Ting, a girl who worked at Wangfujing hostel in Beijing during the Summer, now lives and studies in Xi'An. Although she was elsewhere visiting her family during Chinese new year, I had sought her advice for trains and buses as I came through the city on my way to and from Lanzhou. In the first instance, she had been quite correct and had been able to tell me which bus station I needed to find and the duration of buses. Coming back, she was wider of the mark. She had told me that train tickets should be no problem whatsoever after new year had passed. So, when the train from Lanzhou arrived, I went straight to the ticket office to try to book something to Kunming, Guiyan, Chongqing or Chengdu during the next three days. Unless I wanted to stand on an overnight train, all tickets for all services on all days were completely sold out.
Instead, I walked over to a bus station and, after some tout had lead me a merry dance trying to sell me a ticket to Chengdu for quadruple the real price, was able to buy a ticket departing the following lunchtime to Chongqing. The woman selling me the ticket reckoned it should take about ten hours, which would mean arriving at ten-thirty, but I was increasingly realising that this was the standard answer to questions about how long any bus journey will take.
With the job done I took a taxi to a hostel for the night. Actually, that wasn't so simple. The first one insisted on a pre-agreed (IE: inflated) price instead of the meter. After a protracted stand-off I had to get out (leaving all his doors open so he had to get out and close them all) and find another one.
When I did get to the hostel, they were having a dumpling-making 'party' in the bar. After my lack of success when at one of these in Qingdao, I ducked out of the preparation work, but did join in some of the eating afterwards.
The bus duly left on time the next day and began for a couple of hours on conventional highway before turning off onto slow twisty mountain roads, braking, briefly accelerating and cornering all the way. After four hours of this I was feeling pretty sick indeed and had moved to a seat near the front for a while in an attempt not to throw up. We stopped at a little kitchen in the hills for some food and although I couldn't eat much because it was all spicy or meat, just a bowl of rice was appreciated to settle my stomach. We were soon back moving again and the hills did not give way. Ten-thirty came and went and it was gone midnight before we came back onto a straight piece of flat dual-carriageway again. Still the journey continued though until we finally arrived at two-thirty in the morning.
The priority was to move on to the next city, or at least confirm a ticket to do so. I ambled around the train station ticket office for a while. Although it was shut, careful study and comparison of signs, notices and information displays suggested that there were tickets available for the twenty-two hour trains to Kunming, but only for hard seats, which didn't sound fun. I decided to find the nearby hotel and retire for the night, but when I did it was full. The next plan was to get some chips and a fruit pie at the twenty-four hour MacDonalds. By the time I'd done all of this, six O'clock had rolled around and, as I had hoped, the bus station ticket office had opened for business. I booked myself on the five-thirty bus the following evening, which gave me all of the remaining day plus most of tomorrow to see whatever it was Chongqing had to offer. First off all I took a taxi to a hotel though to get some much craved-for sleep.
The hotel I picked was in the modern and vibrant city centre. It was in a tall twenty-storey building, although I didn't realise that it only occupied the top half of this. Going into the ground floor, there was initially some confusion with the security guard when I pointed at the 'reception' desk and he explained that it didn't open until eight. It was only after I'd used the toilet and settled down to sleep on the sofa that he realised what I wanted. It turned out that the desk was for a tour company. He then seemed to want money before taking me up to the real reception on the eleventh floor. I didn't understand so looked blankly at him, but he took me up there anyway. He waited while I checked in and then followed me up to my room on the seventeenth floor, making a big show of how he was helping me press the buttons in the lift and directing me to my room, even though I was doing all of this myself. Once in the room, he started asking for money again, presumably thinking he had just given me an invaluable service. I understood perfectly this time, but looked blankly again, leading him back to the lift. I don't know if he realised I was going to take him to reception to ask what the hell was going on or if he thought I was just going to push him in the lift and tell him to bugger off, but he seemed to get the hint and told me it was OK and went away of his own accord. I told the hotel reception about it all, but not until I checked out the next day, in case they tactlessly complained to him about it while I was still a guest and he wanted to seek redress with me.
After some sleep until lunchtime, I went out to look around. Chongqing is based around a large isle where the wide river splits in two for a couple of miles before rejoining again. Having read the guidebook, it seemed that most of the places of interest were towards the outskirts of the city and few of them were close together, meaning there was little opportunity to see more than one thing. So, I elected to find the cable car that rode over a section of river so I could admire the views and then take my pick from the street of restaurants that it would leave me near.
The cable car was pretty old and decrepit, a feeling accentuated by the poor houses it overlooked. The mist/smog/both of the city was incredibly thick so there were few views to either admire, photograph or simply distract my attention from what a bad idea it felt to entrust my safety high above the river to this rusting old death trap. I am confident that at some point in the coming months I will happen upon a news story on the BBC website headlined "Fifteen killed by city cable car plummet in south west China".
Gratefully reaching solid ground on the north bank, I walked along the rivers edge. The 'view' wasn't much to be admired in the mist, but it was atmospheric in its own way. None of the restaurants were really open for business at this time of afternoon so I continued until I turned to follow a main street heading inland. Not that the street was there, mind you. A new metro line was being built so a hole, eighty metres across and forty metres deep ran for a mile where the road should have been. Quite an impressive sight actually, when you could see into it to look at the many trucks and diggers at work in the mud pit below.
Further walking around couldn't locate the ex-pats bar in this area I looked for so I found yet another coffee restaurant for dinner, email and watching the final of the Australian Open tennis on the PC. Afterwards I walked around some backstreets for a while before taking a taxi back to the hotel, where mercifully the same security guard did not appear to be on duty.
The next day, after checking out, I did nothing more exotic than spend a few hours walking around the city centre. I tried to order a vegetable pizza from a restaurant. They didn't have it on their menu, but they had other pizzas and they had dishes with vegetables, so it shouldn't have been that difficult. It actually took fifteen minuites, several members of staff, the duty manager and another random diner they asked to come and help translate for them. Translating my request wasn't a big problem nor was their ability to make the thing. The issue was that they insisted I should not have it because "it will not taste good". Each time I assured them that it would be OK, staff gathered nearby, had long crisis talks, called other people over to discuss their problem, then returned to me to explain again that I really shouldn't have it. For reference, it tasted great.
Later in the afternoon I collected my bag and took a taxi to the bus station. These places are always chaotic and feel a bit seedy, but everyone seems to get to where they want to. And so we rode through the night to Kunming.