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China Deep Dive: Chongqing arrival

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Emerging from the Chongqing metro felt like coming back to the surface from a diamond mine. The final escalator was so long that I checked online to see if it was the longest escalator in the world but it wasn't even in the top ten. It wasn't even the longest escalator in Chongqing. It seemed that technology had passed me by during the twenty years I'd been living at sea level.

Our apartment for the next four days was in an upper floor of a high rise just a block from the Xiaoshizi metro station in the downtown neighborhood of Jiefangbei. Jiefangbei is part of Yuzhong District, which comprises the entire peninsula formed by the confluence of the Yangtze and Jinling rivers and has been described as the Manhattan of Chongqing. The first thing I'd noticed when I looked at the map of Chongqing was that the peninsula was shaped like a goose head, although no one else seems to have seen the resemblance. Jiefangbei was in the middle of the beak, an ideal location to access the numerous attractions of Yuzhong.

I had fairly high expectations for Chongqing based on my research and my initial impression of our surroundings was quite favorable. We were surrounded by modern skyscrapers in a variety of styles and even a traditional Buddhist temple. There was a department store next to our building with a small food court on the ground floor.

We went up to the apartment to drop off our luggage and found it quite presentable. It was approaching dinner time and we had our destination already picked out, an enormous complex of shops and restaurants at the riverside called Hongya Cave. We crossed the gigantic pedestrian overpass just north of our apartment and walked through a busy pedestrian area that led to a staircase that was lined with vendors. We immediately noticed baskets heaped with plums that had a shocking vermilion glow. Could any fruit possibly look that way naturally? Overcome by curiosity we bought a small bag. I tried one and immediately spat it out. It had a candied fruit texture and a sickly sweet flavor. The plum had been injected with some kind of chemical to give it a glowing appearance and presumably preserve it. It felt like I had taken a bite of a fruit that had been embalmed.

When we reached the Jialing River we realized that we were at the upper level of a steep hill that rose upward from the river bank. Just below the level where we stood the breathtaking, vividly red Qiansimen Bridge extended towards a cluster of skyscrapers in the Jiangbei District north of the river. There was a scattering of people standing at the edge of the muddy river across from us. Large sightseeing boats were moored in shallow-appearing waters on our side of the river. The poor appearance of the shoreline on either side was a reminder that Chongqing was still a work in progress.

From the promenade where we stood we could see the upper floors of Hongya Cave, a tempting grid of colorful shops already crowded with pedestrians. I was eager to being exploring the structure but Mei Ling had been co-opted by a hawker eager to convince us to pose for a photoshoot in a makeshift outdoor studio on the promenade. Despite my vain attempts to point out that the sun hanging over the river would likely render any photos worthless, Mei Ling acquiesced and we were quickly shepherded into the studio area where we spent the next half hour posing on staircases to nowhere and a half-moon swing bedecked with flowers. As I expected the photos we were eventually handed were washed out by the bright background but we were able to snap a couple of decent ones with our phones when clouds briefly passed in front of the sun.

We descended into Hongya Cave which was a labyrinth of street food restaurants, curiosity shops, and game rooms. We moved down through the levels fairly quickly as we didn't want to be trapped inside for the whole evening, but we did make a stop at a kiosk that by odd coincidence was selling Turkish ice cream. The locals were making a game effort but their teasing couldn't compare to the experts of Istanbul.

From the ground level Hongya Cave was even more impressive. Darkness had begun to fall and the intricate wooden facades of the multistory complex were now outlined in bright gold neon. The crowds milling on the sidewalk rapidly grew thicker as we worked our way west for the best view of the illuminated display. Eventually we reached an pedestrian overpass that offered a good vantage point and squeezed our way to the railing for just enough time to capture a couple of photographs.

We had to keep a close hold on the kids as we worked through the now solidified mass of humanity and descended to the other side of the overpass. We now had an unobstructed view over the water where the riverboats were likewise gaudily illuminated. The idea of boarding one at this point seemed overwhelming and we decided to postpone this part of the experience to a later evening. Instead we browsed a line of hotpot restaurants along the riverside, eventually selecting the one that seemed the most busy and appetizing. Chongqing cuisine revolves around hotpot and for the next hour or so we were dumping various raw ingredients into bubbling broth. Mei Ling, Ian, and Spenser got the spicy side while Cleo and I mainly stuck with the chicken broth.

After dinner we found the underpass which was a much less crowded way to return to Hongya Cave. This time we stuck to the bottom level, a long arcade of food stalls, light entertainment, and other novelties. The colors, lights, and energy level were off the charts. It was hard to conceive of living in a place where such a profusion of food and activities were on my doorstep every night of the week. It's a concept that seems mostly unique to eastern Asia. If this kind of place existed in Miami I would probably never go to a regular sit-down restaurant again.

We took a slightly different route back to the apartment and passed one of the most bizarre buildings I've ever encountered. In the darkness it was difficult to tell that it was a building at all. I could see an enormous stack of black and bright red rods interlocked in an orderly configuration and the dark outlines of a building through the rods. We photographed it as best we could and I bookmarked it on my GPS. Later I learned it is the Guotai Arts Center. The unique design of this art museum is variously said to have been inspired by hot pot chopsticks or by the white fig tree, both of which are symbolic of the city. Unfortunately there is no commentary in the English language internet from the architects or reliable local sources.

We spent a little more time walking around in Jiefangbei but we were in sensory overload from Hongya Cave and there weren't many things that could have made much of an impression on us at that point. We returned to our apartment grateful that we had allotted ourselves three full days to explore this dynamic and beautiful city.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:15 Archived in China Tagged family chongqing family_travel travel_blog hongya_cave tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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