I have been getting the same feeling i did in Tainan, not because the cities are at all alike, but because it's another city where i need to walk for miles and miles to get anywhere, and then once i'm there it doesn't seem very interesting anyway. Last night i walked for miles and didn't find anywhere notable but an insanely packed (shoulder-to-shoulder) 11-storey shopping mall built up against a cliff face. It was built in the style of pure Chinese tackiness that makes Vegas look high-brow. So, fucking awesome. But way too crowded to enjoy.
Today i didn't do my usual aimless wandering and glued my nose to my phone to try to make sure i could find a shopping area marked on the map. Wikivoyage said it was like Tokyo's Shibuya. Pff. It wasn't even like Taipei's Ximen. It was pretty much the same as any CBD in Australia or downtown in North America. Skyscrapers, giant LED screens advertizing crap, all the same high fashion and fast fashion shops you have everywhere in the world. KFC. McDonalds. And a street of street eats that felt like a Taiwanese night market - theoretically interesting but ultimately underwhelming if you have been eating at street vendors all day anyway. I bought some socks at H&M and a new drawstring bag at Adidas.
That said, i did see one thing i didn't recognize so i ordered it. It was fat strips of flabby bean curd, sort of like a bean noodle, prepared cold with the various mix of sauces and chili pastes of the area. I gotta say, after the wild mix of flavors and fresh, ass-burning heat of Guizhou cuisine, Sichuan cuisine comes off as pretty tame. It's still delicious, of course, just not as clean and well-defined as Guizhou style, imo.
But, God, it's such a fucking challenge to find anything interesting to eat here. You would think/hope that in a place where freeways divide the city into islands, little communities would pop up on each island. Not really. Or, at least, not compared to Guiyang. There is no chaos of markets and street vendors and small businesses jammed under the freeways, no reek of burnt chilis hanging in the air and catching in your throat, just one or two sad little noodle shops at the bottoms of the highrises and lots of shuttered storefronts. That's what makes this city so depressing, i think. It feels like all the local businesses are struggling or abandoned, and everyone is packing out generic chain stores instead.
I am not sure why it feels so different. Is it because the city has 20+ million people? Is it the geography? Do the steep cliffs make people implicitly congregate in the flatter center? Does it just feel weird because half of downtown is a construction site? Did the local government outlaw street vendors? Is there a change in culture between the southern provinces (Guangxi/Guangdong) and the south-west?
I mean, the other thing is that the people themselves come across a bit unfriendly. Unlike the other cities i've visited, here i feel like people resent having to deal with someone who doesn't speak the language. Several times i've had shopkeepers completely ignore me, one even rung up my bill and then started playing a game on her phone while i pulled my cash out. I waited about 30 seconds then left, because fuck you. Everyone wears a frown. Just because Chongqing has a Manhattan skyline doesn't mean they need to act like crabby New Yorkers too.
I dunno, i just don't feel welcome here. I am aware of the fact i might just be in a "down" mood. I mean, just because traveling keeps me feeling free and happy doesn't stop me from having good days and bad days. When you move through cities as quickly as i am doing, that filter of your own emotions can turn a place into something it isn't.
But, let's be real. This is not an easy city to like. I googled around for a bar and decided to head in the direction of the student area, since i figured they might be a bit more easy-going. That was an ordeal too. I got out of the subway in a fenced park - contrary to the map which showed the exit beside a road. There was no useful signage anywhere. 3 different freeways were intersecting all around the park and massive residential towers stretched up on all sides. I walked through a maze of underground passageways and malls and overpasses to get to the road i wanted, at which point i realized there had been a direct route through a hidden underpass i hadn't noticed. I headed out in the direction i wanted, walking along a freeway with a cliff face on one side and a cliff drop-off on the other. Except it didn't feel like a drop-off, because highrises were built up against the cliff there too. After walking a while i realized i was going in the wrong direction, and had to backtrack because there was no way to cut across to where i needed to be without entering one of the residential towers. I found the freeway i needed, which thankfully had a sidewalk... until it didn't. It just ended. No stairs, no nothing. So i walked on the freeway, in the darkness, with cars zooming past. Phone was dead at this point too.
I mean, everything was fine in the end, obviously. How do the locals get around? Walking on the freeway. Ducking down dark alleyways. Climbing stairs. There were still plenty of people around, and still police boxes on every "big block" and shabby little convenience stores and so on. So it's not like it was the end of the world, just not what i am really looking for when i travel.
Any fucking way. I am writing this in a bar, since i finally found one. It's in the student area, at the bottom of a highrise on the edge of a cliff. I had to walk through a half dozen courtyards and down some sketchy-ass stairs that in other countries would have had crack addicts lying on the discarded mattresses, but here just had locals with bags of bak choi and winter melon on the way home. The bar enticed me in with the heavy beat and zipper noises of Dutch house. The kids are playing dice drinking games (SOP in China - dice are provided at the bar). The bartender is charging my phone. I am drinking warm beer.
It's Friday night but the place is only half-full. Almost everywhere in this town is only half-full. The banging music, cigarette smoke and humidity makes it feel busier. Lasers and disco lights make me feel at home. The TVs are showing western music videos. God, it's all ass-and-titties and booze these days. Were video clips always like that? Probably. I have no fucking idea how i am going to get back to my hotel. The subway doesn't run 24 hours and even if it did i wouldn't want to walk up that freakin overpass again anyway. I guess i can baidu when my phone charges.
At least it seems like people are having fun in here, unlike downtown where it seemed like everyone was miserable.
Tomorrow is Canada Day. If i was in Shenzhen, or Hong Kong, or Taipei, there'd be some expat thing going on. Here? Man, i dunno. The internet suggested an Irish pub located in that fabulously tacky but very busy mall i stumbled upon yesterday, but i visited this afternoon and walked straight out when i saw the beer was 50 kuai a pop. Give me a fucking break. Anyone spending that kind of money on beer is automatically a douche no matter what country they're from. Plus, fuck bars in shopping malls, even if they are on the 9th floor and have a view over the river and this epic skyline.
I now officially need to review that statement about Chongqing people being unfriendly. A couple of different bartenders shared shots with me, and some students came up to buy me beer and "gan bei" and chat. Of course, none could speak a word of English. One guy - L - hauled in his Malaysian buddy to translate, and invited me out for hotpot tomorrow. Then he invited me to go fishing! Because i had to have the real "Chongqing experience", which i guess is fishing and hotpot. K (the Malaysian guy) called it "steamboat", though, which is what they call it in Australia too. Maybe that's the Malaysia/Singapore name. I said i would skip the fishing but exchanged numbers for the hotpot.
I am drunk and probably 15 years older than everyone else here, but i like cheap beer and techno music. K said i should have gone downtown for techno. I said i'm not interested in rich-people clubs where drinks cost a fortune and i need to dress up to get in. He said he understood and came here because he liked the more relaxed vibe. So do i.
Ugh, this shit is why i fucking hate social engagements. The waiting, the wondering, the complete fucking-up of my day because of a drunken comment made in passing. Am i going to get a call? Am i not? Should i eat? Where would i go anyway, since my hotel is on a strip of chain stores and mediocre restaurants? I had breakfast at one yesterday and you couldn't have made something blander if you tried. Fuck fried egg and tomato noodle in the ass, it tastes like something the Japanese - or a sad white vegetarian - would invent.
I don't even particularly want hotpot, even though i know it's the local specialty. I think making diners cook their own meal is stupid. I know it's like dim sum or banquet eating - it's as much about the social event as it is about the food - but i am traveling alone in a country where i can barely communicate my order, much less socialize. And i like it that way. In the south there were plenty of family-style restaurants too, but i felt i could flit around and ignore them and still have a good time. That is much less the case here. This is the first city i've felt oppressed by the "social" culture and not free to just wander around in the cracks. Even coming into this café where i am writing: as i walked in, someone walking out ran back up the stairs to "kindly" help me with my order. Ugh, i thought i was free of that shit after leaving Taiwan. He didn't even let me attempt to speak Chinese, and immediately translated the clerk before i could answer. Like, i get he was trying to give a good impression of his city, but this sort of coddling absolutely does not endear a place to me, it just stresses me out and makes me want to leave. All i want is to be able to engage on my own terms.
Honestly, fuck fucking people.
Yes, i have a blistering hangover, and it is feeding my misanthropy. Also i am fucking starving, but not eating anything "just in case". For fuck's fucking sake.
Well, i'm back in my hotel room and i didn't get hotpot. Guess the guys were hungover worse than i was (i only got up around 2pm), or they had second thoughts about inviting that strange laowei "tom" out to a dinner in their local joint, or they just blacked me out. Good for me. I wandered down to the riverfront again, or as close as i could get since there is just freeways there because fuck this city. There is also a monorail. And a wicked-good skyline. This city has all the ingredients to be incredibly cool, but somehow it feels kinda soulless.
And then i found a long pedestrian tunnel, with a bunch of chairs inside where people were playing chess, chatting, dozing, reading books and so on. I picked up a cold noodle from a guy with a cart. I have found out the name is literally "cold noodle" - 凉面 (liáng miàn). Like in Guangxi and Guizhou, it's (probably) vegan and just includes a random mix of veges, legumes and spices. In Chongqing it is 麻辣 (má là), which is the standard Sichuan numb/hot flavor known all round the world. It tastes better here, of course. Then i grabbed the local version of douhua, which isn't called douhua. It is a bowl of clear, flavorless jello with tiny little "worms" of custard-like tofu on top, all floating in simple syrup. Refreshing and delicious.
The end of the tunnel popped me out at my favorite place in Chongqing, which i had also visited my first night here. It is a huge public square with a museum on one side and big ol' hall on the other. One thing i can safely generalize on - the Chinese love huge public spaces. After about 7pm it is packed with different square dancing crews each with their own sound system blasting dance music, taichi groups, kids on hoverboards, toy drones flying about, young parents with babies, old folk watching the world go by and me doing the same. There are synchronized fountain displays and right on the edges people selling noodles and sweets and tea. It feels like being at a music festival, with all the different beats mixing up with each other, light shows and crowds. This is the kind of grass-roots hubbub that feels a bit lacking elsewhere in the city.
I think i am mostly disappointed because Chongqing was the city i most wanted to visit in China. I love Sichuan cuisine and was excited to explore this megacity with its awesome skyline and 20+ million people. Perhaps i was spoiled by the well-constructed urban space of Shenzhen and the vibrant diversity of Guiyang's street markets. I get the feeling this is more of a place to visit with friends or family, where you travel directly to restaurants or locations you know about in advance. God, maybe it's a fucking Yelper city. "Oh no, can't eat here, i'm taking a cab to some other place rated 5 stars." Vomit. Either way, the type of wandering i enjoy was less rewarding than usual. Tomorrow, Chengdu, then it will be time for a very long sleeper train to Xi'an and on to Shanghai.