May 13, 2008, [MD]
I thought I’d write a little more about my last travels. The last time I wrote, I was in Wuhan, and much has happened since that. In China, the 1st of May is celebrated as the workers’ holiday - not with parades and marches of workers demanding their rights like is common in Europe - but with a few days off. Any nationally coordinated holiday in China is a huge logistical challenge, trying to move a few hundred million people who want to get back home - especially rural migrant workers, but also students studying in another city etc. I left for Chonqing on the 2nd of May, and was lucky to be able to upgrade to a hard sleeper at 1AM, because the hard seat section was completely overfilled, and quite uncomfortable.
Chongqing\ In Chongqing, I was meeting up with an old student of mine, who has now gone on to become an English teacher herself. I had never been to Chongqing before, but knew that it was one of the cities that had received the most of the relocated villagers from the Three Gorges area, and was growing very rapidly. Later I realized that the Chongqing municipality, with its 30 million people, is probably the largest municipality in the world. The size, though, underlines the problem with defining “the biggest city in the world”, since the boundaries of a city are hard to define - the municipality is the size of Austria, and contains a lot of rural areas. The dense city core itself contains around four million inhabitants.
It’s an interesting city to walk around in, because it’s very hilly - not very common in big Chinese cities. I kind of like hilly cities, because they provide for interesting walks, sudden vistas, crooked roads and so on. In Chongqing’s case, it also provides for a huge amount of big bridges, and a city that often seems “layered” - at one stage we took an escalator a few hundred meters down from one “level” to another (on what was, my friend proudly told me, the world’s longest escalator).
The city was in rapid expansion, with new fancy highrises being built everywhere. We took our afternoon tea in a bizarre rainforest themed cafe, with lush plants, and once every ten minutes the sprinkler system in the middle would erupt, to canned sounds of tropical wildlife. In the middle of the concrete jungle in Chongqing… Then we enjoyed a cable-car ride over the Yangtze river, which is more or less as polluted here as it is when it gets further downstream in Wuhan, but here it’s much thinner.
*The Western People Street\ *Yangrenjie (洋人街), or the Western People Street, is a bizarre fun park in Chonqing, that is still under construction (or at least I hope it’s not done yet). After the cab driver dropped us off, we had to walk for twenty minutes on a very rickety road, before we reached the park, which was packed with people - since it was during the holidays, and it didn’t honestly seem like Chongqing had that many other places worth going on an outing to. There was an upside-down house, with an Indian restaurant in it, lot’s of people selling cowboy hats and sugarfloss (I got a pink one!), some petting horses, a castle, a brick installation that was supposed to look like Manhattan, a ton of outdated slogan signs, “the world’s largest toilet”, and a whole lot of noise. I kept thinking “I hope this isn’t how Chinese really picture a Western street”…
**Hechuan\ **After enjoying Chongqing, we took a one hour bus ride to Hechuan, where my friend’s family lives. I had wonderful food, and it’s always fun to see your friends’ homes. On the second day, my friend had to leave to go back to work, and I staid behind with her parents for another night, because my train wasn’t leaving yet. That night, her parents took me to the street by the river, full of restaurants, where the locals liked to enjoy life in the evenings. We had great food, beer, and once the father had downed two baijiu’s (pretty strong Chinese alcoholic drink) he began talking about philosophy, history and critical thinking. He didn’t care much for Marx he said, but he was a huge fan of Hegel, and his dialectical thinking. I love coming across older Chinese that have lived for a while and have their own ideas and experiences, so I found the conversation very interesting - although my philosophy vocabulary is still a bit limited - I kept looking for the Chinese words for utilitarianism and rule ethics.
**Via Beijing\ **After Hechuan, I left to start my volunteer work with Rural China Education Foundation. I was going to a village in Shandong province, and had to transit through Beijing. So I spent 24 hours on the train to Beijing (was able to upgrade to a sleeper from the very beginning). Most of the time I was lying on my bed, looking at the very mountaineous Chinese countryside outside, and listening to a Swedish crime thriller. Kind of absurd. I arrived at Beijing West station in the morning, bought a ticket to Linqing for that evening, dropped my luggage and went downtown.
I had no real plans in Beijing, and also no travel guide or anything. I decided to head straight for the Tian’anmen square, just because that’s the first place I visited in China back in 2000, and I thought it would be fun to go back. I visited the People’s Great Hall, where the 3000+ people’s representatives gather each year to rubber-stamp government decisions. Then I decided I wanted to go find the new fancy Olympic constructions - the swimming hall and the bird’s nest. At the Tian’anmen metro station, they had a great overview over possible interesting tourist locations and how to go there - which metro station to go to, which bus to switch to.
So I took the metro to a certain station, but there the clues ended - the bus I was supposed to take didn’t exist, and there was no more indication for tourists. Perhaps that will exist before the Olympics. I took a bus that purported to go to some Olympic area, and got off at that station, but could not find what I was looking for. I wandered around for a while, and chanced upon the China Ethnic Minorities Museum, which I decided to visit just for fun. The museum is built after a similar idea of the Taman Mini (Small Garden) in Jakarta, with small areas representing the 56 different official minorities in China. Each area had representative buildings from that ethnic minorities, and some posters describing their lives. There were also dance exhibitions, and souvenirs. The whole was kind of kitschy, although it was interesting to see some of the dances.
The most interesting part, however, was that when I walked over a big “ethnic” bridge, I saw the Bird’s Nest from afar. Finally. I exited the museum, and was finally able to get a good look at both the Bird’s Nest, and the Swimming Hall, that are next to each other. They were still working around them, so I couldn’t get too close, but it was still fun to think that the world’s attention would be focused right here in a few months (when I will be far away, in a small village in India).
One thing that I noticed about Beijing, since I first came there in 2000, is the enormous expansion of the metro system. At that time, I think they only had one or two metro lines, that were very constrained to the inner ring road. It was also much more expensive to ride the metro than the buses, so people still preferred buses, contributing to incredible gridlock in rush hour traffic. During the last few years, they have been building feverishly, especially adding lines up to the Olympics, but also planning ambitiously ahead. Currently, Wikipedia gives the NY subway system, at 370 km, as the largest in the world, with Moscow Metro at 293 km. The Beijing metro is today 142 km, but before the Olympics, a further 58 kilometers of rail will be opened - and before 2012 and 2015 they are adding a number of extra lines. This is incredibly positive, and will hopefully do much to alleviate traffic and pollution, and make Beijing commutes easier.
In the evening, I had dinner with a friend, and left on the late train to Linqing.
StianStian Håklev May 13, 2008 Toronto, Canada comments powered by Disqus