Chongqing is a city of seven and a half million people in the city proper alone. While not actually a part of the famous Sichuan province, the inhabitants of CQ don’t mess around when it comes to spicy food. The city is set on and in mountainous ridges sloping their way down to the intersection of two of the largest rivers you have never seen (Yangtze and Jialing River). From there, the Yangtze flows all the way to Shanghai (a distance of 1054 nautical miles). A laurel of Chinese medicine has it that the people of this river valley took to spicing their food with Sichuan pepper (more on it later) to fight off the cold due to the high humidity of the region. The surrounding hills and mountains are where Chiang Kai-Shek and the National People’s Party hid out during WWII. This gregarious city is to whom I surrendered my solo travel virginity. She treated me right.
More often than not, I fail to find the hostel quickly. I have taken to flying in early when possible in order to give myself plenty of time. On this occasion, I arrived as the sun was setting. I watched it go down from the metro line heading downtown. By the time I exited the metro station, the night had long since awakened and spread its dark wings over the city. I told myself, “Act like you know where you are going.”
From the metro stop, the road I thought I had to follow slopped precipitously towards the carnival like port at the end of the central peninsula district of Jiefangbei. The hostel I had decided upon while waiting to depart Shanghai was supposedly located along the road next to the Yangtze River or at least that is what I deduced from the potato quality screenshot I had taken of the map provided by the hostel.
I couldn’t use Google Maps because it doesn’t work without a VPN (virtual port network) in China. Even if you are using a VPN, it can be so slow as not to be helpful. Instead, I was using a mashup of Baidu maps (the Chinese rip off of Google) and the photo. People think China banned Google because they refused to filter their results, but really they did it to force people to use Baidu. The Chinese are politically savvy which is ironic given the apathy towards politics of the general population.
I arrived at what appeared to be the pinpoint on the map. Unfortunately warehouses are not hostels. Shit, I thought, it is probably on the next avenue up. I gazed up along the square cut cliff. The road could be fifty meters up, but I would have to walk 300 meters back down to the carnival at the end of the peninsula and find the avenue that ran along the cliff at the next level.
The main streets run parallel to each other and the rivers with only an odd street here or there connecting them. There seemed to be stairs that connected these parallel streets, but in the thick black nectar of the evening, with the smoke wafting off mysterious dishes and the babbling of unknown dialects echoing off the buildings and retainer walls, I dared not test these dark cavernous alleys that faded quickly into pitch blackness.
Instead, I opted to walk up and down the boulevards searching for my lost hostel. The zigzagging queue of the streets started to fill me with despair. My back and brow were covered with a beading tribute to my stupidity and exhaustion; this is how it was going to end. Death on a dirty street in China. “Why! Why couldn’t Gavin plan better!” My mother’s lamentations echoed in my ears as I decided I should probably settle for anything. Two hours into the search and clock running towards midnight, I settled for a hotel. I didn’t even bother with dinner, instead having a beer or two. My one hundred and twenty kuai (approx. twenty dollars) a night hotel room had a great view: the hall.
First thing the next morning, I set out again to find the hostel. Fuck it, I am stubborn and I had already spent so much time walking around, I felt like I knew that part of the city like the back of my hand. Like all seemingly unlucky events, the first nights ramblings would prove to be useful in finding things for the duration of my stay. The eternal optimist. Fuck it, why not? I walked right back to the place I had originally searched the night before. The hostel was tucked away between truck ports serving the mall that was built into the cliff that cut down to the river. Even in the daylight, I could see why I had believed that this could not be the location of the hostel. However, the sign above the door did not want arguing. I entered.
A little aside: I hate how internet booking websites don’t provide numbers for the hostels. I mean, I understand it, but I still hate it. If I had had a number I could have called and given the phone to one of the Chinese persons whom were trying to direct me. Trying to find the number can be an adventure in its own right. Who knows what random Chinese websites you will turn up on. Give a call ahead of time to verify the phone number works and also to reserve a room. I never use online booking. If you call the hostel they will reserve a room for you, no payment needed. However, don’t be that person who takes advantage of this system by making reservations via phone and never showing up. If you have a change of plans, take the 2 minutes to call the hostel and let them know. The last thing I want to do is figure out how to pay for online bookings using the labyrinth that is fucking alipay (the Chinese version of paypal). If the phone call reservation goes out of vogue because of misuse of the system, I will probably resort to showing up fingers crossed, which I already do too often.
They had a room. I had a coffee. The staff at Yangtze River International Youth Hostel was more than willing to help me figure out what to do with the remainder of the day as the clock hadn’t even struck noon yet. That is not a paid plug. A friend, whom I met almost a year later, was actually staying in the hostel at the same time and we both had an extremely pleasant experience.
I headed to the Three Gorges Museum and the Great Hall of the People located in People’s Square. The Concert hall is a definite skip. Although, I believe it was relatively inexpensive. The museum is a must see for the Chinese history fanatic and newb alike. The museum is filled with relics of the different people who lived in the three gorge’s valley. Many of the artifacts were uncovered during excavation in preparation for the monstrosity that is the Three Gorges Dam.
When I returned to the hostel I decided to join one the tour packages they had posted on the wall. It left at 730 am the next day. No problem. My dad had always been proactive on our vacations, taking us on day long adventures which we would all grumble about after being awoken before the crack of dawn. But by the end of the day, having spent the majority of it outside, we would feel an odd satisfaction at a day well spent. And when we retired to our pillows that night, sleep came easy and our dreams were sharp with the fresh ideas and places being organized into memories for us to enjoy when we saw fit.
That evening I took dinner in the hostel and had a beer. Yangtze has the worst pool table you have ever seen, but I played none the less. First alone, but later two Chinese men, a little younger than I, joined and we shared some laughs. I asked them if they wanted to go out the bars. The one outright said no, and I had seen his girlfriend cooing to him throughout our interaction, so I understood. The second, a little bashful like all Chinese, told me his English was not good enough to go out with me. “Well, I can teach you English and you can teach me Chinese!” “You want to learn Chinese?” A light glowed in his dark brown eyes. “Yes, I think it is important to speak a peoples’ language if you are to try to understand them.” You can understand how English can be confusing sometimes. In fact, that is the basis of half our jokes. Misunderstandings.
We went out. I found out he was in the army and was on leave for Chinese New Year. He had decided to do a little traveling, and Chongqing was the destination he chose. I was excited. I had a new friend to explore all the sights with. I wasn’t as apprehensive anymore about doing things by myself, but still, to have him there would mean no misunderstanding, or so I naively thought. Unfortunately, he was scheduled to leave the next day. “I must go back to the army.” We had some b502 shots, and a couple of beers before returning to the hostel. We exchanged WeChat names and said goodbye. Normally, this is the end of these onetime acquaintance friendship. But I guess it can be said, that the end or beginning of a friendship is not always clear, and fact sometimes passes unobserved. Not everything is like the movie “Step-Brothers.”
As chance would have it, my friend got re-stationed in Shanghai several month later. We talked about meeting up but it didn’t happen until August of that year. You have to remember that Shanghai is a large place. Just because something is “in” Shanghai doesn’t mean it is closer than an hour and half away.. by subway (which typically is the fastest form of transportation in that city).
When we did meet up, I was at my friend Dante’s house visiting before returning to my new city of Tianjin in the North. Augus, because of Augustus Caesar whom my new friend admired, liked Dante’s fake Ray Bands and wondered where he could get a pair. “Hell, the fake market is right down the street; that is where he buys them.” “Yeah three pairs for twenty kuai each,” Dante chimed in. So we set off.
We entered, and walked passed, stall after stall after stall selling the same knock off crap. A good deal can be had, they just typically aren’t. And you know what the hate more than anything else? Is when you don’t buy anything. Augus saw the rip off glasses, it wasn’t the store Dante had told me about before, but we stopped anyway. To Augus, the fake market was like a crazy jungle. In a strange way, he was the waiguoren and I was the local. I entertained him. Inside the store, if that closet deserves that name, maybe I should say cubby, there was a beautiful girl looking a Gucci purse. The young 20-something clerk was insisting, “look, real leather!” while plunging a lighter onto the bottom of the most definitely plastic purse. I don’t know where they got the lighter proof from but it wasn’t the first time I had seen it there or in China. I leaned over, and being nosy, said, “hey (beautiful girl), that purse is definitely fake, you can probably get it for 50 kuai or so.” She was offering 100, and the clerk was demanding 500 and remonstrating his lighter. I pointed to some of the flaws. “Do you see the glue there?” In a second, her expression changed, and she was no longer looking at a beautiful purse to show her friends, but instead a lemon. “Actually, I am not interested,” and she walked out. I looked at Augus and we agreed to go to different cubby too.
As we walked down the narrow twisting hall of the fake market mall, I heard the clerk yell to me, “You know! I should kill you!” I stopped, slowly turned around and calmly said, “what did you say?” He responded by grabbing a long bamboo pole and brandishing it a foot from my face. Augus said, “Come on, let’s go.” I agreed, and we turned around and started walking away. A few steps, and the man yelled, “Fuck you!” I turned around and pointed my finger at him and said, “NO, FUCK YOU!” In scene from Monty Python, he then grabbed a flimsy pink foot stool that the clerks sit on when they have run out of energy from badgering people. I ran at him and he at me and the other clerks quickly, as if this wasn’t their first rodeo, pulled their wears into their stations. Out of nowhere a big Chinese dude jumped between before we could reach other and pushed me back. The clerk swung the stool over the big guys head and just barely contacted my hand. Augus was at my side fists ready. The big man looked at me and with a pleadingly stern look said, “Go!” Augus quickly said, “we should go.” Looking at the hopelessness of the situation, for all the sellers in the fake market are either friends, friendenemies, or family, I agreed and we continued the way we were originally walking but this time with a quicker pace. I stole glances over my shoulder to make sure we weren’t being followed, and watched as the clerks of other stores, like dominoes at our approach, grabbed their stools and disappeared inside their cubbies. A once bustling bazaar was at moment’s glance empty.
Augus and I went and had a beer, shot pool, and talked about the insanity of the situation. The worst part is that I had to return the next day to pick up a suite I had tailored there. Nothing happened, except that the suite was ill fitting.
At our parting that night in Chongqing, I didn’t have the slightest inkling that I would cross pass with Augus again but I am glad I did.
Back at the hostel, the night’s sleep was poor. We had a lumberjack in the room. I still got up and was in the lobby at 720 am waiting. I waited for the tour to start. I actually didn’t know what I was supposed to wait for. I watched a group of people leave at 730, but that couldn’t be it right? They looked just like a group of friends. 740, what the fuck? So I approached the clerk and asked her what’s up. She asked if I made a reservation for the tour. Oops, I must have turned bright red. Inside my head I was remonstrating myself like Chris Farley from “Tommy Boy,” “stupid, stupid, stupid.” I guess that is a thing. You know… reservations. I was upset, not at her, but at the fucking world! “That god damn lumberjack, and it is god damn 740 in the morning, and I am fucking tired!” The kind girl took pity on me. She asked if I wanted to go on a different tour instead. It was leaving at 8 o’clock. She could call and ask if I liked. I wanted to say no just to save face. But man, I was already up! Falling asleep had been difficult enough. “Yeah, maybe I’ll do that instead.” “Okay!” she said and gave me a big smile. They did indeed have an extra spot! How lucky! Instead of the Buddhist Grottoes, I headed to Longshan and the three natural land bridges. I hadn’t the slightest clue what that meant.
Stay tuned for Part 3: Longshan, the food, and the conclusion of the story.