I have a funny thing with vibes for places: sometimes a scent in the air, the sounds on the streets, the color of the sky, is gonna set me off. It’s ingrained, irrational, and yet somehow turns out to be pretty prophetic in the end.
This was definitely the case in Chongqing. Call it an inference. I mean, here I am coming from Chengdu, capping off a beautiful 3.5 days by leaning back in the city’s central gardens drinking tea.
And I was excited for Chongqing, a city I’d been weirdly captivated with for a long time. As one of the largest, fastest growing cities in the world, I’d long been fascinated by how it seemed to grow, completely unnoticed by the West. China’s little-big secret, elephant in the country. And it used to be a part of Sichuan, so it should have similar vibes right? I was ready for the next step in my ever-changing, ever-fascinating adventure through this country.
But I stepped off my bullet train and something felt wrong. The pointed, bitter taste of the air. The massive, yet empty train station and its bizarre, 25 minute walk to the metro station it insisted was the same place. The way nearly everyone I passed kept their eyes locked on the ground.
And after the long metro into the city, I stepped up into a strange disaster of a city. There were so many cranes circling my head they were like the long limbs of the branches in a metallic forest, interlocking and blocking the light. A symphony of horns, chewed up and spit in your face. Old trucks and motorbikes stacked with goods three times their size, strung precariously on the back, speeding up the hill as they cough back black diesel. The constant stench of open sewage. Welcome to Chongqing.
I tried to explore it that night: after dropping my bag at the hostel, I grabbed some street food and started climbing its hills. And when I started biting into my chicken, the sewers and rotting vegetables and spicy foods spilling out of the restaurants—smells so heightened they’re almost like sounds, tones overpitched like a violin at its most screeching—fought for attention. I had to throw it away, deciding “hungry’s better than this.”
I spent next morning in my room, making busywork with some writing, refusing to get breakfast because going back up those hills again seemed like too much mental effort. Getting ready to go out again, I prepped like I was going out on a expedition into the wilderness, not an urban saunter. Where to go, what to see, how long it’d take, jotting dots on the map. Getting a handle on this place.
Only I didn’t expect the humidity, swarming up these hills with their slanted spiraling roads. The way the towers sway, in the wind or the stillness, and any second one of them’s gonna fall right as you’re passing. Motorcycles charging down the sidewalk. Steam trucks taking up both lanes as they careen around these higher-higher bends.
A temple’s stuck between thirteen cranes. I go inside and there are patterns in the stone, eight hundred year old intricacies, and I can’t feel anything except the drilling that’s so much everywhere it could be shaping a hole in my head. I go outside and beggars are pulling at my pantlegs—tens of them, limbs misshapen or torn-off, burned cheeks and lost lips. The yelling underneath this add for happy families juxtaposed beside white people in underwear: a new mall’s putting up across the street. The soot, smog, and stench.
And I feel a violence, surging through me. This place is gonna make me sick.
So much for initial impressions. Chongqing’s a monster of instant-development, some rocket they set flame to in the early 2000’s that everyone’s now just holding onto the edges of as it shoots into space. Towers stand against the edges of cliff face, and sometimes it feels like concrete is raining over you.
On the other hand, there’s a manic energy to the city that, by the end of the second day, I was coming round to. This freewheeling, Wild West feeling, the way people barter by yelling across traffic lines, or play mahjong on plastic stools from flats they haven’t put walls on yet. There’s a feeling that many people here have moved in from the farm just a few years ago, packing up lives on open backed trucks to find The Better over here. But I can’t say for sure, because I never actually met a local. Never met anyone at all. If I had, my perceptions of this place would probably be very different.
And that’s just it. This place really wasn’t the nightmare I made it out to be as I processed it second-to-second; so much of it just comes down to living through it alone. Here’s a place essentially unlike anywhere else I’ve been to, and I’ve got no one I can share the strangeness with. An extrovert like me can’t analyze it on his own: we get too many wild fantasies.
It’s a language thing, mostly. The hostel staff there couldn’t speak English, and nor could their clientele. I realized pretty quickly that in going to Chongqing, I’d stepped off the tourist pilgrimage I’d followed up till then: Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, continuing farther into Guilin. Following the Yangzi meant exploring a China seen overwhelmingly by Chinese alone, and I don’t think I was ready for that yet. Not with my minimal language, or my shrinking island of self-confidence as I move through a place I don’t have adequate words to describe.
How does a lonely white guy gain any sort of impression here? Before then I’d met so many Chinese people who helped me process the crazy, occasionally disturbing, things I was seeing. How do I make a connection when there’s nobody to connect with? Is there still something to be gained from doing this alone?
I’m still not sure with Chongqing.
These are important questions I need to ask, since on the second half of my trip through China I was, essentially, alone. As I travelled along the Yangtze, probably the most important region in China’s history, both for its economic and cultural flourishings era to era, I flipped between depression and anger to see exactly how little was left of any of that.
Chongqing, for example, has a long history of military and revolutionary significance, but the history is completely—and I mean, completely—demolished. And it’s disappearing at such a fast rate that a walking-guide map I printed off the internet was completely outdated. Published 2013, and all of the sites listed were already gone. When I’m alone, the anger I meet that with will only fester and grow—I never get the chance to see how maybe that residential block they put overtop of it benefits the people actually living in it.
Wuhan’s a great counter-point to this. Although still a mid-country industrial giant developing at a dizzy pace, it’s got trees, wide avenues, and lakes running along and through the urban area. Most importantly, it’s got Jinyang, my amazing couchsurfing host, fellow restless traveller type whose adventures include busking while making jewelry for coins in Yunan to get her back to north China. She showed me around Wuhan, but steered me away from places that gets the top likes on Trip Advisor, instead taking me to local temples, museums, and her favorite restaurant overlooking the lake. Oh, and she lives beside one of those amazing, head-scratching shopping complexes that’s been turned into a bad Euro-acid trip: Italy town with British churches, German town with buxom Bavarian blonde statues bringing in fake beer.
The 24 hours I spent with her showed me more about a place and its growth than the 48 I spent in Chongqing (the 5 days I’d be in Shanghai). At the end of the evening we pulled up at the lake front where a strange concrete grid, almost like a half-finished boat dock, pressed out in the water. University students relaxed on it, watching the sunset, snapping selfies or diving in. And as the last of the sun brought out the lights on the far shore, winking and wavering, I thought, “well yeah, life could be really good here, couldn’t it?”. It made me think of Vancouver, doing something not-so different with my uni-friends, and how I’d make a home here too.
But we’re barely into sharing our second beer together when I’m already thinking how I’ve got to get up at 5:30 the next morning to catch the train, and I see myself hauling that big backpack up and down underpasses, over freeways, subway after subway. Sprinting to catch the train, fighting past security. And the moment’s pretty much stolen from us, even surrounding all the amazing things I’m learning about Jinyang, all the connections we’re making. Because it’s time for the next place.
I never stopped thinking about The Next Place. It was always hanging somewhere in the periphery, since I spent around the same amount of time travelling as actually being there. Sometimes travelling meant the perpetually-lit, non-stop noise and squish of 16 hours on a hard seat train ride. In the span of 6 days, I covered 2000 kilometres. Time for a burn out.
I knew it was gonna be like this, too. In Chongqing, I actually had the chance to book a plane from there to Nanjing for maybe 10$ more than the collective ticket stubs; in a blink I’d be through China’s dreariest. But I felt I had to see it. Understand the world’s biggest economy with my own eyes, along the gold trail of it’s biggest, bloatedest part. Except when you’re actually travelling through, all these cities blend together, made all the worse by their sleek, open glass train stations which look identical. Outside was the world of smokestacks, factories, eaten-out mountains, and high-rises.
And it just gets back to the most important question here: can I really hope to make sense of any of this when I’m alone? How much is this really all uniform, tasteless sameness, and how much does it just appear to all be the same because I’m staring at it from the outside, from the blink-shot view from a bullet train window? Wuhan would just be a Chongqing or Nanjing or Hangzhou if I hadn’t met Jinyang. And then what would Chongqing, that weird nightmare I never woke from for the rest of this China trip, be like if I’d met her there?
I pulled into Nanjing for the night. Grabbed a beer, wandered through the fake tourist town with the paper dragon floats, the crowds, the stalls selling wind-up toys that shoot into the air. At a certain point all this wasn’t a fake. I grabbed a beer and I’m drinking alone. Loneliness becomes such a fiercer feeling when you’re travelling into places that you don’t have words to describe; that, despite their strangeness, they still take on a tastelessness. The sequinned dragon. The lights. It’s not real, is it? None of this is real.
Standing on the bridge, I realized I had one week left. And I thought, “Good.”