Trip Report on my First China Visit (Part 2)
Friday, July 18th
In late morning I left the hotel with Mandy, and headed to the Shenzhen Railway Station. Upon entering I waved goodbye to her and boarded the train to Guangzhou. The one-hour ride was very smooth, comfortable, and modern. The speed varied, but the fastest was around 120 miles per hour (180 km/h). Shortly after noon, I arrived at the station in Guangzhou and met my second tour guide named Nancy.
The short trip to the hotel was surrounded with -- as you might have guessed -- more new tall, fabulous buildings. I really wanted to explore the city, but after checking in at the hotel and being left alone for the day, was too tired. I slept for the most of the afternoon and early evening hours.
I walked outside in mid-evening to look around and find a meal. The sidewalks were bustling, but the signs, structures, and shops didn't display as many bright colors or flashing lights as those in Shenzhen. But I wandered past a construction site and impressively noticed that a crew was working, even though it was dark outside.
I found a small eatery called Uncle Restaurant and gave it a try. No one spoke English, but the menu was bilingual. I ate a large bowl of soup with meatballs, noodles, and vegetables for a mere $2. Then, a good night's sleep awaited me at the hotel afterward.
Saturday, July 19th
The day began with breakfast in the 30th-floor restaurant of the hotel, featuring an excellent view of the downtown area. The city certainly appeared larger than Shenzhen, but not quite as elegant, and with slightly heavier smog. I returned to my room to gather my belongings, checked out of the hotel, and joined Nancy for a day of historical sightseeing around Guangzhou.
The first stop was at Yuexiu Park, which featured the Five-Ram Statue, symbolizing the legend behind the city's founding 2,800 years ago (another name for Guangzhou is "Goat Town"). The park also contained buildings and structures more than 600 years old.
Next, I visited the Temple of Six Banyan Trees. This Buddhist temple was more than 1,400 years old, and boasted a gorgeous 150-foot (45-meter) tower known as the Flowery Pagoda, last rebuilt in the year 959 with a granite frame. I climbed to the top and relished an additional great view of the city. After coming back down, I also observed three huge bronze Buddha statues in an adjacent hall with incense burning and people meditating.
The subsequent excursion was the Qingping Market. This was an older section of town with several streets of shops, and one of those streets was famous for selling thousands of herbs and traditional Chinese medicines. This particularly fascinated me, because my natural-health practitioner in Oklahoma is very skilled in traditional Chinese medicine (his ancestry is around the Guangzhou area). Nancy was surprised that a Westerner like me would be so interested in this stuff. I told her it's because I prefer natural remedies to health problems instead of chemical drugs (except in an emergency), and that I'm very, very different from most Americans, which is what has brought me to China.
We ate lunch at a restaurant along the Pearl River. I enjoyed the flavor of fresh duck and eggplant, along with the usual tasty rice and vegetables.
That afternoon, I saw an ancestral temple that was constructed in the late 1800s, complete with ultra-fine, delicately-carved wooden sculptures. It was at this site where I encountered my first interaction with Western women on the trip. Two young white women were browsing some exhibits when I happened to walk past them. So I asked them where they came from, and they replied that they were from England. I disclosed that I'm from Oklahoma, and they reacted with a bored one-word monotone, "Sweet." They then turned back to conversing with themselves, completely ignoring me.
So I walked away and chuckled to myself, "Yep...typical young Western women: snobby, insecure, and 99-percent uninterested in men!"
The ride to the Guangzhou Baiyun Airport involved a good dialogue with Nancy about Chinese women, and how they differ from Western ones. She explained that Chinese women radiate much greater self-confidence, are very friendly, and actually *are* interested in men. (Yippee!) I mentioned that it's refreshing to see so many gals in China dressed femininely, compared to their Western counterparts. She answered that the higher self-esteem of Chinese women is responsible for this phenomenon: they aren't afraid to express their personal natures. Finally, I asked if most women in China are seeking equal partnerships with men, or if they instead want traditional male-dominated ones. Nancy replied that most urban Chinese women are seeking equality in relationships, while most rural gals want a master.
This discussion was *extremely* encouraging to me. I had been searching for a girlfriend for more than a decade without success (I'll cite the numerous reasons for this lack-of-success later), and this is exactly what I wanted to hear. It also was consistent with what a fellow Oklahoma acquaintance of mine, who is originally from Chengdu, had told me prior to the trip. In spite of all the snobbishness and indifference of most of the young women I had encountered in the United States throughout the years, wow...there actually *was* a place on this planet where my love life could live and prosper! This was great news and it made my first visit to China even happier.
I arrived at the impressive, huge four-year-old airport on the north side of the city in late afternoon. Nancy accompanied me inside to check in and obtain my boarding pass for the flight to Chongqing. She gave me her card and invited me to call her if I had any problems or questions. We waved our goodbyes, and then I strolled around the airport for a short time, relaxed, crossed through security, then made my way to the waiting area at the gate.
The guy in the adjacent chair tried to chat with me, but I didn't know enough Mandarin, and he couldn't speak any English. But at least the friendliness was there! At that same gate I also saw a young man several rows away with a portable music player who cranked it up through a tiny speaker for about 15 minutes. The music was techno dance-pop, which I really liked. Now consider this: if any young male in America were to do that in public, the music chosen probably would be angry hip-hop, heavy metal, or alternative rock. (Bear in mind that any man playing techno dance-pop in this manner in the United States would instantly be suspected of being gay.) Not here in China! You see, in China, rainbow colors and bubbly disco music actually signify *happiness*, not homosexuality as they do in the psychologically-dysfunctional USA. (And I personally have nothing against homosexuality, by the way.) This once again was a pleasant sign of my cultural harmony with the young, urban Chinese.
The departure on China Southern Air was delayed one hour, due to a thunderstorm. Takeoff took place around 7:45 PM and the flight lasted two hours.
When landing at the Chongqing Jiangbei Airport, bright colorful flashing lights could already be seen radiating from nearby buildings. And this was 15 miles (25 km) north of the city's center! I thought to myself, "En garde, Shenzhen! Time for battle with Chongqing!"
I disembarked and immediately saw a large rainbow-colored banner stretched across the terminal to welcome me. I proceeded to the baggage claim area, retrieved my luggage, and met my next tour guide named Snow.
The ride to the hotel (located at the very center of the city) was brilliantly mesmerizing. A spectrum of lights emanating from every direction often greeted me, and occurred more and more often as I approached downtown. I was constantly peering through the window and uttering, "Whoa." But the *really* magnificent marvel came when crossing one of the many 20-story-tall bridges over the Jialing River, where I caught my first glimpse of the heart of Chongqing. My mouth dropped open at the sight of hundreds of skyscrapers outlined with luscious dazzle. Needless to say, it blew me away! Snow then turned to me and informed, "Well, it's after 10 PM now, so many of the lights have already been turned off."
So I reached the hotel, checked in for a three-night stay, and then meandered the nearby streets for a short while by myself. I first stepped over to Jiefang Bei, which is the illustrious fancy mega-shopping square. It was after 11 PM and most of its spectacular lighting was switched off for the night. But as I passed the plaza, a stranger or two walking past me casually said, "Hi."
I then wandered a few blocks away and discovered a bright avenue filled with super-colorful, lively marquee signs. It didn't take me long to realize that they were the outsides of bars and dancing places. "Holy cow...they've got clubs out the ass!" I pondered with amazement. So I continued walking, and occasionally, friendly strangers continued to greet me spontaneously in passing -- even on some of the darker streets. (This was the first city in China I visited where this nice exception had occurred.)
I finally reappeared at the hotel and called it a night. I had been in Chongqing for only two hours -- very late in the evening -- and it was already whipping Shenzhen's rear-end. Would Chongqing possess the caliber to "overtake the lead" as my favorite city during the next two days? I couldn't wait to find out.
Sunday, July 20th
I left the hotel around 10 AM with Snow for a half-day outing. The first stop was along the Yangtze River at a Yuwang Temple, built in 1759. This featured delicate wood carvings, incense burning, and statues of emperors. I then rode past a plethora of vividly-studded shops, skyscrapers, and street tunnels before arriving at the Chongqing Zoo. This zoo was famous for its giant pandas, but all of them were hiding inside their shelters from the heat and humidity. A few small pandas were outside loitering, though.
After that I trekked toward the Ciqikou Old Town. While en route, I was absolutely dumbfounded at the scenery. Hundreds -- if not thousands -- of brand-new tall buildings, cranes, and 200-foot (60-meter) bridges greeted my eyes as far as they could see! These were flaunting their magnificence from the other sides of the rivers, outside of the city's center. Unlike the grandeur of Chongqing's nucleus, I had never seen any of these newborn structures in any pictures or Internet videos prior to the trip. It was an enormously pleasant surprise beyond imagination, stretching for miles and miles. Wow...was Chongqing sure giving Shenzhen a licking!
I soon reached the Ciqikou Old Town, which was a large section of street shops with a history spanning 1,800 years (although it's been refurbished several times). It was a fun place with a laid-back atmosphere, and I enjoyed playing a Chinese version of the game Whack 'Em. We headed for lunch following that.
During the ride to the restaurant, Snow told me that Chongqing is the only major city in China where bicycles are not commonly used, due to the hilly terrain. About 7 million inhabitants reside within a 3-mile (5-km) radius of the city's core, and the cost of living is roughly one-third of Shenzhen's and Shanghai's. (She told me, for example, that a decent high-rise apartment in the city's center rented for approximately $200 per month.) I also learned that a huge demand for native English teachers exists in Chongqing, as with most Chinese cities. Furthermore, because Chongqing lacks these native speakers (and foreigners), I could command a salary that's just-as-high or higher, compared to the other two places -- on top of relishing the lower living expenses.
So we arrived at the Huangjia Hotel on the north side of the downtown area and rode the elevator to the 30th floor for lunch. I sat at a table in a fancy room near the window, capturing a spectacular north-facing view of the Jialing River and the surrounding metropolis. It indeed was a marvelous sight to behold. Hundreds of skyscrapers, cranes and tall bridges were scattered far into the distance -- all while looking *away* from the city's center! It appeared just as large as Guangzhou with slightly denser smog, but with Chongqing's elegance being equal to or better than Shenzhen's.
My meal presented me with my first taste of the famous "Sichuan Hot Pot." Chongqing is known for its hot and spicy cuisine (from cayenne peppers and other natural seasonings), and I could taste it in my soup and vegetables. I certainly enjoyed the flavor, and drank plenty of water with it!
When departing the restaurant and returning to my hotel, Snow seemed a bit startled that I had no remaining guided-tour items on my agenda for Chongqing. I reminded her that ample time exploring the city by myself was *crucial* for me. It was my best means of "getting a true feel" of the place and its people. Would my solo experience in Chongqing validate its amazing scale and spectacle? We'll see.
So I walked outside in mid-afternoon and stepped over to Jiefang Bei. At last...after more than a year of observing pictures galore of this plaza, it was right there surrounding me with bustle and flair. Luscious spectrums of colorful delight gazed at me no matter where I turned in this super-fancy market square. People were everywhere (with a few saying "Hi" to me), a lively jumbo-sized TV was showing fun, vivid advertisements, and it all felt like a wonderful, wild dream.
I ventured inside an 8-story department store and two 6-story malls. In those outlets and many others, more staff was available to help customers than anywhere I'd ever seen. None of them seemed stressed out, and many would often notice me with smiling curiosity! I then browsed a 5-story electronics and appliance store. Once again, bright colors adorned its interior and plenty of personnel were present. And while wandering past a home-entertainment section, two nice employees greeted me and introduced themselves in English.
Both were college students working during the summer. They were very interested in meeting a rare Westerner roaming the store, and we sat down together for about 20 minutes and became acquainted. His name was Run and hers was Yan, and they were quite fascinated that I was learning Mandarin and aspiring to teach English in China. Never once did they attempt to sell me anything. We enjoyed a great conversation and they told me that English education was highly sought-after in Chongqing. They also asserted that if I were to teach at their university, they would love to enroll in my class! It was an exceptionally warm feeling to come into contact with other young adults in an open public setting who were genuinely interested in getting to know me.
So I strolled the streets for a while longer, then returned to the hotel to relax and check E-mail. I was eager to probe the level of online censorship in China. As much as I dislike the Western news media, almost every website of theirs was accessible from the hotel's PC. I tried CNN, Fox News, MSN, ABC, and CBS, along with YouTube and MySpace. The only page that wouldn't appear was BBC, but still, this was a quite a relief. In the West, we are often fed horror stories of "draconian Chinese Internet censorship" measures, but in reality, very little actually existed.
Early that evening I roved around outside again to seek a meal. I was yearning to flee my comfort zone once more by seeking a small street-side eatery. As before, this was essential in tasting the local food and examining the indigenous personalities.
I found a miniature buffet joint and slipped inside. No one spoke English, but I used my limited Mandarin to select the items. The drumsticks and vegetables were only marginal, but the strong spicy flavor was scrumptious. A group of guys at an adjacent table tried to show me a better way of holding my chopsticks during the meal. Although I couldn't master it, the friendliness and openness of the strangers were obvious. One young patron even nodded and smiled at me as he was leaving.
I slid over to Jiefang Bei again for a glimpse of the nighttime scenery. And once again, it was simply outstanding. Colorful flashing lights and spectacular marquee signs beamed at me from every direction in a radiant display unlike anything I'd ever witnessed. It was so full of vigor that the plaza seemed almost as bright as daylight. After basking in its brilliance for some time, I called my parents from the square's central monument to tell them about amazing Chongqing, and informed them that Chongqing had stolen the lead from Shenzhen! They were happy to hear that I was loving my lucky and luminous adventures in China.
I later moseyed past the active nightclubs a few blocks away. It suddenly dawned on me that the evening was a Sunday. So with elated joy, I pondered satirically with an American Southern dialect, "Well spank me jesus...dehr ain't no bible-thumpin' blue laws in dis ol' country!"
(Blue laws prohibit bars and clubs from operating on Sundays in the name of religious observance. These regulations are very common in the U.S. -- especially in the central and southern regions.)
It felt incredibly uplifting to finally be away from the evil clutches of theocracy. In sensible China, I could enthusiastically savor the freedom to "get jiggy on the dancefloor" whenever I wanted to, without the presence of ecclesiastically-righteous nonsense. But I was quite tired and ready for bed, so I calmly awaited my nightclub outing the following evening.
I came back to the hotel and reflected upon that day. Chongqing had truly seized the thunder, blasting Shenzhen in every category. During the next day, could Chongqing solidify its position and build on its lead? And would that be enough to prepare it for the epic battle with the gargantuan Shanghai that lay ahead? It made for an exciting suspense as I lulled off to sleep.
Monday, July 21st
I didn't wake up until 11 AM. I ate my first meal (lunch) at the hotel and headed out on the town to explore.
Riding the subway/monorail would be my first order of business. I also was eager to venture around a section of the city that was located away from the center. Would the scenery and people be as decent there as they were downtown?
I thought about that as I strolled past Jiefang Bei and descended the stairwell. An underground shopping mall surrounded me as I followed the signs to the train tunnel. Like Shenzhen, the vending machines featured a touchscreen, and I chose the final stop as my destination. It was about 10 miles (15 km) to the southwest, costing about 50 cents.
Upon entering the train, I immediately noticed its interior was adorned with even more bright colors than the one in Shenzhen. And after the first stop or two, it actually *emerged from* the tunnel and traversed on an elevated track! The sights were spectacular -- with hundreds (or thousands) of stunning structures, colorful clean-looking high-rise apartment buildings, and dazzling shopping venues. And oh yeah...there were more cranes than I could count.
I finally exited the monorail in the Dadukou District and meandered the nearby area. As with the rest of Chongqing, this neighborhood appeared very clean and new, with many buildings under construction. This included a fancy 50-story skyscraper. Even more people spontaneously greeted me in passing than downtown, and I drew more curious glances and smiles. I then walked into a Wal-Mart that was larger than the one in Shenzhen. A spectrum of colors adorned it as well, and just as many employees were available to help customers as in Jiefang Bei's upscale malls! Wow!
As I turned to walk out, three nice clerks in their late teens spoke to me in English for about 15 minutes. They, too, were fascinated that I was visiting Chongqing, learning Mandarin, and aspiring to teach English in China. Their names were Yu, Yue, and Min, and were working during the summer between school years. They also told me the specific names of two middle schools close by that were searching for native English teachers. We delighted in a fun chat and it was awesome to meet more young people who were genuinely interested in becoming acquainted with me.
Impressed, I returned to the monorail to ride back to the city's center. The train's interior sported different cool hues than the previous one, and the journey lasted 20 minutes. About this time I began realizing that most of Chongqing's people *did not* seem hurried, stressed, or overwhelmed. They were quite easygoing and made friends readily. I also continued to be amazed at the number of young women in Chongqing who wore cute outfits, such as pretty dresses or skirts, along with sexy sandals and/or hosiery. It was an extremely positive difference from the usual baggy pants or grunge clothing of American females. And in China, I never saw any women with tattoos or body piercings.
So needless to say, the women of China (and especially of Chongqing) projected a sense of beauty and self-confidence that's only observed sporadically in the West. Urban China was very splendid, indeed.
I arrived back downtown and proceeded to a hair salon located along a street. Its inside was very clean, elegant, and modern, and the staff cordial. Although no one spoke English, I used my limited Mandarin in conjunction with the help of my mini translation dictionary. The quality of the haircut was good with a price of only $5.
For a while afterward I relaxed at the hotel, then scoured the sidewalks for dinner. I found a large underground cafeteria and selected a few small courses on display at one of the many counters. The soup contained the usual Sichuan hot spices, and the meal cost a mere $2.
Subsequently, upon returning to the hotel lobby again, I discovered a passageway next to the elevators that led into a huge 7-story shopping mall. Its name was Metropolitan Plaza. It was the nicest one encountered in Chongqing, and boasted two fancy 100-foot (30-meter) atriums. And on the 6th floor, it sported an ice-skating rink with luscious colors surrounding it, plus restaurants and a bowling alley. The scene at the rink was a pleasant one with pop music playing. Fewer people were present, though, since it was later in the evening.
I went back to my room following that excursion to don nicer clothing. It was time for me to prepare for an exciting Chongqing nightclub extravaganza! I strolled over to the streets with the dancing places and stepped into Wan Jia Le (which means "10,000 Happy Families.") I had noticed its flashy marquee and fun techno-dance-pop music while roaming past it during the previous two days, and was anxious to sample it. But unfortunately, this time a rapper was performing live on the stage, and I fled after 10 minutes. Perhaps the entertainment quality was lowered on Monday nights?
After clubhopping around the area for a while, I settled upon a lively hotspot called Babi Club. This featured very good dance music with a freestyle beat and a spectacular light show. The place was packed with people, with an equal ratio of males to females. One major asset was missing, however: an actual dancefloor. Luckily, a small dancing area existed in front of the stage, which was where I spent my time. But as the night progressed, I became aware that most of the patrons had come simply to drink alcohol and interact with their friends, and not dance. Nevertheless, I was able to groove with at least two women for more than one song apiece, though, in spite of that.
While exiting the venue around 1 AM, I felt like something seriously had been lacking from the evening. I had failed to find a club that truly wowed me. Given, this was a Monday night and not a weekend. But it seemed as if Chongqing had fallen short of delivering the ultimate, final knockout punch needed to firmly solidify its position as my favorite city.
But just then...lo and behold...a beam of shining hope suddenly came to the rescue! It was Wan Jia Le again, playing bubbly disco-techno as I was trekking past it. I stopped abruptly and exclaimed, "Wait a minute! This night's not over, yet!"
I eagerly re-entered the place and took my spot on the dancefloor. It was absolutely exhilarating! The rapper was long gone, and the DJ's music was as good or better than at the club in Shenzhen. The light show was the best I had ever witnessed, which included flashy streaks running up and down the walls. And guess what? The women at this establishment *outnumbered the men* by 2-to-1! Hallelujah!!! I don't know if "Heaven" was a nickname for this enterprise or not, but it sure felt like it.
In the short one-hour time span, I must have danced with at least five gals, and with some of them for more than one song apiece. I could only imagine what my female friendship potential would be if frequenting this club for several hours on a weekend.
At 2 AM, I gave a big "thumbs-up" signal to the greeters when walking out the door. At last, Chongqing had finally executed its ultimate finishing touch with vigor and gusto. I felt a great sense of triumph when heading back to the hotel -- a sense that I had discovered a city that was sincerely special. Chongqing had utterly annihilated my wildest expectations in every single category: scale and spectacle, elegance, friendliness, cultural compatibility, job prospects, entertainment, and a thousand other criteria not listed here. To make a long story short, it was a metropolis that would be exceptionally difficult to beat.
With that being said, the main contest was not concluded yet. One more Chinese city was preparing to enter the competition: the illustrious, legendary, world-renowned, gargantuan Shanghai. Would Chongqing possess the necessary virtues to withstand the ferocious onslaught of this colossal creature? The epic showdown was about to begin.