ChongQing is one of the four directly controlled municipalities in China (the others being Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai), and it's greater region has a population of over 30 million in an area the size of Ireland. The city itself is built into the mountains beside the Yangtze river, and served as the wartime capital of China during the second world war. Because the area is so mountainous, the Japanese could never locate the headquarters of Generalisimo JiangJie Shi or General Stillwell.
Before the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river was built, the waters were turbulent, but now, due to the locks on the dam and the controlling of the waters, ChongQing is the furtherest inland port which can be reached by ocean-going vessels. This makes the city a very important trade center, where produce from neighbouring districts can be easily shipped down river. This honour once belonged to Wuhan, before the building of the dam, and this is why the furthest inland foreign concessions were at Wuhan (The Russians, French, Germans, British, and Japanese all had concessions there). The city is also known as one of the three "hotpots of China", due to its unbearable heat and humidity, the other two being Wuhan and Nanjing.
[Caption: Chongqing with sinking boat (left). A bridge under construction (center). The locks of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river (right).]
I arrived in ChongQing at midnight, by train from SiChuan province. Walking out of the air-conditioned train station into the midnight air was like walking into a blast furnace, and the first thing I could think of was to find an air-conditioned hotel or hostel. The first hotel I came across was a giant skyscraper of a building, and it looked like a four star at least. Entering the lobby confirmed my suspicions, the nightly rate was over 1000 yuan (about $150AUD), which was way over my means. So I asked the receptionist if she knew a cheaper place.
-- "Ah, but we have some cheap rooms going for 300 yuan if you like. They're on the third floor, why don't you take a look?"
So I went to the third floor where there was a separate lobby. The receptionist there showed me a room and I took it straight away since it was well past midnight and the place had air-conditioning. The room looked a little odd though, quite small, without a desk or chair, and the bed was like a massage bed where one end could be folded up so that it became like a couch. There was a TV though, so I thought nothing of it and slept a dreamless sleep.
The next day I went to see an acquaintance in the city, and we ate a hotpot together. This is the city dish, where a pot with very spicy broth bubbles in front of you and you put in fresh vegetables and raw meat to cook, like a fondue. We ordered the least spiciest broth on the spiciness scale, and it was enough to make my eyes water. The other popular city snack funnily enough is fresh fruit salad with ice shavings and a bit of sweetener.
When I arrived back at the hotel, on the third floor, things seemed a little strange. There were a few ladies hanging around wearing one piece dresses, the hemline up to their thighs. There were also a few businessmen about, chatting with the ladies. I began a conversation with a man in the lobby, who was working in the hotel in some capacity. As we ended the conversation and I started towards my room, he said something to me in Chinese which roughly translates as:
-- "Hey! Maybe you'd like one of these lovelies to keep you company for a bit?" (The exact phrase in Pinyin was: "Yao bu yao meimei pei ni liao tian?")
I looked at the ladies again and a mental veil was lifted. They had awful make-up on, with bright blue eye-shade, and all of them had unnaturally large breasts straining to pop out of their tiny dresses. Some of them were sitting next to suited businessmen, stroking their thighs and fluttering their eyes.
-- "No thanks", I croaked, as I walked away in a stupor, realising that I was staying in a brothel.
As I passed the reception of this "hotel" within a hotel, I stopped to talk to the receptionist to try to clear my mind and get a grasp of the whole situation. I was quite shocked, and had to make some small talk to get a sense of normality. The receptionist was placing some towels and some pink oblong objects in a tray, so I innocently asked:
-- "What are those?"
-- "Condoms", she giggles.
They're so obviously condoms that I make a mental facepalm as I nod slowly, with a face like a dead fish, and walk away towards my room again. This time I don't talk to anyone else.
Some honourable mentions:
### Mashhad, Iran ###
In the early 9th century, Ali al-Reza the 8th Imam and 7th descendent of the Prophet Muhammed, was allegedly poisoned by the future caliph Al-Ma'mun, for political reasons. After the death of Al-Ma'mun's father, Harun the Just, the Abbasid empire was split between his two sons: Al-Amin had the support of the Arabs, and Al-Ma'mun had the support of Persia. This situation quickly escalated into civil war, and to further cement his position among the Persians, Al-Ma'mun named the 8th Imam as his successor. However, once this move paid political dividends, Al-Ma'mun allegedly used poisoned grapes to remove Al-Reza. The 8th Imam Reza was buried next to Harun the Just, and over time this place became a shrine, and then a mosque, and then the city of Mashhad, which means "Place of Martyrdom".
Mashhad is the second largest holy city in the world, and is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims. The shrine of Imam Reza is the largest mosque in the world, and each year over 20 million pilgrims visit the site. I knew none of this as I arrived in Mashhad, on a bus from the deserts of Turkmenistan. I thought it was simply another big city where I could finally get a proper bed (the previous night was spent in a watchtower which belonged to a police officer in Sarakhs). It was 4pm and the streets were deserted. I found out later that in Iran there is also an afternoon siesta when businesses shut down.
I managed to spot a pizza restaurant which was still open though, and my stomach hurried me over. I sat down and ordered and the guy at the counter took the order and looked at me curiously. Pretty soon two cooks joined him and surrounded me at my table.
-- "Where are you from?"
-- "Australia", I smile, just in case.
-- "Ah! Australia!", one of them says, "how are the women there, nice? Good..." Then he made a hand-signal which was the thumb and forefinger close together, looking like a duck's beak horizontally, but vertically it looks like, well...
-- "Er, yeah...nice..." I say weakly.
-- "You want nice Iranian girl? Twenty US dollars an hour."
I looked at the three of them, who stood surrounding my small table, unsmilingly, like interrogators, their shadows falling on my pizza. They were deadly serious too.
-- "No thanks", I squeaked.
Just like in Zurich: apart from a chap at the bus stop, they were the first people I talked to in the holy city of Mashhad.
[Caption: The Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran. Note the guards with the brightly coloured feather dusters.]
### Venice, Italy ###
After the receptionist at the hostel, the first Italians I talked to in Venice were also cooks in a pizza shop. There were only two of them this time, so my odds were a little better. The conversation went something like this:
-- "Hey! Where are you from?" says one of the smiling cooks.
-- "Australia", I smile back.
-- "Ah! Australia! How are the Australian girls? Nice?" He grins. His mate grins even more widely.
-- "Yeeah... nice..." is all I manage.
-- "What are you doing here? Tourist?"
-- "Yeah, I'm a tourist." Silence. "Er, I've been travelling the last three months", I offer.
-- "What? Three months? Three months without..." and the cook pumps his right fist towards and away from himself, forearm parallel to the ground.
-- "No", I say, dryly.
He didn't have time to offer me a hooker though. The place was a takeaway.
### Brussels, Belgium ###
After seeing the fleshpots of Amsterdam, I visited M. in the countryside of Holland. A few days was enough to refresh the mind, and I continued my way to Belgium, taking the train which approaches the "Capital of Europe" from the north. As the train slows down and pulls in to the station, on both sides of the train, are windows with barely clad buxom ladies trapped inside, on display. Just like Amsterdam except without the lights and without the tourists. Since the train has to slow down a lot, the passengers get an eyeful. We finally arrive at the station and are belatedly welcomed by the sign: "Bruxelles-Nord".
### Moscow, Russia ###
One evening in Moscow, I was finding my way to Kazanskiy station to catch the train to Kazan, capital of the Tatars. Moscow has many train stations, and Kazanskiy station was quite blusterous. Street vendors selling toys and cigarettes, kiosks full of DVDs and keyrings, roadworks, and of course, lots of people walking around, either to pick up someone from the station or to go someplace in the vastness of Russia. It was about 6pm in the evening and quite dark as winter was beginning to set in. I was walking near Kazanskiy station, looking for the right entrance and platform. A girl approaches wearing a dark down jacket and says something to me in Russian.
-- "I'm sorry, I don't understand", I reply.
-- "You want sex?" she says.
-- "No thanks", and I walk off towards Kazan.
(Note: if you ever have to buy a train ticket in Russia, remember that all times are in Moscow time. I once arrived in Siberia at 3am in the morning!)
### Hampi, India ###
The ruins of Hampi belong to the former Vijayanagara empire, established in the 14th century in Southern India, which united to resist the Islamic invasions from the north. The ruins are quite impressive in their desolation, most of them covered in weeds and brush. There is an active village in the center of Hampi, catering to tourists and worshippers, selling fresh flowers, coconuts, scented sticks and camphor. In about 10 minutes walk you can reach the countryside, where ruins sit peacefully among the greeness and the rolling hills and farmland. Shoots of smoke rise here and there, indicating where someone is cooking or burning off some grass. Little coracle boats made of hide and reeds sit on the rocks beside the Tungabhadra River, drying themselves for the next excursion.
The countryside was very peaceful, with hardly any visitors to the ruins, so I was very surprised as I walked along a dusty track when a shepherd suddenly appeared beside me.
-- "Hey! You want sex, mister?"
-- "No thanks."
But he persisted, grinning and walking beside the track on an embankment, his right forefinger moving in and out of a hole he'd made with his left hand.
-- "Come on! I know a cave nearby, it's very nice!"
I wasn't sure whether this pimp had some girls hidden in his cave or whether he was a shepherd-cum-gigolo. I ignored him, and after awhile he disappeared as quickly as he appeared, presumably to tend to his flock.