07 March 2007

The World’s Biggest City & The Dock Disaster

After four and a half hours on the world’s hottest, sweatiest, most humid bus this side of the Pacific Anne and I arrived in Chongqing only to be screwed by three cab drivers before finding someone who would actually use their meter. This seems to be a theme outside of Shanghai. While it’s totally illegal and the driver could get fined thousands of yuan, they still risk it all to overcharge westerners while still refusing to help lift bags or give change. It’s the oddest situation. They pop their microscopic trunk that’s already eighty-percent filled by the ENORMOUS tank of natural gas that fuels the miniature car and let you struggle to wedge something the size of a small handbag into the back. Then you open the front passenger door and attempt to place a bag on that seat, only to be yelled out by the driver because you’re “ruffling the seat cover,” the once-white now yellow, stained, torn seat cover. Of course there’s no help, just whining.

After we lugged our own luggage to our room and spent forty minutes attempting to connect to the internet, dinner was in order. Chongqing is a collection of islands and peninsulas interconnected by bridges, cable cars, ferrys and tunnels, and we were unsure of our exact location within this web. So were the people who worked at the hotel. There wasn’t a soul in the building who knew where we were, using both my map and their own! I mean, seriously? Anne and I had a “ok guys, funny joke, now tell us where we are” moment, only to NOT be told where we were.

The rest of our twenty-four hours in Chongqing were largely uneventful. The city’s the most fascinating characteristic is the incredible divide in wealth. I have never seen urban poverty like the decay in Chongqing. Entire neighborhoods built on hills with no plumbing and no running water, held together by string, bamboo and pieces of plastic sheeting set on a backdrop of China’s largest indoor shopping mall that’s filled with stores like Prada and Max Mara.

It is the biggest, most-populated city on the planet but unlike Shanghai, it’s fairly untouched by western hands. There was only one Pizza Hut and one Starbucks in the city and no local western options, which left us in the most-popular neighborhood hotpot, possibly the first foreigners ever to walk inside. We climbed the stairs, I asked for a table and the ENTIRE restaurant (at least seventy-five people) turned to watch us. The place went completely silent, a rarity here in China. This fascination continued for the rest of our meal and for most of our stay. Twice Chinese men asked me if Anne was my lover, thoroughly confused by the idea of two people of different ages traveling together.

All remained fairly low-key, until we had to get to our cruise boat. Then, true to form, all hell broke loose. The travel agent had dropped our tickets off earlier in the day, telling us to call if we had any problems. By tickets I mean two small pieces of rice paper printed on one of those old machines that uses the paper with the holes along both sides (the holes that are really fun to perforate). By “call if you have problems” I mean “I’m turning off my phone and you’re totally alone at the docks, which have so directional signs in Chinese, much less English!

The cab driver dropped us off two blocks from the terminal, saying he “couldn’t stop there because then he would have to turn around later.” Heaven forbid we disrupt his future traffic pattern! No help with the luggage and we were off to the boat, or so I thought. The ticket taker told me I had to actually exchange these tickets for boarding pass tickets, which would later be punched, stamped and torn before being replaced by plastic dock cards, which we would then use to get our room keys. Those dock cards would be returned to us upon “deboating” and turned back in to receive our bus transfer tickets, also printed on cheap rice paper. Those same tickets would need to be kept as luggage retrieval indentification to get our bags off the bus after our last tour. Priceless.

Anyway, I headed to the desk to do the first swap. Per usual, madness ensued. There was obviously no line, which meant head down, elbows up as I burrowed my way to the front, no holds barred. Travel agents were exchanging stacks of thirty and forty tickets at a time, and the system was archaic. The woman behind the counter would write down each ticket number on a enormous ledger, followed by another six or seven different 5-digit numbers and either the letter A or B. Then she’d key in some crucial data into her green-screen dos computer, hit print, and wait for the new ticket to print out of the world’s first printer. This cycle had to be repeated for EVERY SINGLE TICKET. Then, once the ledger was full, she’d tear it off, throw it away and start the next one!

My head was on the verge of exploding as I waved my tickets frantically in front of the woman’s face. Finally she bit. While she was “busy” crunching numbers the man next to me began spouting off about me in Chinese. “Stupid foreigner not waiting in line. That is so rude.”

“Nobody is in line,” I replied. “Well you are a foreigner. You should line up,” he retorted. Yeah, great plan buddy. I’ll line up and wait patiently while the rest of you charge in front, making it impossible to be served. “Foreigners are supposed to be polite,” he said. “And what’s keeping you from being polite,” I asked. He turned away.

New tickets in hand I returned to Anne and we went back to the ticket-taker. “Ahh, you’re at dock six,” she said, in Chinese. You need to go out here, down, around, over the bridge and across the island. Super. Ten minutes of aimless wandering later some guy in a badge offered to help and I, for whatever reason, accepted. Another fifteen minutes later and we were in his tour company’s office. It turns out he had no idea where our boat was. He just wanted to sell us some overpriced temple tour garbage. After yelling at him in Chenglish we hit the streets once more, this time deciding to just scale down the 200 steps to the water, one step closer to the docks.

Our tickets said dock six, but these docks weren’t numbered. Abslutely no signs at all. Just pieces of rotting wood roped together to form a pseudo-ramp, pseudo Pirate’s plank leading to the lovely smelly river. By now we’re totally exhausted and still lost. I’m wearing my too-heavy backpack and carrying three other bags, Anne is lugging her rolling suitcase down the stairs. In the distance I can see some Swedes (I knew they were Swedes right away, no idea why). I ran toward them as if they were my parents and it was a dramatic homecoming. “Do you know where dock six might be,” I asked. “This is dock six,” they said in perfect, adorable Swedish union. I waved to Anne, who hunkered down once more, dragging the red beast (her huge suitcase) across the craggy rocks and eroded soil to the now growing line of hopeful travelers, waving off the bag-carrying men as she went. “I can do it!” she was yelling, in English and French. “I’m fine. Go away.”

Our boat was late (shocking), which meant plenty of time to make some friends and watch the other boat traffic. Right next to us (at what I presume was dock seven but can’t be sure as there are NO SIGNS AT ALL) was the Victoria Cruises boat. While we were waiting for our floating metal box we watched the wealthy, well-dressed foreigners board to the sound of live big band music, tuxedo-clad waiters handing out glasses of Champagne. I was wearing sweatpants. When we boarded our captain pumped screeching Beijing Opera through the hi-tech boat-wide PA system. A drunken police officer showed up to remind us to “lock door and mindfully be of passport” while offering a half-gone bottle of lukewarm green tea. Let the party begin.

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