- 1 - The Largest City You’ve Never Heard Of
- 2 - Journey Into the Cloud – Visiting Downtown Chongqing
Somewhere in Western China, an enormous yellowish-brown cloud of smog generally referred to as Chongqing clings to the steep hillsides at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. Hidden within are thousands of tall buildings and around 10 million people. As Chongqing is one of the fastest growing urban centers on earth (if not the fastest) that number has grown to 11 million in the time it took me to write this sentence.
Like all Asian cities built on one or more hills, Chongqing is sometimes referred to as the “San Francisco of the east.” Within China, it is also known as “mountain city” or “city on rivers”, perhaps due to its location in the mountains at the confluence of two rivers. It is a city unlike any other and is surrounded by spectacular scenery: mountains, rivers, karsts, caves, waterfalls, gorges, and springs. It is also the launching point for cruises down the Yangtze, through the Three Gorges area. And yet, no one visits. Why?
First of all, the city has an additional nickname: it is known as one of China’s “three furnaces,” considered the most unbearably hot cities in the country (the other two are Wuhan and Nanjing, with Shanghai often being included as the fourth). Second, the World Bank has ranked Chongqing as one of the most polluted cities in the world. Finally, the city has spent the past 15 years building a reputation for organized crime and corruption.
I arrived just after dark at Chongqing North, a newly built station in brand-new suburb conveniently located a quick two hour flight north of downtown. I did a little research prior to getting on the train and knew that Chongqing had very limited budget accommodation options for foreign tourists. And since the few hostels the city did have are used mainly by people looking to cruise the Yangtze, none of those hostels are near downtown.
Trains to Chengdu leave from Chongqing North anyway, so I wanted to stay in that area, but aside from one very expensive-looking hotel, I saw nothing but hundreds of newly-built high-rise apartment complexes. I also saw the standard army of touts with little inconspicuous signs advertising cheap places to stay.
You see these people outside any major train station in China, but it is illegal for foreigners to stay in the accommodation they offer and the conditions are such that few would stay there even if they could. In more touristy cities, many of the touts will additionally have information on local hotels and will be more than happy to take tourists there. For this, the hotel owner naturally pays a commission and the cost of the room shoots up. Needless to say, I always waved them away before they even got near me.
The touts in Chongqing were different; they seemed to want nothing to do with me, indicating they didn’t act as commission brokers. And since I didn’t see a single sign for the horrific, but incredibly cheap accommodation options that generally surround train stations in China, I was curious what they were actually offering. I talked to one of the older women and learned that she had bought an apartment in one of the surrounding complexes and was renting out the rooms.
Within seconds every other tout in the area had made his or her way over to us to remind the woman I was talking to that it was illegal for her to rent a room to a foreigner. Every one of them would happily have rented me a room I think, but couldn’t stand the fact that I was talking to her and not them. She told me she was worried they would contact the police and I can’t say I disagreed. We decided I would pretend I was leaving for the bus station, but then meet up ten minutes later a few hundred meters down the road.
From there she took me to her place and you could tell it had just been built. It was nothing more than a couple of empty rooms with beds, dressers and an internet connection. It was relatively clean though, aside from the construction dust and the complex even had a pool that was so new the water was still clean enough to swim in without ensuring any future children you might have are born with three eyes.
After some haggling, we agreed I would pay $15 in advance for two nights, which made it cheaper than any place available for foreigners other than a dorm room in a hostel. Needless to say, I was pretty happy with the way things had turned out especially considering the abundance of Sichuan style restaurants in the area (Chongqing used to be part of Sichuan province).
Aside from the food in Xinjiang, which is really middle-eastern and not Chinese, the Sichuan style of cooking is my favorite in China. Don’t get me wrong, they still use so much grease that global oil prices jump up a few cents every time a Chinese family goes out to eat, but at least you won’t find chicken beaks or eyeballs hidden among the bones and feet on your plate.
More importantly, they use a combination of spicy chili peppers and the huajiao or flower pepper in their dishes. The flower pepper is more lemony than spicy and actually numbs the tongue, making for a unique taste and sensation in combination with the incredibly spicy chilies. Long story short, I ate well that night.
The next day I journeyed into the smog cloud and visited downtown Chongqing.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, author: Jonipoon.