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China Deep Dive: Chongqing the non-stop city

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I had a long list of sights and activities in Chongqing so we arose early on Tuesday morning with a sense of purpose. We wanted to get breakfast done quickly without wasting time in a restaurant so we cruised through the little food court next to our apartment building. We consumed our skewers, buns, and dumplings on a bench in the parking lot and felt like regular city dwellers commuting to work.

Our first two destinations were in close proximity. We jumped on the metro and took it a few stops east to Lianglukou, followed by the 829 bus to Eling Park atop the highest hill in Yuzhong. It turns out Eling can be translated as Goose Neck, so perhaps I wasn't the only one who thought that Yuzhong looked goose-like. For the most part it was a fairly typical Chinese park with ponds and traditional Chinese architectural elements. Because the park was on a hillside we had to keep climbing staircases in order to make our way to the side facing the river.

Near the top of the hill there was a balcony with panoramic views across the Jialing of a forest of skyscrapers in Jiangbei. Some middle aged Chinese women were taking photographs from the balcony as well and I couldn't help notice one of their T-shirts. It was an incoherent segment of a Black Lives Matter shirt that had been clumsily spliced into the center of another partial garment and now read "I CAN' BREA". It stood out to me as a reminder of the emptiness of wearing a political slogan on a T-shirt and turning it into a brand, a hollow symbol waiting to be mindlessly co-opted and absorbed into a cheap commercial swamp.

At the very top of the hill there was a lookout tower designed in the style of a pagoda. Cleo refused to make the climb to the top, having clambered up to enough viewpoints in Hong Kong and Xiamen. The rest of us were treated to glorious views of the urban conglomeration on either side of the muddy Jialing.

On our way back downhill we ducked into the little teahouse and were surprised to find an elaborate interior furnished with period antiques. The proprietor told us that the building was a temporary residence of Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife around the end of World War II. Many of the original items from the residence have been kept there in pristine condition.

Strangely enough we were the only visitors to the teahouse at that time and we had the undivided attention of the staff. Mei Ling ordered a quite extensive tea service that included a large variety of small cakes and pastries. The cakes were served with a selection of colorful dips one of which looked like liquid charcoal. The black sauce stained the kids' mouth and teeth quite impressively.

The Erchang Culture and Creative Park was just a short walk downhill from Eling Park. I was excited to visit this complex of galleries and cafes that I had uncovered during my research on Chongqing. There seemed to be several locations in Chongqing where old factory buildings had been repurposed into arts and entertainment centers but Erchang, also known as Testbed2, was the only one that I had been able to collect enough information on to justify a visit.

Erchang had a confusing array of galleries, stores, and cafes packed into the weathered skeletons of the old factory buildings. They had done a good job of preserving the grim, industrial origin of the complex while at the same time infusing it with colorful bursts of creativity and commercialism. We explored several art exhibits and wandered through the network of small alleys making sure we hadn't missed any of the whimsical little cafes.

There was one multilevel concrete building entirely dedicated to galleries and I probably could have spent much more time here if it wasn't for the kids continuously propelling me forward. One of the more inspirational exhibits was of the work of Huang Guofu, an artist who had lost his arms in a childhood accident and had learned to paint by holding a brush in his mouth and his feet. The artist was in residence that day and we were able to watch his technique as he worked on a black and white composition.

We caught a bus back to the metro and proceeded directly to Ciqikou Ancient Town on the western outskirts of the city. This seemed to be another one of those municipal tourist attractions that are created on the site of an old neighborhood of some historical significance. Ciqikou translates to "porcelain port", the name the town was given during the Qing dynasty after it became famous for production of blue and white porcelain. The official websites that promote the old town create the impression of antiquity while studiously avoiding the topic of how much of present day Ciqikou is actually new construction.

Ciqikou sits on a low hill and is almost entirely composed of stores and restaurants, with very few buildings that appear residential. While some of the structures may date back a century or two the majority appear to be fairly modern constructions of brick or plaster. The pedestrianised streets were paved with evenly cut flagstones that seemed to have been laid fairly recently. These streets were filled with Chinese domestic tourists and the overall theme of the area was very commercial. Although Ciqikou wasn't a very authentic old town it was still fun to browse the shops and people watch for a couple of hours.

Just a short metro ride from Ciqikou was a place that I hadn't encountered during my research because it barely exists on the English language internet. Fortunately Mei Ling had done her own research on Chinese websites and discovered Mafangwan, a colorful hidden corner of Chongqing that proved to be one of the most interesting sights of this entire visit to China. This old neighborhood wedged between two major roads was completely invisible from the outside, but upon ducking into a narrow alley we discovered a surreal world of vivid colors, animal portraits, and blown up photographs of boy band members.

At the far end of the colorful neighborhood was a well-known Szechuan restaurant called Mafangwan 66. We had already eaten but we stopped to admire the rainbow iron staircase that arched downward into the courtyard and the giant dog portrait that covered an entire outside wall of the building. I have no idea how this little network of alleys came to be turned into an enormous artwork or what the significance is of the various repeated elements but it was wonderful to encounter this little focus of exuberance in such an unexpected corner of this heaving metropolis.

We returned to Jiefangbei to explore Shi Ba Ti, another renovated old neighborhood that spills down the northern embankment of the Yangtze River. Shi Ba Ti is one of Chongqing's most recent gentrification projects and generated some degree of controversy for the heavy-handed way in which authorities forced the residents of the dilapidated neighborhood to relocate before sending in the bulldozers. Of course this has all been whitewashed on the official municipal tourism websites and Shi Ba Ti is well on its way to becoming another "ancient" town in the official history of Chongqing. We're too self-centered to base our travel on judgments of China's social policies so we were mostly interested in finding manageable crowds, high energy, and delicious food. We exited the metro station and immediately found ourselves at the top of a long stone staircase that seemed to be descending into a gleaming wonderland.

This trip to China had been filled with evenings in renovated "old towns", with the best to this point having been Jinli Ancient Street in Chengdu. Shi Ba Ti brought things to a whole new level. The buildings were immaculate and carried a general sense of antiquity even though I knew most of them were reproductions. Illumination was everywhere from the storefronts to the chains of lanterns strung along tree branches and even stone steps outlined in neon. The three dimensional structure of the neighborhood also added to its appeal tremendously, with the glowing staircases ascending out of a central courtyard in several directions.

On the night we visited at least, the crowd density and energy level of Shi Ba Ti were perfect. We had been in some lightly populated night markets and we had been almost crushed to death at the Wild Goose pagoda in Xi'an and neither were particularly pleasant. I wondered if the price points of the goods at Shi Ba Ti had been carefully calibrated to attract an upper middle class crowd and discourage the unwashed masses. There was a conspicuous absence of street food no matter how hard we looked and we eventually had to leave the area in order to find a decent restaurant.

Naturally we didn't need to walk far to fill our stomachs. There were hotpot restaurants all over the neighborhood and we walked into the first one we saw that seemed sufficiently crowded. Afterwards we strolled over to yet another food street in Jiefangbei called Bayi Lu where I immediately wished I had saved more room in my stomach. There was a huge variety of street foods here and a couple of the largest food courts we had seen yet. There were basins of skewers and bubbling pots emitting spicy vapor everywhere.

Once we had topped up to the best of our abilities we spent another hour strolling around the pedestrian streets of Jiefangbei. The area was surrounded by enormous skyscrapers that displayed a series of blinking patterns. In the center of it all was the People's Liberation Monument which is the namesake of the entire neighborhood. This ninety foot octagonal tower commemorates China's victory in the Sino-Japanese theater of World War II. Not far away a less somber monument commemorated Chongqing's love affair with spicy hotpot. Two giant silver chopsticks stood erect adjacent to gargantuan fire-engine-red chili peppers that people were using as benches.

This brought to a conclusion one of the most memorable one-day city explorations since I had first begun coming to China with Mei Ling in 2008. We had filled about fourteen hours with art galleries, cultural zones of variable authenticity, food streets, and even a painted neighborhood. Between this day's events and Hongya Cave from the previous night, Chongqing was well on its way to becoming my favorite city in China. As disappointed as I had been with the modernization initiatives in Shanghai and Beijing that seemed to have gutted the soul of those cities, we finally seemed to have found a place that was getting it right in Chongqing. All of these wondrous areas seemed to have been created in just the last ten or twenty years and I could only imagine what the next ten or twenty might bring.

Posted by zzlangerhans 21:08 Archived in China Tagged family chongqing family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog eling_park shi_ba_ti shibati ciqikou bayi_lu jiefangbei mafangwan

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