I came to China to explore. To see everything. This is the ancient and 'harmonious nation of diversity'. Such a bold notion must surely make for some curious and tasty contrasts.
From the provinces the size of two Swedens, to those with a population of three Germanys and one Spain I'm here to enjoy them for what they are, not what they want us too see.
I knew it wouldn't all be pretty, I came to test the senses. I would be the antitourist.
My first non-mainstream taste of China was a 2006 Guardian article on the 'Megapolis you've never heard of'. Since then I've been transfixed by making a visit to Chongqing.
Thanks to a friend's wedding and a little free time, five and a half years later I finally made it to the city of 31.5 million people to find what it takes to keep something so ginormous entirely off the radar. The answer? A blanket of haze, a mountain of awful food, a couple of rivers and one or two very well kept secrets.
Blankets of haze
Set on a plinth at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, Chongqing has the only urban skyline I've seen in China that actually looks good. It feels like the city is bursting at the seams - bulging out of the ground with a million skyscrapers in various stages of incubation. In contrast to the flat-pancakes of Shanghai and Guangzhou, Chongqing is a beautiful and striking landscape of brute force and human determination.
Beautiful and striking if you can see it. The summer humidity, winter fog, inland clouds and rampant pollution make Chongqing the most hazy city in China. The effect is a constant blanket of dazzling grey, like a hangover headache. Take some rose tinted shades.
Mountains of spice
Thanks to the topography, bicycles are virtually non-existent. The locals, devoid of an A* Chinese past time (causing havoc on the roads) have instead particularly embraced street food. This being Sichuan, the result is street food drenched in spice. Then covered in spice.
Absolutely everything comes with spice. The steamed dumplings, the noodle cups, the big macs, the skewered fish, the korean rice pots, the gigantic BBQ sticks (that put Shanghai's to shame) the fresh tomatoes, the bottles of water...
... and the chongqing hotpot... frozen lumps of volcano are heated in a tabletop moat until bubbling with anger. Plates of raw ingredients turn into vessels for the lava to break free. After an hour of dining I'm not sure who ate who. I definitely saw the hotpot burp after we left the table.
Click here for my bonus post about the various food-offerings in Chongqing.
A couple of rivers
Chongqing's most impressive feature (beyond the local's capability to consume swathes of thermonuclear sauce) are the two rivers that bisect it. Wide and lazy, they lend a feeling that the city centre is a river island. As Chongqing has emerged bawling into the modern age - relics of it's relationship with the river remain. Fleets of rusty tankers float decommissioned along the banks. Bang Bang workers loiter with shoulder-lengths of bamboo poles at the ferry terminals to carry wares uphill.
Rare for the urban waterway, Chongqing also has a history of slightly appreciating it's river. One of the three actual tourist destinations in the city is a few centuries old citadel clinging to the rock face. It has been completely overhauled into a ghastly arrangement of tacky souvenir shops, spice outlets and pirate themed bars.
Don't go there. Instead take a night cruise along the river and enjoy it from afar. With the haze turned down and the skyscraper lights turned up, evening is the best time to appreciate Chongqing's skyline.
One or two well kept secrets
Ci Qi Kou
Perhaps not so well hidden, Ci Qi Kou, is one of the other main tourist-riddled destinations in Chongqing.
Festooned with appalling bric-a-brak, the part of Ci Qi Kou that's infinitely more unknown and interesting are the mostly untouched back streets. Nobody goes there because after five minutes on the main drag your soul has been extracted by the gourd and fake art vendors. If you can survive the onslaught, the real Ci Qi Kou is a forgotten neighbourhood, frozen in time where the government's demolish signs were tagged everywhere some time ago and now serve as macho blue plaques.
Whatever you do - don't go to the waterside carnival. You can do without spending 5rmb to throw bean bags at boxes of ice tea.
Chongqing's doodle street is exactly the reason I can to China. In 2007 an entire neighbourhood was covered in graffiti. Apartment buildings, shops, streets, everything has been wrapped in a layer of doodles. It's incredible. It looks beautiful, a process of accumulation as you wander from one end of the district to the other.
See more in my post on Chongqing's Doodle street.