Friday, December 18, 2009

Into Chongqing; a change of scenery.

It was my last morning in Shanghai, and the view through my hotel window looked like this:

and this:

Everything was tall and grey with just enough haze to obscure the horizon. Haze is a Chinese speciality.

It was Saturday and in consequence Shanghai was slightly quieter. We travelled slowly but steadily. On the car radio Chinese voices sang in time with a western pulse, while in the street two workmen in red hard hats leant a bamboo ladder against a wall. The old and the new: China seems to pick out exactly what it requires from the modern world, and leaves the rest behind.

The car increased speed as we left the city and drove through what appeared to be a building site. As we crossed a bridge I could see why - a large sign advertised that in 2010 Shanghai is hosting 'Expo 2010', and part of this will take place in an interesting building shaped a little like an inverted pyramid. It looks unstable.

Perhaps in readiness for 'Expo 2010' there is a new airport - which when I was there late morning in October 2009 fairly empty.

We flew over the Yangtze river with the container ships sluggishly returning to dock on the grey water; and then over islands, each one with parallel canals as if the skin on the earth had stretched and broken. The sun lit each section of land as we passed, the canals suddenly white and gleaming, as if picked out by a laser pointer.

Then, all at once, we veered west and there was uninterrupted cloud, and I could see no more. The cloud lasted until Chongqing (approximately 900 miles away) and there apparently extended to ground level because I landed in fog.

I sniffed the air. It was colder than Shanghai and sulphurous. The fog seemed tinged with yellow, and above the tang of sulphur was another chemical that persisted even when the car door was shut. On the ground were puddles as if it had been raining hard.

Chongqing is the largest city in China with a population of 80 million. I had imagined that it would be much like Shanghai, but when I got there it seemed smaller with more human-sized buildings which seemed to pay homage to the landscape. Apartments were built within the confines of a gorge for instance, and the hills left to nature.

I had read that around the time I was born the people in Chongqing were starving as a result of a failed agricultural policy. A recent report in Nature China described how the young girls (but, interestingly, not the boys) that survived this era are now overweight (just like the Dutch people that survived the deprivations of the second world war). The study did not offer an explanation.

Because Chongqing is at the confluence of two main rivers it is subject to fog. With the advent of heavy industry these have changed into what we in the UK used to call 'pea-soupers'. During the war Chongqing's famous pea-soupers saved it - they were so thick that the Japanese bombers had no idea where to drop their bombs. The people hid in caves in the cliffs (which are still visible and used for storage), and the Chinese government decamped to here from Peking to run the country. So it was not surprising to find some of this life-saving fog at the airport.

I retrieved my baggage and made my way to the exit. This was always a tense moment: would there be anyone there, and what would I do if there were not? As I looked around me in the arrivals hall I noticed that couldn't see another European face - an unusual and slightly disconcerting occurrence. At the barrier were names on pieces of paper. I looked along the row a couple of times before, with relief, seeing my name. My new guide introduced herself. She was called 'Joanne', and it was soon obnious she had very good English.

By the time we got to the city it was dark. We stopped at a restaurant and I was led past a raucous wedding reception (October is considered to be a lucky month for weddings) to a large empty room with a sideboard and a table set for one. Joanne drifted away and the usual bowls of food were deposited in front of me - a small bowl of soup with china spoon, a dish of rice, and then two more, one of meat in sauce and one of a mixture of vegetables. A greasy looking glass of 'cola' was placed by the side. The room led directly to a toilet and wash hand basin with broken red tiles on the walls and the remains of grouting. At the door leading to the corridor a sweet girl in a bright yellow tunic top stood and stared at me with a child's unselfconscious curiosity, although she was not a child.

My hotel was at the top of a hill away from the traffic. Behind it was a park and when I got there was in darkness except for this in the distance.

The room was not as luxurious as the one in Shanghai; it had a slate floor which was cold underfoot, and a bathroom only partly partitioned from the rest of the room by a sliding screen, but it was clean and comfortable. A large French window led onto a balcony, and when I opened it the only sound I could hear in this vast crowded city was a cricket. At last I felt I had reached real China.