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Crossing the Yangtze

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Huddled over binder after binder filled with Yangtze river tours, maps and price tags in the lobby of my Chengdu hostel, I knew a typical “Yangtze River Cruise” just wasn’t for me. The two Montreal backpackers I’d met that were sitting with me agreed. It seemed all too expensive, too long, too much. The Yangtze, which runs west to east is one of the longest rivers in the world and the most significant in China. If I wanted to stick with my legitimate tour of the Mainland, I had to cross this iconic Yangtze somehow. The river also led to a bunch of provinces in the middle and back east that I’d yet to see, so I really had no choice. The other Montrealers opted for the popular overnight Chengdu-Xi’an train and let that route take them east to Beijing. I did things my way.

So I waited until Chongqing where I asked the hostel staff for help. Apparently the best and cheapest way to start the Yangtze was to hop on a hydrofoil boat in this city called Fengjie. The boat drove through the gorges in the middle of the river until Yichang, home of the Three Gorges Dam, where the boat docked. A bus from Yichang could take me to Wuhan, which was the next big city I wanted to see after Chongqing. I probably had to do at least an overnight in one of those cities and had to buy my bus and boat tickets on the stop.

So I left the Chongqing Yangtze River Hostel with this brief outline, my backpack, my phrasebook ready and the hope that I’d be able to cross half of the country successfully in a few days. (Success=don’t die). That’s pretty much the line between traveler and tourist. You’ve made it as a traveler if you’re days on the road are mostly spent NOT DYING. Good for you dude, you are no longer a tourist. Girl/boy guide (scout) badge to follow.

The best part of my Yangtze adventure was the beginning, not the end. Im still not sure about the stuff in between. I would never have gotten the chance to see the town of Fengjie if I’d taken an organized tour of the Yangtze. Arriving in Fengjie I didn’t have a hotel booked, or any hotel names written down for that matter, so I was a little more anxious than usual getting off the bus and heading into the streets of a strange new town. Fengjie was one of the more chaotic places I’d seen thus far in China. Everyone seemed to be out on the dirty streets. Everyone stared. Everyone was doing something. Everyone had that rosy glow from being outside in a smoggy city all day. And everyone smiled. Even though I was offered a ride on the back of about a hundred different electric bikes I opted for a “taxi” to a hotel. I just said “take me to hotel please” in Mandarin and hoped that the town would provide.

The place I was taken to was a little over my budget (instead of 10$/night it was 35), but the receptionist was pleasant and the breakfast was free, so I stayed. A three-hour wait in the muggy Chongqing bus station (it was June, I was in the middle of China; it was a miracle I didn’t melt) and a packed bus ride made me a little tired. But I stuck to my routine of checking in, plopping my backpack onto my new bed for the night, and setting out to explore the town.

The sun was setting by the time I was on the main road. Families were strolling together and workers were settling down for a meal. I tried to wander down every side-street, stop to smell the BBQ at every food stand, and find a Fengjie flash mob. I found more epic dance parties than I did in Chongqing, met sweet restaurant owners I had trouble communicating with but who were thrilled with my being there anyway. Cute couples stopped in their tracks and waved shyly at the foreigner. Factory workers were doing shots of beer and beiju (Mainland clear liquor; basically paint thinner with Chinese characteristics) over BBQ. My favourite parts of Chinese culture all came together for me to see and experience in those few hours on the streets of Fengjie.

The thing about China is that (in my opinion) while others sit back, analyze and wonder about their next move, China just does. They go and they do. And maybe we should be more like that, too.

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Downtown Chongqing by night

Chongqing has a few nicknames; “Fog City” (the polite version of smog city), “Furnace” (that’s more like it), “The City of Mountains” (the term “urban hiking” truly comes alive in Chongqing), but the literal meaning is “Double happiness” in Chinese.
The story of double happiness translates into a land of second chances. I think its related to the hardship of the Sino-Japanese war (Google it, some of the pics look like a real life Battleship Potemkin, it’s gross) and the people wanting to start over again and rebuild bigger, and better after so much hardship. Chongqing, I can relate.

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The fog and the construction

The city was my first stop after Western China and the start of my route back east via the Yangtze river. I was psyched to be out of a Chinese capital city and in a quirky urban jungle. The guidebooks said that the city had a different feel than other Chinese cities. I figured I would end up spending a week in Chongqing like I did in Chengdu, wandering into temples, going to Ming Dynasty museums and continuing to work on my spicy food palette, but I was ready to go after a day and a half. I stuck it out for the four days, like the hardcore explorer I am. I didn’t know why the thought of a unique Chinese city excited me so much. I love real China. The motorbike, aluminium factory, can’t-read-the-menu-in-any-place China. But I bused into the city enthusiastic for more big city action and was transported to a life in the land of very urban smog.

Chongqing is split by the Yangtze River and the numerous bridges and skyscrapers by the sea are one of the famous things about Chongqing, along with the new beginnings history thing and the spicy hot-pot.

I spent a good part of some days walking in places by the riverside. I didn’t even know what shade of brown/yellow the river was. I read recently the river turned to a share of red, and this doesn’t surprise me. In the cab ride to the Yangtze Riverside Hostel, through the smog and fog I noticed a piece of architecture similar to the Chrysler Building on the other side of the river. Once I started my exploring the next day I saw that all over, the city campaigned to be like New York. The city centre was even called Times Square (No Bob Dylan and Don’t Look Back, not even Tom Cruise and Vanilla Sky…instead lots of H&Ms, Starbucks, and China Mobiles). Sorry Chongqing, you are like NYC in pretty much no ways, but nice try.

My new city navigation routine (a.k.a random wandering) didn’t work in Chongqing. Having arrived from Chengdu (with a pit stop in Zigong. Haven’t heard of it you say? It’s pretty cool, you should go) with its ringed roads, sleek subway, city squares and people’s parks, I forgot how to walk in a city that wasn’t gridlocked. but i spent my four days in Chongqing frustrated, panting, and lost. But it wasn’t all bad. I was only physically lost most of the time, wandering through random side streets in an attempt to find my way back. That’s pretty much the only kind of “lost” I can handle.

Another thing is that Chongqing probably would have been better if it wasn’t under construction. 75% of the city was being demolished and rebuilt. That’s real China. As I type this sentence another sleek slab of concrete is being placed by the riverside. A bridge was being built in front of my hostel and it was a struggle to Skype with home. The ships leaving the dock for the Yangtze river tours and the sound of drills all day made the hostel a little less than ideal during my stay. But even though the view from the hostel terrace was of mostly a giant crane, it was still pretty awesome. I’m a sucker for a skyline.

I think my experience in Chongqing was similar to many people’s overall experience in China. They go in with high expectations and are a little thrown off-guard at first. They eat good food and talk to interesting people. They see animals in places they hoped to never see. They walk around trying to find something cultural and scenic with little result, and they start to wonder what all the hype is about. But if they stick around long enough, they get the chance to witness something inspiring, something they wouldn’t have found in another part of the world.

My third night in Chongqing, I caught myself alone by sunset wandering around thinking about what to do with the rest of my life/what I’m gonna eat for dinner, as I tend to do when I’m sans travel buddies, and for the first time in a while, I freaked out. My head started to spin faster than it’s usual speed. There was no time for that nonsense when I was doing yoga in Dali, drooling over the skyscrapers in Hong Kong and pushing my way to the front of the line to buy a train ticket in different parts of the Mainland. But there in Chongqing, the first stop of my journey east, shit was getting real. The better half of my China trip was over and I didn’t have anything lined up and my bank account was slowly but surely telling me to GET A JOB YOU HOBO, FEED ME! A million thoughts came to all at once and when that happens they tend to topple over each other, and it’s chaos.

Here’s something worth mentioning: The mid-age/elderly women of China like to join together every night in a park or public square and dance. There’s different styles from aerobic, to a slow-paced kinda jazz-exercise but most of it kinda looks like one big waltz. Sometimes the whole family goes together to the park and everyone joins in. From a bystander it’s like witnessing a flash-mob  only it’s every night so not that big of a surprise, and the choreography isn’t as intense. From what I’ve seen it happens in every city all over the country. For a country that lacks a lot of arts and culture; albeit rich in history, but the modern-day world of factory towns leaves time for little else, it’s always a pleasant surprise to see this public display night after night.

Frankly, I was getting a little bored of it. I usually found myself wandering at the time after dinner in a new city in China, and I’d stumble upon a new group of women each time. I was amazed when I first saw it, and from talking to other travellers the nightly dance sessions were always at the top of people’s favourite-things-about-China list. I never saw the dance mobs more so than in Chongqing. Even a motorbike parking lot in the middle of the city served as dancing grounds.

Then in the middle of my (mild) existential anxiety attack, I stumbled upon another dance party just as my head was about to explode. I sat and watched. Seeing hundreds of people commit so fully to the two-step almost gave me raccoon eyes. Nothing like a good old fashioned flash-mob (with Chinese characteristics) to put things into perspective. I watched all these people from this giant and crazy country that I chose to explore, bust a move and I calmed down. It’s all good. And I made my peace with Chongqing and all that it was; even though it’s not what I had wanted or expected, but got the chance to love anyway.

Things weren’t so bad, after all.

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