Monday, March 26, 2012


Chongqing (pronounced 'chong-ching') was our next destination.  It's sometimes described as the world's largest city thanks to its population of roughly 30 million, but that's somewhat misleading since China reclassified a large chunk of Sichuan Province as Chongqing when it raised the city's status to equal that of a province, as it had previously done to Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai.  Those 30 million people live in an area larger than the Czech Republic, about 100 times the square mileage of New York City.  The actual heart of Chongqing has a population either a tad more or a tad less than NYC's 8 million, depending on which internet source you trust.  That still raises the place to anyone's list of Pretty Darned Large Cities.  And it's getting bigger pretty darned fast from all we read.  Thanks to its central location, it has become a magnet for factories churning out the goods that fill the department stores of a few continents.

We took another overnight sleeper to reach Chongqing from Xi'an.  A taxi got us easily to the old main train station where, yet again, McDonald's was the most promising cuisine for our pre-boarding supper.  Our sleeper compartment had 4 bunks of course, and it took a while for us to realize that the Chinese man and Chinese woman in the other two bunks didn't know each other.  We each had assumed without verbalizing it to one another that the "couple" were having a time-out pause in a rocky marriage, until the woman got off a few strops from Chongqing and the man didn't.

Of course, that could also have indicated a really bad time in the relationship we had created for them, but our remaining companion then started talking English to us and clarified things.  With a mix of English and sign language we learned he was 37, with a wife and a 4-year old son at home, and that he was returning from a weekend visit to his aging parents in Xi'an.  A close friend drove Mr. Zhang's car to the train station in Chongqing to meet our train, and Mr. Zhang invited us to hop in the car with him.  He dropped his friend off at work, then drove us right to our hotel in downtown Chongqing!  What a pleasant welcome to town!

As we entered Chongqing we found the air to be fairly foggy, or more likely smoggy, though there was no discernable aroma.  For our remaining two and a half weeks in China, each day was like that, some days better than others but never again a reasonably clear day.  We took a few shots of the passing scenery from the train there, but limited visibility also limits one's interest in taking such photos.  The hills certainly made for a different look than we had seen in the valley of the Yellow River a few days earlier, and we did get a good view of the rather impressive engineering going into the high-speed rail line being constructed into Chongqing from Shanghai.

Since the train arrived fairly early and we had that convenient ride to our hotel from Mr. Zhang, our room was not yet ready. We headed next door to Starbucks, where we admired a tributary of the Yangtze River flowing by below us and checked out both the decaf mochas and the pamphlet advertising employment opportunities at Starbucks. When we walked back to the hotel the room was ready for us, and we had an even better view down to the Yangtze from the balcony of our hotel room.

We walked past a great statue celebrating the shacks that once lined the Yangtze here, now gone due to the rise in water level behind the Three Gorges Dam (about which we'll say much, much more in our next blog entry).  Another relic of the former long steep descent to the river is the tradition of "bangbang" men carrying huge loads on their shoulders.  In downtown Chongqing we twice were passed by bangbang women carrying produce for sale, a pretty tough way to make a living though it does mean you don't have to rent space somewhere for a fruit or vegetable stand!

Our destination was the zoo, and to get there we rode Chongqing's monorail.  We got a great view of the city, including some enormous neighborhood redevelopment projects.  We saw these in many of the cities we visited in China, but this was the best opportunity to see in one instant an entire neighborhood flattened as if by a giant hand.  Indeed, what you see here is only about a third of this particular construction project, and it wasn't the only one we saw from the train.

We went to the zoo to see pandas, and we were not disappointed.  They have five giant pandas and three of their smaller cousins, the red pandas.  As you can see, it's real hard being a giant panda.  By the way, the third panda below is Xin Xing, grandmother to two others shown above, at the tender age of 28 1/2.  That makes her the oldest giant panda mom in the world right now.  While we saw quite a few other species as we walked about the zoo, only these rhinos caught our photographic attention, perhaps because we sensed that we were seeing two sides of a love triangle battling it out while the hypotenuse displayed total disinterest nearby.

From the edge of the zoo we looked over the fence to see a farmer hold onto a patch of greenery as the city moves in.  Back in downtown the only green to be seen would have been on the cash.  We wonder if the Chinese see it as ironic that Liberation Square, celebrating the Communist takeover in 1949, is now ringed by Louis Vuiton, Cartier, Tissot and other luxury stores?  When we returned to our hotel, the city and Yangtze River below had taken on a more magical look, a good portent for the next day, when we embark on our cruise down the Yangtze.

And that is where we will leave you, on the banks of the Yangtze River about to board our river cruise boat, the President Prime, the white boat sitting there next to an older boat that now serves as a floating dock.  We'll tell you all about our 3-night, 2½ day cruise down the Yangtze in the next entry.

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