to see him in the doorway with Emma arguing with him from her bunk, he was trying to move the girls stuff out of the way, which he succeeded at, and now clambered up onto her bed to sleep. He had a handful of old or fake tickets he was using to try to convince us that the bed was his. We let it go as we thought the young girl must have got off at the last stop and left her stuff maybe (we were asleep when she left), however she soon returned to the dark room and started to climb up to her bunk before getting the surprise of her life. The bed intruder was doing a good job of convincing her too the bed wasn’t hers, but Emma gestured to her to get a guard. Emma seemed to have taken a protective instinct over her roommate and didn’t want to see this arsehole stitch her up. The girl returned with a guard who quickly realised this man was a scumbag who thought he could claim a vacant bed for the night, he was promptly turfed out and that was the last we saw of him.
So, Chongqing, quite a relevant city right now, it seems to be making the western media a lot these days with the land grabs, death of a British businessman and it’s often used false moniker of the world’s biggest city. We arrived after taking the bullet train from Chengdu, a two-hour journey in luxuriously comfortable seats with an excess of space. The most notable and recognisable feature of this city is its location on the juncture of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers, the former running a deep blue colour and the latter an earthy yellow. They combine and mix, and from that point all the way across China to the East they run known as the Yangtze. Historically this had been the land of mass immigration and emigration with people leaving due to war and famine and people arriving as they sought to flee the same problems in other provinces. People are arriving again in their droves now tempted by the promise of making their fortune. This is a hot city with temperatures reaching mid forties in the summer months, the locals would have lived in stilt houses on the banks of the river and made their living from the river trade route running past their front doors. It’s a hilly city too, flanked by green hills on either side, getting anywhere by foot will result in a wave of sweat.
After a walk around this place we noticed the staring was much worse than other places we’d been. This is a busy place and at times it felt like EVERYONE was staring at us, quite disconcerting. So despite its economic development they still don’t see too many westerners here. After stopping for a drink to replace all the water that was now running down my back, we sat on some shaded benches outside a row of huge banks. A guy sat behind me had been staring for some time so Emma used our usual trick of saying ‘Ni Hao’ to break the awkwardness but also to make him aware that he was staring. He was very pleased with this and we started to have a little conversation. He soon started asking questions we could no longer answer so we shook our heads to show we couldn’t understand. He then tried to demonstrate the Mandarin characters of what he was saying but this wouldn’t make things any clearer for us. I think he finally accepted that we couldn’t understand Mandarin. It was shame as he was itching to ask us stuff but Chinese people often can’t think outside of their language I’ve noticed, they will never make hand gestures to demonstrate their meaning and so conversations often end quite early. We managed to tell him our route through China which he was very impressed by. We said goodbye and carried on our way. The next day in a completely different area of town we heard a faint ‘Hi, Hi, Hi!’ and turned to see our friend from the day before waving at us from across the street. We smiled and shouted back in Chinese, amazed that we saw this same face in such a big city.
Walking through town, large runs of shops are setup just selling air con units which blast you as you walk by, quite appreciated in this heat. On the corner of a street is a cat and dog market, all different breeds panting to try to cool down.
This city is famous for its hot pot, once part of Sichuan province but now its own municipality, they’ve kept their Sichuanese fiery flavours. The hot pot is a table with built-in gas burner on which a bowl of evil red sauce is placed. The sauce contains hundreds of small red chillies and is thick with Sichuan peppercorns. Once it gets up to heat it boils furiously, spitting its evil red oil everywhere, not best to be wearing white when you sample it. We were recommended a hot pot place by our hostel and so nervously took a taxi and off we went. We’d heard you could get two separate sauces, one the fiery favourite and the other a rich stock so we took a bowl that held half of each. You pay a small amount for your sauce and from a long list of ingredients you now pick raw items that you’d like to cook in it. We did our best to choose some lamb, chicken, potato and aubergine which soon arrived at the table. What an amateur mistake, of course the chicken would be chicken feet! Damn it, so we’ve now got two platefuls of the stuff, the aubergine mysteriously turned out to be tomato too. The lamb was good though, thin slices of good meat. We’d ordered two of everything and so sensibly tipped one of each into either of the two sauces. Our western hygiene had to go out of the window as we had to handle the frozen, wet, dripping ingredients with the chopsticks we’d later eat with. Looking at how furiously the sauce boiled, we were convinced no nasties could survive a dunk in the liquor. We waited until we thought stuff had cooked and I went in and tried some lamb from the evil red sauce side… WALLOP, it certainly was hot as I was prepared it would be, it’s often touted as one of the spiciest foods in the world. I could handle the heat though, it was what came next that my senses couldn’t handle! I had the sensation that on either side of my tongue this incredibly sour and slightly limey flavour was poring out. It felt like it was gushing out of my tongue, quite unbearable. I quickly tried some meat from the friendlier sauce which was far nicer. Emma had the same experience which neither of us could bear, it felt like it might carry on for days on our tongues so we both left the evil side alone after that! We were now an interesting blotchy red colour, not far from that of the sauce. The rest of the meal was quite pleasant, we avoided the pointless chicken legs which are just fat, cartilage and nail. They were impossible to handle with chopsticks anyway and without a plate to sit them on to cool down. We left that night a little hungry but very pleased we’d tried the stuff. As we walked out we looked at the locals, none had meat, just vegetables that looked more manageable, but they all had one thing in common, a huge bowl of the evil fire sauce, they love it! All the men are sat with their shirts off, wiping away the torrents of sweat running from their man boobs.
We walked back that night around the inner headland on the juncture of the rivers, admiring the city now it was lit up with lasers and neon lights. A building opposite sat looking like a square version of Sydney’s Opera House with two bridges very similar to their harbour bridge either side. An old style clock tower was lit up and very reminiscent of our own Big Ben, whilst several clear pyramids of glass reminded us of the Louvre in Paris.
The next day we strolled around the city’s guildhall, Huguang Huiguan, a place where immigrants in the past would have come for food and help. The site now is a sort of museum to these immigrants, they also hold opera performances on the stages in there. We passed a few pleasant hours in there admiring the yellow walls and architecture. I think this is one of the best looking buildings I’ve seen yet in China, I’d quite like my house to look just like it. We received a lesson in Chinese Jade from a lovely girl named Jessie who worked in the gift shop there. I also saw the first thing that I’d really like to have bought, they take local leaves and boil off the green flesh leaving just the veins of the leaf. It gets coated in a lacquer and then local artists decorate them with differening designs. There were some drawn with just black ink depicting ancient scenes from Chongqing, really lovely and unique art, but no room in my bag unfortunately 🙁
Before catching our train last night we sat and enjoyed a few bottles of Shancheng beer from our hostel rooftop, overlooking the river and the huge bridge being built high above our heads. A cat was lounging in the shade under an adjacent roof, happily snoozing. One of the hostel staff appeared kindly with a bowl of water he placed down for the cat, clearly the hostels pet we now thought. He stood and pointed at the water for ten minutes whilst the cat pretended not to have noticed and slowly approached, regularly stopping to lick its arse or stretch. Finally the cat reached the water and dipped its head into the bowl, at which point the guy quickly picked him up by the front leg and seamlessly placed it into a sack held open by woman who’d just appeared from nowhere. She tied off the sack and left the hostel, wriggling sack in hand. We wondered incredulously at what the poor creature’s fate would be whilst the little bowl of water that had been the bait sat there. We felt sure in ourselves he was being taken to some sanctuary full of kindly cat ladies, to live out his days on someone’s lap… China!