Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, August 01, 2008

Got back from Chongqing this morning. The campus is secured. Fortunately, I had taken the trouble to get a security badge before I left Beijing, because they were checking every one's ID. It's the Olympics, of course, and I guess it's one of those things you have to put up with. I have never been back to Beijing this early. Beijing is really nice in the fall, winter and spring, but during the middle of the summer, I definitely prefer the Western mountains. Maybe it's a good thing I stopped in Chongqing a few days before coming back. Chongqing is hotter than Beijing in the summertime.

But you really must see the place. Maybe Chongqing doesn't need to be the first place you see in China. But it does need to be one of the places you see at some time or another. And when you come, don't just go to all the famous places. Chonqing was the wartime capital of China, so it has a lot of interesting historical sites. But take a walk through any ordinary neighborhood, and get a picture of what China was like in bygone years. Don't get me wrong. China is changing. But there are some places in Chongqing that seem to be doing just about what they have been doing for generations. Walk through those places and ask yourself, "What was this place like last year? And the year before that. And the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that?" So much of the city seems frozen in time, even while other parts are seeing tremendous progress. Perhaps it's the gap between rich and poor that everybody talks about. But I think it's also the nature of this city as rivers between the cliffs. What ever the case may be, the ordinary neighborhoods like the one I lived in give you a much better "living history" than the tourist traps that purport to show you "Old China."

I have wanted to visit Chongqing since I first came to China, and actually stopped through four years ago when I took the ship from Yichang to Chongqing. But I was not in Chongqing more than an hour or so; I boarded a bus for Chengdu as soon as I got off the boat. The reason is that there were no youth hostels in Chongqing at the time. I have discussed this before, but as a foreigner, it is really frustrating to stay in Chinese hotels when you are traveling. First of all, they will often charge you more. Sometimes Chinese people argue with me when I make this complaint, because, after all, the prices are usually posted. But the point is that many times the prices are posted high. If a Chinese person walks in, they will be able to negotiate a lower price, but if someone like me walks in, it's much tougher. At youth hostels, the prices are much more stable, because they are usually rock bottom to begin with, especially if you are staying in a 8 bed or 10 bed room (dormitory, in other words).

But there is another issue that is almost as important. When you are traveling through Western China, you need to have local travel information. Unless you stay at a very expensive hotel, that can be hard to come by. The employees at small hotels in China are minimum wage workers, some of whom have never been out of their own neighborhoods. The employees at youth hostels are often university students who speak fluent English. They are really savvy when it comes to travel, and very good at getting information quickly. Some better than others, of course. At the youth hostel I stayed at in Chengdu this summer, there was a summer intern who was particularly adept at finding train schedules and prices. Believe it or not, when I left, I talked her into giving me her personal cell phone number. It's a presumptuous thing to do, I know, but I really wanted to be sure I could call her if I got in a pinch. I said, "Look, it's just for information. Maybe I'll call you, and maybe I won't." She said, "Maybe I'll answer you, and maybe I won't."

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