Monday, April 7, 2008

An Afternoon Stroll

Today was a lovely day so unusual for Chongqing--blue skies, not too cold, too hot, or too humid--so I thought I'd take a walk and do some sketching.

Our apartments are in a sea of tranquility... if you ignore the buses honking like Canada geese in the streets below. Golden towers, a potted park, and a ring of minor stores and restaurants molder away bit by bit. Below the haven of the upper-middle class, slick marbled streets carry gabbling pedestrians from mall to mall while bangbang porters and motorcycle taxis await them.

Further from the mall epicenter of the district, I jostle with students newly freed from the clutches of school, and I dodge the many--oh so slow--madams and misses and grandmas, migrant workers dressed as soldiers and dressy policewomen, high school girls making fashion statements and high school boys slouching off to play world of warcraft in the wangba (net cafe).

Why do I ever feel nervous to perforate that unseen wall between the public boulevard and the quiet residential neighborhoods beyond? I know from experience that most of the interesting subjects for thought, sketching, or photography are somewhere beyond the sanitized and advert-saturated facades. Probably because tension pulls us all towards clearly public spaces and pushes us away from quiet neighborhoods where there is not a coke, a KTV, or a mall to be found.

I walked down a street past a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I've eaten some of the most delicious fish, killed on the spot and roasted in garlic and spice over open coals. No fish on my mind today. The street continues downhill, becoming a blind alley between high brick-cement walls. I wondered what wondrous gardens might lie on the other side of these blank ellipses to either side of me. Bonsai topiaries? Vicious dogs?

Beyond the labyrinth, the hillside fell sharply away revealing the mighty Jialing Jiang river far below. On the bluffs themselves, a Dr. Seuss/M.C. Escher profusion of stairways crawled, linking ancient brick apartment warrens, squatter's shacks, and remnant farming cottages with the behemoth skeletons of new hi-rise condos. A long hike--or a quick fall--downhill would bring one from Chongqing's agrarian past, through the factory communes, to a blade-runner dystopia.

I saw people emerge from the foundations of one of the Skeletor condos and braved the waves of excrement stench to see what I could see. Migrant workers, hired to climb rickety bamboo walkways along the face of the tower, lived down here in the foundation. A thick strew of trash attested to their length of stay, and plywood had been put down to form rudimentary doors, walls, and gangways to facilitate this impromptu dormitory.

At last I reached the littoral highway--a stilted automobile shelf looming over the river's shore. The highway itself had been built up with pleasant gardens and statuary, and was almost deserted of cars. One sculpture along the sidewalk was named "perfect symmetry". This had originally been an upright yin-yang, one half made of hardened red plastic, the other a negative space hatched with steel bars... or at least it had been. Seems that some young entrepreneur had come along and hacked off the 'yin' steel bars for scrap. For use in that monstrosity of a condo-complex back the way I'd come? Or was it a latter day interpretation of Mao's famous 'Great Leap Forward', an attempt to cannibalize metal not 'usefully' employed and feed it to a backyard furnace? We'll never know, but that sculpture now symbolized something different than originally intended: how both communism and capitalism have taken their toll on this country; how both had pawned natural beauty and an ancient culture for world prominence and economic growth.

Further down the road, I noticed a decaying collection of farmhouses and terraced fields caught in a thin nearly-vertical strip of land between the highway and the urban jungle perched above. Families toiled in the fields without benefit of modern equipment, just as they would in the deep countryside, but this was some twenty minutes walk from the glitzy center of the district. Were my salad vegetables coming to my table from this polluted bit of land?

Along a stretch of cliff, the farmers had built cubby-holes, shrines to Budhist/Taoist deities perhaps. I intend to investigate this at a later date.

Further yet, I noticed a section of empty 'communist-era' factories, abandoned, hollowed of usefulness and relevance. I wondered whether illegal migrants from the countryside make use of those dilapidated buildings, squatters claiming their piece of Maoist legacy and perhaps charging fees to newcomers for a squalid scrap of ground where machines once thundered. Migrants streaming into the city in their millions had to live somewhere after all, and perhaps vampires too! That last is a consideration I'm making for a story idea.

The empty factories, deprived of purpose, now have a sad sort of beauty. Perhaps it is the progression of history, that perpetually replaces the eyesores of yesterday with even worse eyesores. By comparison to the blank future, the gritty past is a miasma of nostalgia we actually begin to seek out and treasure. No wonder that in Beijing these relics of bygone idealism are now retrofitted as trendy art galleries.

The long elevated highway ends by swooping in on the new-ancient neighborhood of Ciqikou (ts chee ko). Ciqikou is Chongqing's premier bit of nostalgia, actually. An old port town where barges from distant Shanghai and loggers coming downriver stopped to have a swallow of spicy hotpot, the old flagstone streets now twist and turn between restaurants and souvenir shops. Since every Chinese city now sports a new 'ancient town', it won't likely catch a traveler's eye, but one has to admit that it at least has more topography and a few more unique treats than Chengdu's ancient towns do. Take that Chengdu!

I didn't stop for mahua (a local delicacy: twisted, deep-fried dough strands), but headed back up the hill and inland. Unfortunately, the road uphill is not nearly as pleasant as the sterile parkway I'd come in on. Buses belch, motorcycle taxis lunge through gaps between pedestrians, and of course numerous brothels and gambling dens beckon tourists to either side--night hadn't fallen yet, however, so the whore shops were still shuttered. Not a pleasant path, but my mind's eye had just conceived the ingredients of a burger I intended to create when I got home.

Just another afternoon stroll in Chongqing.

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