The trip out was long, we stopped at random points in the city to fill-up with passengers. They all eyed the two laowai(s) in the back suspiciously. The other guy was from Denmark. At this point in my China life, my Chinese isn’t what you call passable. One in ten words floating out my mouth means anything, and my oral comprehension is garbage. However, I somehow managed a joke with my compatriots over lunch. At about 11:30 AM, we stopped in a pre-arranged restaurant for my first authentic lazy-Susan dining experience. They are quite popular and China, and frankly entertaining.
My fellow Chinese were baffled by my handedness and lack of ability to pick up squishy tofu (mapo doufu) without cutting it in half. The guy sitting next to me was trying to be friendly and break the ice. Ironically, he was from Shanghai, which goes to show that stereotypes are made to be broken. He asked me if I had a Chinese girlfriend. I responded, “mei you… wo you henduo (No, I don’t… I have many).” We all had a good laugh, and the girl sitting next to me whom had been doing a little translating blushed. We were all friends after that. The Shanghai gentleman, decided to talk to me the rest of the day, and we played like construction workers looking at an unfinished project: he would saying something and I would solemnly nod having the slightest clue what he was talking about. And then I would say something and he would do the same. I did learn the agreement sound among many other Chinese words, “en.” Like a shortened mmm.
Four hours after departing the hostel, we finally arrived at the Three Natural Bridge’s park. We had a tour guide and everything. She wasn’t much help to the Danish guy and me. But the Chinese girl took it upon herself to explain some of the more amazing features of the park. The park was massive like everything in China. We took a 14 story elevator on the side of a cliff. Then, we followed a cliff hugging path back and forth down the side of the ravine into the heart of the valley. Before the final descent to the waterfall the path split. The fork led into a massive cave that must have been 100 meters from top to bottom; the footpath, stenciled into the right side of the 15 m wide cave was about 30 m from the bottom. I am not even sure how far it ran back, because I was ushered along. The only noise in the cave was the drip drip drip of erosion and the echo of the waterfall further down the path… and of course the Chinese hooting. I can’t deny it, I might have given a whooo or two.
We proceeded to the waterfall and walked straight past the signs that said “Do Not Enter.” That is what they are there for in China, right? Every time I ask to smoke in a restaurant they point me to an area with a “No Smoking” sign above an ashtray. Chinglish right?
Further down from the waterfall, the fast flowing stream flowed through a 3 m gap between two rock faces. It flowed left and right, pooled and widened, just to narrow again. If I had been braver I would have gotten in. The water looked so fresh and clean. The weather was just too chilly for a mountain stream bath.
The creek slowly widened into a man-made gully and a parking lot appeared. Our ubiquitous tan mini-bus was waiting to take us to the next stop.I was blindly following, not knowing where we were or where we were going. I had deduced something about “land bridges” from my ticket.
This part of the trip defies description. It is a “see it to believe it” place. The forces of nature that carved away the massive holes in the mountains are nothing more than… unnatural. I will attempt to explain anyhow. We drove to the top of Longshan (dragon mountain) and stopped at the park entrance there. Slowly we began or descent back down the mountain. As we rounded a corner I beheld a humongous slab of granite placed between to sheer cliffs creating a massive tunnel 200 meters high, 50 meters wide and a hundred meters deep. This was one of the natural land bridges. The Dain and I were blown away. We had not been expecting this. When you reach the bottom of the first bridge which opens up into a narrow valley, looking back up the fellow pilgrims appear as ants. Down in the narrow valley at the mouth of the bridge was an ancient monastery that had been restored.
We ventured in and honestly it was not very remarkable. No matter how hard I tried, my eyes kept gazing up at the statuous mountians and cliffs looking down on me. Mind you, this is still on top of a mountain. The deep ravine was sunk into the middle of the mountain, like a ginormous highway cutout by underground water. My new Shanghai friend had grown weary a bit and so hired himself a litter. I quickly looked up the word and proclaimed, “Wang! Wang! (king, king).” I am sure they had no idea what I was talking about.
We followed the bottom of a cliff face next to a swamp. We came around a bend in the valley and there was the second land bridge, smaller than the first but still beautiful. We stopped and looked back as roar filled the valley. Looking back at the first land bridge, we saw a helicopter the size of a spec of dust bank through the huge whole and swing through the valley. The girl said some unintelligible English. She showed me her phone, “machines changes movie.” “WHAT!” After a discussion, we came to understand that the helicopter was filming scenes from the upcoming Transformers movie (Age of Extinction). The helicopter flew out of the valley and dissappered. The sun was at the three quarters mark. We had to press on.
A few minutes later, our guide stopped us, pointed forward, and said something. The Dain leaned in and our English translator said, “fish.” We looked. We didn’t see anything. “Nali?” I asked, and she pointed at the silhouette of the bridge’s entrance. And my god there was a fish! On the backside of the bridge, the sun now shown through and created a most spectacular conflagrance. The fish had transformed into a cardinal of Ohio. Our translator pointed again and said, “A-gl-e.” She showed me her phone and it said, “Eagle.” I looked up and saw that the mountain surrounding the tunnel was a huge eagle spreading its wings over the valley. Beautiful.
It was too much, my memory falters me when it comes to the last bridge. It was not far from the second and fatigue must have surely kicked in by then. We passed through and followed a soft winding path to a parking lot where carts were shuttling the remaining groups of people up a steep hill. The Dain and I, not to be out done by the other, but also just in good fun and cheapness, opted to walk. We made it, but on more than one occasion stopped to admit to each other that we should have taken the carts. We got to the carpark and saw a small, by Chinese standards, market selling all types of food. Our friends from the tour I think tried to tell us to eat, and we eventually figured it out. I don’t remember what I even ate I was so tired. As we drove down the winding, suicidal road back down the mountain and to the highway, the sunset over the hills and filled the mountain and surrounding valley with golden light. A perfect day.
Once again, an unexpected turn resulted in a pleasant experience… Are we spotting a theme here? When we fear the unknown we tend to find fault in any deviation from the plan. For those meticulous planners, one detail going unnoticed opens the doors to a horror room of fancies. Too the less zealous, it still introduces a bit of anxiety. But think, some of the greatest moments in the lives of humans come with a little more than a little anxiety. Anxiety is the taste of adventure, the life blood. Am I going to make that train? What will happen if I stay at this less than reputable hotel for the night?
The next day, I did head to the Buddhist Grottoes, and was a bit disappointed. They were pretty amazing don’t get me wrong. Thousands of Buddhist imagery carved into rock faces as a form of prayer and meditation. There was some really wonderful murals. None more profound to me than the depiction of the ox analogy: a man has three phases of spiritual life. At first he is at war with the ox, he cannot control it, the ox controls him. The second, he holds the ox in hand and dictates its movements. And finally, freedom, where the ox and body live in tranquility with each other. The ox is free to roam.
The part of the grottoes that is the most distractive from the natural beauty is the crowds. There are just too many people. In comparison to the meditative, almost empty Longshan, the grottoes were full of yelling adults and crying children. If you have been to other grottoes around China, you might consider this a skip and maybe head for the hot springs instead, although I didn’t make it there.
As of yet, I haven’t mentioned the food. Let me start with a description of Shanghai food: It’s nasty. I came to expect all Chinese food to impart a queasiness that would only dissipate with an explosion and paper. Discovering that Chinese people liked spicy food was miraculous. Where was the oil? I mean it was still there but it wasn’t the star. Spice, of many different varieties were the stars of CQ. This was a foodie’s town.
The night I returned from the grottoes, a couple of new friends and I headed to a local, almost too local, huoguo restaurant. The place was literally built into the face of a cliff that had been carved to make way for the overhead bridge heading to the southern district of the city. To say we were the only westerns there is accurately inaccurate; we were probably the first westerns to even step foot inside. Thank god we had one of those overly-ambitious intellectuals whom had somehow taught himself to read, “duck liver,” and many other types of absurd non sequitur characters in barely a year and a half in China. I stayed two years in China and still stared blankly at Chinese menus. “Yeaaaah, just give me anything that isn’t absolutely disgusting.”
With his help, we decided we didn’t care what crazy shit we ate. As long as the 2.5% beers were ganbei-ed (Chinese cheers, literally translated as bottom of glass) at an absurd rate. We ended up ordering the duck liver at my insistence. Seriously, how many times do you get that opportunity?
Let me explain huoguo (hot pot). It all starts with a special spice called, “huajiao (flower pepper or colloquially known as Sichuan Pepper).” Huajiao is particular to Sichuan and CQ cuisine. The spice resemblances peppercorns and has a distinctive citrus flavor. O, and it causes the lips, mouth, gums, and tongue to go numb. The corns have a horrible texture, so care must be taken not to accidently chew them.
This spice is added profusely to a cauldron filled with an oil-water mixture that may or may not be divided into individual sections by a metal grid. Along with the huajiao, an absurd amount of red chili pepper is added (not as flacks, but rather whole peppers). The liquid also contains some random root vegetables such as ginger. The cauldron is brought to a raging boil via a propane stove. Thinly sliced food (pretty much anything including frozen fish dumplings which are actually quite tasty) is then added to the boiling liquid and the stove is turned down so that the broth simmers. The diners then wait for the food to be cooked which varies based on the item added. Not all of the food is added at once.
Typically, one or two types are added at a time. For example, cabbage and potato are added. The cabbage cooks in less than a minute while the potato slices can take up to five minutes to cook. Each person is armed with a set of chopsticks which he dunks into the caldron, pinches, crosses the finger of his other hand, and pulls out praying he has managed to capture something with his chopstick skills. Luckily, even the Chinese find fishing boiling bits out of the soup difficult, hence a slotted spoon is included to be used when all hope is lost.
The cooked food is then placed in a small saucer. There it rests a short or longer period of time depending how much spice the consumer wishes to experience. After the allotted time, the morsel is once again chopsticked and dipped in a special sauce made by each personal individually. The dipping sauce is typically a peanut sauce with soy sauce, vinegar, lajiao (hot pepper flakes for an extra kick), etc. added. At the fancier hot pot restaurants there is an entire sauce bar with at least thirty options that can be added to the peanut sauce. Some of the Chinese whom love hot pot, forgo the edge-dulling sauce altogether (not recommended especially if you are trying to impress your Chinese date. You will probably end up coughing and making a fool of yourself).
The trick to surviving, as mentioned earlier, this extra spicy treat is copious amounts of cheap cheap Chinese beer. The cups provided in most small restaurants are so thin that one must be careful not to squeeze the cup when grasping unless he wishes for a lap full of beer (NOT recommended). If you are drinking with Chinese, offer as many ganbei(s) that you yourself wish to drink. Never drink alone. You can always pressure (via culture) the Chinese into drinking along with you.
It is like the Chinese really took to heart the idea: never drink alone. The easy solution was to make it a cultural requirement to drink along with anyone whom at a meal with you decided it was time for some more liquor. Just be careful about ganbei(ing) too many shots of baijiu (white alcohol, China’s famous liquor). That stuff is potent (55% and up). It might seem to be going down easier and easier, but trust me, you’ll be going down with it and be barely able to get back up the next day. Especially if you are drinking with poor peasant shufu(s) (uncles).
Baijiu can run the gamete from excellent to paint-thinner. And the paint-thinner variety is a death sentence. If you drink cheap baijiu, be prepared to wear a pirate’s eyepatch the next day. Disclaimer: The eyepatch may help prevent the skull cracking migraines that come with drinking paint-thinner baijiu. The eyepatch, however, does not prevent movement induced lightning strikes to the central pain system. You have been warned.
Back to the story. The meal went well. We all enjoyed the huoguo. The Brit, and the Italian had enough and headed back to the hostel. I suggested to the swiss guy that we head downtown and maybe find a bar, pick up some girls. He agreed and off we set towards downtown and up the rambling steps and past the sleeping hovels of centuries of people. We never found a bar, but instead bought a bottle of wine which we drank on the steps of one of those cavernous pathways the wind between the main boulevards. We laughed and watched and generally had a good time.
With alcohol running through our veins we headed back towards the hostel. By this time, I knew the twisting paths even in the black of night. The first day in Chongqing I had explored some of the abandoned homes along the path, looking at empty buildings and flats and wondering what it had been like to live there. See, a whole mountain side community had been displaced in order to make room for a monstrous bridge heading west out of the peninsula. Only thin wooden barriers barred one from entering these sanctuaries of times gone past.
I was expounding this tale to my Swiss friend and he became curious. Why not check them out that night? So we found an apparently abandoned building and attempted to open the door to the back courtyard but it was padlocked shut. I put my foot straight through the shody door and it sprang open with a large bang. We giggled and entered, the eeriness seemed to creep from the ivy covered walls, and the smell of something burning traced it fingers around our nostrils. Once inside the courtyard, this place didn’t feel all that abandoned. We shared apprehensive looks, but continued forward. Using our phones for flashlights, we came to the far end of the courtyard where many cardboard boxes were stacked. Observing that the boxes were new, we first noticed the light seeping underneath the ill fit door of the apartment adjacent to the cache. We took off laughing not stopping until the hostel grew though the gate of an archway.
We called it a night. Two days later, I took the metro back to the airport and back to a world that seemed even stranger. I truly was heading back to fake China. I had suspected it, but now I knew for sure. Over the next couple months and years, I traveled to many other places in China and mostly had a fantastic time. The Chongqing experience inspired me to keep going. I told my Shanghai friend that I planned to travel around China for my summer holiday and he looked at me like I had lost my mind. Why China he must have thought. And I say, why not!