What to do in Chongqing when you can’t eat spicy food. Or anything else.

Chongqing might be the biggest city in the world you’ve never heard of.

Actually a few years ago there was a fuss when Chongqing was touted as the biggest city in the world, full stop. The municipal area has a population of something like 52 million, which would make it the biggest, if all of that was actually city. In reality most of those people live on provincial farmland, and the urban population is more like 9 million.

The same as London.

So imagine you’re on a train arriving in a new town. You’ve never heard of it before, you’ve not seen a picture, and there’s not that much to do listed in the guidebook. The main point of interest is the docks, where cargo is carried up the hill across the shoulders of the men who work there. They’re called bang-bang men, after the long bamboo poles that they suspend the goods from, across their naked backs.

From the admittedly scant information you’ve absorbed, you form some preconceptions about the size of this town. It’s, well, a town. Also imagine that you’re severely debilitated by having spent most of the night expelling your stomach contents and then braining yourself on a metal floor.

Then you get off the train and find there’s an extensive metro system here, and a large, organised taxi rank. Because this town city is the size of London.

Gliding in the back of a taxi through the streets of a very large, highly developed metropolis that you’ve never heard of and expected to be a provincial backwater, whilst heavily dehydrated and possibly concussed, is a reality-jolting experience. Something like an altered state.

Disorienting, to say the least.

Chongqing is a microcosm of China in many ways.

By the way, if you were wondering, as an English approximation, it’s pronounced Chong-ching… which apparently is basically completely wrong, and in my experience probably won’t be understood in China. Such is life.

The pace of change in Chongqing is blistering. We had come to try and get on a ferry down the Yangtze. We didn’t want a cruise, but to see the Great River on a working boat. Stopping at small towns, going slow.

Turns out that that’s like, so 2014.

The ferries don’t run any more. And the ferry port? It’s a big dirty hole in the ground, full of cranes and legions of construction workers. Or it was in December 2015. Now it’s probably a collection of skyscrapers, a metro station, and a mall. Or maybe that’s been pulled down already too.

I learnt the fate of the old port second hand, while wrapped in bed, where I stayed drifting between sleep and Harry Potter audiobooks for 36 hours straight. On the first day I managed some orange drink and a solitary biscuit. By the afternoon of day two I’d graduated to blueberries and yoghurt. It was time to try and see something of Chongqing.

At least half of my photos from Chongqing are out of focus. Could be my enfeebled state to blame, or maybe just the sheer pace of everyone and everything here.

The first step was making it to the metro. Weak and wobbly, this was a challenge. But also a joy — the steep steps that ran up from our river-front hostel to the nearest metro station were teeming with interesting things. Lots of the shops lining this narrow staircase were selling to trade. One stocked every imaginable variety of paper bag. Brightly striped, simple sleeve or sturdy-handled, plain white, 8 sizes of rose-patterned. Another was deeply stacked with mannequins. Among it all were tiny pavement food stalls, with patrons squeezed in between stacks of packaging, clothes, rucksacks, ribbons, and in one case, pigs’ heads. Through the middle of all this surged the bang-bang men, shirtless and sweating in the frigid winter air, hulking loads slung across their shoulders as they shot a path up the thronged steps.

The street we tumbled out onto at the top of this gauntlet was equally rammed with people and curiosities. A man sold gleaming buttons from two large round woven trays hanging from his shoulders. His wild assortment of wares glittered at me as he barged gently through the crowd. Above the throng, a bundle of rainbow-coloured feather dusters swayed into the distance. Overlapping food smells challenged my delicate state. Everywhere people hawked their wares, or just hawked and spat onto the street.

And then we found the metro entrance, and the future. Suddenly we were in a quiet, clean, neutral tunnel. There was almost nobody else there. A train glid up. Where to go?

With an afternoon and evening left before our Yangtze river trip (on a cruise… but that’s another story) we picked just a couple of spots to explore: Ciqikou Ancient Town, and Huangjueping Street, otherwise known as Graffiti Street.

Ciqikou Ancient Town

Ciqikou (porcelain port) is an old neighbourhood that’s touted as a remaining slice of the Chongqing of yore. At this point of our time in China we were already kind of suspicious of such statements. Here, ancient town is more likely to mean recently-constructed faux-antique shopping-mall, than, well, ancient town. But we went, you don’t know unless you try. And I’m glad we did — our visit was an eye opener.

Our walk from the metro station towards the centre of the district took us through what can only rightly be described as a scene of destruction. We’d wandered at will, taking side streets rather than the main road, and where it led us was to block upon block of vacated, crumbling, partially demolished homes. Some with gardens still seemingly being tended around them, many with furniture still inside.

The area was nearly deserted, but not quite. Wandering among the buildings, and remnants of lives, in a state of quiet shock, we heard occasional voices. Turned a corner to find an elderly woman sitting silently outside a house. Her home? We’d been expecting a step back in time to an old way of life, charmingly preserved in this corner of a city racing forward into the future. It seemed we’d got there too late.

It was eerie, our loud footsteps ricocheting off damp, useless walls, no longer holding roofs or windows. The peace was also perversely welcome, in a land where quiet is not a treasure held dear, but the quiet here was undoubtedly sad. Some of these buildings looked to have been very old. In fact they might have been 1000 years old, at least in places. The first of the traditional wood framed, mud walled houses Ciqikou is famous for were put up in the 990s. In one house we passed, a wall crumbled to show its red-earthen construction. Small pieces of the lives lived here were left snagged on the buildings, in rooms and gardens. Flowers blooming next to a front step, pink paint on a kitchen wall.

As I began to write these words, I wondered again what had happened here. What had compelled these people from their homes. It seemed a pressing mystery at the time, but soon sunk under the surface, replaced by the new mysteries that each day in China presented to me. A little searching turned up a blog post showing Cikiqou’s streets as they were in 2010: thrumming gently with life, and lined with beautiful old buildings, marked in red paint with the symbol for demolition. The taxi driver bringing these 2010 bloggers to Cikiqou expressed the sentiment which made this happen.

“Still so many old houses, but what can you do?”

Progress. Seemingly just for progress sake. Not destruction as a side side-effect of a particular grand vision, but destruction as the grand vision itself. Out with the old, in with the new. That is the meaning of development here. Not to say that old architecture is not revered as a thing of beauty and meaning, but isn’t it just much better to get rid of the dusty old buildings and replace them with new concrete ones that look pretty similar, and have strip lighting and aircon?

This may sound tongue in cheek, and a little scathing. Perhaps it is, it’s hard to remove your own values and cultural background from the equation. But that’s not my intention. As a European spending any length of time at all in China, you come to realise that you are inside a value system that is alien. That’s not a value judgement (value value judgement?), just a statement of difference. And I credit China in large part for teaching me to be more accepting of this kind of difference. It is wrenching for me to see how old things are regarded by much of modern Chinese society, because I love old things. And that’s a common affection in my culture. But this is not my culture, and these are not my old things.

It does seem though, that some of the people who’s old things these houses decidedly were, did not like their destruction very much either.

Forced eviction is common in Chinese cities, as the homes of poorer residents are demolished to make way for modernisation. Or at least that’s the official explanation. In fact it seems these demolition projects are more likely to be serving personal and political interest than public interest:

[W]hile under national regulations, forced eviction should only take place if public interest so requires, private interest of local officials and developers is often at the origin of the eviction process. Projects aiming at building prestigious constructions often result in the eviction of hundreds of families. Buildings inhabited by the people are usually replaced by upmarket housing, hotels, business neighbourhoods, or shopping facilities, which generate more profit for local officials and developers, while the evictees are not offered alternative accommodation or adequate compensation.

. . . If it is true that urban modernisation, including the destruction and reconstruction of buildings, is necessary for old, often unhealthy neighbourhoods, and if public infrastructures, especially roads and city transportation networks, need improving, it is similarly true that this “modernisation” in many cases is an excuse for profit-oriented, if not speculative, projects that ignore the public interest and repeatedly force city dwellers out of their neighbourhoods without proper resettlement or compensation. The Constitution and other laws are supposed to protect these citizens’ right to housing, but the laws seem to have little utility in a country where money and political power rule, mixing the worst of capitalism and a planned economy.

International Federation for Human Rights report: Developing at the Expense of Residents, Forced Evictions in Chongqing

A more complicated picture then. The official line is that modernisation is necessary, and progress is good. Perhaps it is in some places, but the cogs at work here are more often driven by money flowing into private pockets.

Some people are angry about this, evidence of demonstrations isn’t hard to find. There’s a particularly striking photo of citizens holding out in the face of demolition in the FIDH report above. But perhaps this is simple fury at being driven from their homes, and offered nothing in return, rather than lament at the loss of heritage. People flock to brand-new versions of ancient architecture with what looks like real enthusiasm. Crumbling but genuinely ancient structures are broadly ignored, which I suppose is why they’re crumbling.

Is it just lack of information? Without somebody to tell you what to revere and preserve, how do you know? Information doesn’t flow so freely here. I don’t know.

The information that Ciqikou ancient town is the place to be for any self-respecting tourist has definitely flowed freely though. Gushed, I would say. Surged, maybe even thundered.

The commercial part of Ciqikou, which we eventually stumbled into, has been protected by its status as a tourist attraction from the rampant development that’s swallowed the surrounding residential streets. Sadly, it’s been swallowed by tourism instead. The narrow streets are clotted with people and their selfie-sticks, the old buildings concealed behind gaudy signage and racks of tourist tat. Come for the ancient town, stay for the plastic flower headbands and cute animal-shaped bao.

N.B. these taste of absolutely nothing.

We wandered around for a while, trying to find some peaceful corner of the small area of lanes that remained. We didn’t really succeed, though slivers of charm could be found in some of the smaller alleys. Pretty tenuous slivers, to be honest though.

Some attempt has been made to make Ciqikou tourist-friendly beyond shopping opportunities, with a few statues and plaques put up, and a map at the entrance to the main street showing their locations. One point on the map was marked ‘urinating boy’. We headed straight there.

The series of statues that this was part of are described as celebrating the traditional way of life of Ciqikou, though from my experience on the train to Chongqing, this particular tradition is not dead yet.

So some fun was to be had. But mostly Ciqikou was just the busy, tacky, identikit tourist experience you can find at any popular attraction in China. After a desultory twenty minutes hoping and failing to find a quiet place to sit and rest, we ended up at the waterfront, where families grimly cavorted in a not-so-ancient fairground.

We concluded we’d had enough, and headed back to the metro, just barely passing these guys on the way. Their pace was impressive on the uphill stretch.

At the time this sight charmed me. Now it can’t help but cross my mind that they were on the move because they’d been evicted. Ignorance is bliss.

But the day wasn’t over yet, and next stop was an urban regeneration project I can actually get on board with: Graffiti Street.

Huangjueping Street (Tuya Street)

Getting to Huangjueping Street (also known as Tuya = Graffiti Street) felt a little arduous. Maybe squeezing into an already overstuffed bus, unable to see out of the window enough to recognise where we were going, wasn’t really the ideal thing to sign up for when I still thought I might barf or faint at any given moment. But we made it. Somehow. Tuya street is a little way from Yangjiaping metro station, and it’s actually quite straightforward to get there. You just grab a bus up the hill and get off when you see brightly coloured buildings (assuming you can see out the window).

The scale of the street art on Huangjueping street is pretty epic. Apparently 40,000 square metres of wall are painted, along a kilometre or so of the street. The work was painted in 2007 by students at Sichuan Fine Art Institute, which is in the area. It’s beginning to look a little shabby, but it’s still pretty cool to see new patterns and ideas at every turn. Much improved from the faceless concrete blocks most of these buildings must have been before.

Unfortunately my feeble, barely recovered body was protesting at being made to stay upright all afternoon, so we didn’t spend too long on Tuya Street. I also  didn’t feel able to enjoy any of the food on offer in the side street food market we stumbled across, sob. The abundant fruit, stacks of little cakes, and beautiful steaming trays of dumplings remained beyond me at this point.

I could see through the haze of nausea and exhaustion that this area is worth the visit though — it’s an interesting corner of the city to see, kind of grainy and workaday. I think somebody threw a tortoise out of a second storey window while we were there. Grim, but somewhat representative. My weakness-addled memory is hazy, but my diary has it in black and white: turtle thrown from above. It may have been a turtle.

On the way home I nearly fainted on the metro, and then blithely sent the others off to have dinner while I walked the few hundred metres back to the hostel for some plain rice and an early night. Obviously I then got lost and it took me half an hour to get back.

My magical mystery tour was not without entertainment though. First I stumbled across a pavement dance-aerobics class with twenty or thirty enthusiastic, mostly middle-aged, participants. They were having a great time. I was unsure if I was hallucinating their presence in an otherwise dingy, abandoned feeling part of town. Then I somehow wandered into some cargo unloading going on in a side street by the river.

I squeezed along the dimly lit lane, through the gaps between crates of goods and men carrying impossible loads to-and-fro, and eventually wound up in a quiet temple right on the river. The gods must have smiled on me, because after only a little bemused and exhausted traipsing back and forth along the river front, I finally located my bed.

Which was fortunate, because next day was cruise day, and I was going to need my strength. Turns out cruising in China isn’t exactly relaxing.

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