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A Tour of Chongqing

As a college junior, I spent a semester living in Paris, occupying a prim little room in the 15th arrondissement. My French landlady—the widow of a Hungarian nobleman—was a decorous older woman with a complete collection of green Michelin guides to the various provinces of France. Apart from the famous restaurant ratings, the Michelin people put out an imposing series of travel guides to the world, and I remember leafing through them in a kind of awestruck haze of intimidation before leaving for a very brief first trip to Provence.

The Michelin guides use an elaborate system of stars, triangles, and font faces to indicate what is worth seeing, what is tolerable, and what should lie beneath your contempt. They also envelop each attraction in a thick armor of scholarship, tracing the history of every chapel, major rock outcrop, hamlet and city hall back into the mists of time. Traveling with a Guide Michelin, especially if you are an ignorant foreign student, feels a lot like traveling with a busload of stern retired schoolteachers, and the shadow of history looms large.

I mention all this by way of comparison, because my visit to China was so context-free that it almost made me giddy. Not only were we floating down the Chang Jiang on a cloud of ignorance, but there wasn't ever a serious risk of new information coming in to pierce the veil. I had been to countries in Europe where I couldn't speak the language at all, but there were always cognate words, or at the very least a script that I could look up in a dictionary. I had never known what it meant to utterly not understand a language. It turned out to be a marvelous guilty pleasure.

Thanks to this haze of incomprehension, our trip to Chongqing was pure Dada—without question the most enjoyable guided tour I've ever taken.

We had arrived in the city in the late morning after a bone-rattler of a bus ride from Chengdu, and we were scheduled to leave in the early evening on the boat that would take us down the river through the Three Gorges. To fill the time, there was offered a half-day guided tour of the city, unfortunately in Chinese only, since the foreigners among us didn't form a critical mass.

Chongqing is built on an impossible collection of hills at the bottom edge of Sichuan province, and has a complicated history, of which I was blissfuly unaware. It is a major inland port, but not especially easy to get to (until the Three Gorges fill up for good), and during the Second World War served as the capital of free China, after the Kuomintang beat a hasty retreat from advancing Japanese forces in Nanjing. Back then it was known as Chungking, a malarial sort of place cursed for its awful summer heat—together with Wuhan and Nanjing, the city is known as one of China's 'three furnaces'—and under constant threat from Japanese bombers, who only needed to follow the river to find the city.

I knew none of this as we started our bus ride, although the part about hills was easy enough to intuit. Instead I blithely settled in to our Chinese-language tour, with our bus half-filled with the same large friendly family that had accompanied us down from Chengdu that morning, and soulful karaoke videos playing on the video screen.

The tour was a delight. We started off with a visit to the Museum of Three Large Rocks, where a local guide showed us some big crystals in a display case for all of thirty seconds before escorting our group into the gift shop—fully six times the size of the museum proper. It was impossible to deduce anything about the museum from the gift shop, which contained the usual collection of crystal jewlery, large jade ships, miniature Buddhas and bead bracelets endemic to all of China's high-end souvenir stores. The only exit led into a scary-smelling preserved foods store, and from there mercifully out into the three-stone lobby.

Next up was a concentration camp—yes, yes, that's right—up in the hills above the city. It had been used by the Kuomintang to intern Communist Chinese during the war, and of course was the site of terrible atrocities of which we had no inkling. It was not the most comfortable place to visit, first because the entire camp had been built with American money, and second because the place was swarming with middle-school-aged Chinese kids in a variety of uniforms, who couldn't stop staring at us—but we resolved the situation by hiding in a noodle shop. All I will say in our defense is that we were ravenously hungry (we had eaten nothing but dodgy Rice Krispies treat simulacra on the morning bus ride), and not keen to see our tax dollars at work torturing Chinese national heroes.

One bowl of noodles and ice cream bar later, it was time to reconvene with our Chinese companions, who seemed to be in excellent spirits. We took off straightaway for another prison camp, this one completely across town. There were more throngs of children and many stark rooms with grainy photos of Chinese prisoners, with terse English notes that only made things more mysterious. I coudn't avoid making the vacuous observation that the prison camp had a beautiful view of the river. Here we finally pieced together the reason for the crowds—Nov 27th was the anniversary of a great massacre of Chinese Communists by the Kuomintang, who were booted out of Chongqing but decided to kill as many of their prisoners as they could before heading for Taiwan.

For all the grim history, the atmosphere was purely festive. It really was a spectacular day, and all the uniformed schoolkids were crazy with joy to be out of school. They walked in long single-file lines up the hill, with a Chinese schoolteacher every fifteen kids or so, keeping an eye on the rowdies. Down far below you could see the river, very low in its sandy bed, and a string of boats along it.

Next up was the Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where we got to drink a little plastic cup of strange tea served to us by a lab-coated woman, and then wander the empty halls as our Chinese friends got their pulses measured by young medical students. The walls of the Institute were covered with rubbings from a series of bas-relief sculptures depicting a traditional tea ceremony, parts of which were decidedly more erotic than I would have ever dreamed. At the very end of the hall we found a tiny kitten, no more than six weeks old, standing triumphantly in a saucer of kibble. His whole body shook as he crunched on the pieces.

Back in the bus for more karaoke, and then a penultimate stop was in front of a great behemoth of a building that we had passed several times earlier in the day. It looked like a cross between the Forbidden City and a giant Pizza Hut, but it turned out to be the swankest hotel in Chongqing, so upscale that they charged visitors 30 yuan just to see the lobby. There was a giant park in front of the place, into which our busmates immediately dispersed, while we worked on fending off a young hustler who really, really wanted to sell us a map. To say that the purpose of the stop was unclear would be doing unfair justice to the previous stops on our route, although again the place was mobbed.

By this point it was getting late, and the tour was drawing to an end. For our last stop, the bus parked on a near-vertical slope by the waterfront, and we ran the gauntlet of hawkers and vendors to enter a dimly-lit cavernous building. There was some kind of snack shop off the main hall, but everyone marched right through and out onto a large concrete terrace, from where we got the same wonderful view of the Chang Jiang we had seen from varioius vantage points all day. Except that now there was much excitement, pointing, and taking of pictures, until after ten minutes everyone filed back in to the snack shop, and excited shopping began.

Our snack-shopping experience was just as context-free as the rest of the day—we had to guess, based on heft and packaging, what might possibly contain good foods to eat during the three-day journey, and we left with our best guesses for the departing boat.

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