Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chongqing - city of fog

Whenever I go on one of my research expeditions I take notes. Whenever I can - sitting in a car, at an airport, on a plane, even sitting at a restaurant, the moleskine comes out and I fill page after page. Afterwards the words take me back. It is as though the world I was in builds from the short sentence.

Lunch-time. I'm alone at a table in a restaurant. A television, set on the wall, blares out some day-time television which seems just as mindless as its British equivalent. Around me is the debris from last night's wedding: an arch adorned with artificial pink flowers, placards and photos greeting the bride and groom. I've witnessed many of these now. Sometimes there is not just one, but two weddings, sometimes simultaneously, the photographers from either party competing for shots; or sometimes one wedding after the other, the trappings of one ingloriously cleared away to make room for the next. They are raucous because to the Chinese noise signifies luck and life. Quiet is reserved for the white grief of death.

As usual I am presented with a series of bowls and plates: an interesting soup with mutton bones and pumpkin floating around at the top and cereal and small beans at the bottom; a main dish of hot spicy chicken and peanut (Chongqing is famous for its hot food, but I have not encountered anything yet I couldn't eat); some dark green leaf vegetable the colour and texture of seaweed and some white, possibly pickled cabbage which I warily take a mouthful then leave, deciding it is possibly uncooked. The drink is flat and doesn't taste of anything I recognise although it is allegedly 'Sprite'. I ask for a can which causes a small commotion - and I have long finished my meal by the time it arrives. I have to pay for it separately.

The only other occupants of the restaurant are my driver and guide - both of them pleasant, although the driver drives too fast and we had to come to a hiccuping stop on the highway as the car in front suddenly broke down. We swerved and lurched forward several times before finally coming to a stop and I was glad of my seat belt - the only person wearing one. The car in front had had to stop because the catch of the lid of his bonnet had suddenly broken free, leaping up in front of him.
'They drive too fast,' said my guide, Joanne.
We passed several in the same predicament, some of them driving on anyway. It was a relief to hit the city traffic. Although it is noisier - drivers hoot with impatience, anger and as a warning they are about to overtake - at least any collisions are likely to be minor because there is little room to move.

I never notice the driver coming into the restaurant, but each time he comes in behind us. At the moment both he and the guide are sitting at the other end of the restaurant hidden by the bench-like back of the seat. I know they're there because from above the top of the driver's head comes a thin plume of smoke.

The Chinese restaurants have a characteristic faux splendour. The windows are shuttered so I lose track of time; the floor is sumptuously carpeted and the tables are covered in cloths and mats - but dirty from the meals before. The colour scheme is an unusual lime green and white - not the usual pink and red. Apart from distant sound of the TV on the wall there is traditional music - Chinese cadences and intervals softly singing from speakers - a lyre, perhaps.

We step out into fog. It is only 2.30pm but it feels like evening. It has a yellowish tinge and Joanne tells me that Chongqing is famous for its heavy industry and its coal mining which is dangerous and there are often accidents. The industries are being built outside the city now, she says, to avoid pollution, and since 1985 coal has been banned for domestic heating. There are no coal-powered poser stations in the city. At the moment Chongqing buys its electricity from another province, and uses hydroelectric power from small dam on the Yangtze; but soon power from the Three Gorges Dam will be available, and Chongqing will benefit once more from its position at the confluence of the two rivers - the Yangtze and the Jialing.

But at the moment I can see no river. All I can see is the fog swirling around in a large space. But the river is there below the fog, Joanne assures me. It is the Jialing, and the buildings to the side of us have a prime and splendid view once the fog clears. They are being built on land acquired by a Hong Kong businessman (in an enterprise scheme with the local government) and are very expensive. Chongqing, apparently, is becoming a sought after place. The Three Gorges Dam project will not only supply lots of clean energy but has ensured that ocean-going ships will be able to reach the port. Considering Chongqing is in the middle of the huge land mass of China this is quite astonishing (although it takes 8-11 days from Shanghai). However, the Three Gorges Dam project has disadvantages too, and later I was to find out a little about the enormous strategic problems involved in relocating the people of the ancient communities displaced by the rising water.

Apart from the dam the rest of Chongqing's transport infrastructure is being improved too: my guide pointed out the construction of a new subway being built which might (temporarily, I suspect) ease the congestion on the roads. This is part of a hugely ambitious project to build a network of subways connecting with a light railway system I could already see swooping across the city. With over 30 million people the municipal city of Chongqing (really consists of an amalgamation of several cities) is already one of the largest on the planet - and is set to become more populous and affluent yet.