10 March, 2014

Chongqing eats and experiences

Having been to Bei Bei district, north of Chongqing, to review the latest Banyan Tree hotel, (we’re talking misty mountains, hot tubs, tall bamboo and a thousand year-old Buddhist temple) I was kindly chauffeured to the city of Chongqing.

I have no expectations after Googling travel ideas for the city, which pretty much lead me nowhere (no, I don’t want 364 ideas from Trip Advisor and I don’t want to head 50-100km out of the city again to see things like the town of statues of underworld gods or visit Foreigner City).

The city is huge, the traffic is so-so. It’s warmer here but the air is quite gross and I almost think we in HK should stop complaining. Then I catch myself and remember that we can always have better air, so we should complain and act. But this is China and the air isn’t bad for a big city like this.

// Something I like about visiting China (not Lo Wu) is that it reminds me that Mainlanders are nice. In HK it’s so easy to get into the habit of finding them ma fan, being rude, but that’s just a portion of the section of society who visit HK.

And whose fault is it that we don’t really have the infrastructure to cope with so many tourists crossing the border every day? Not theirs, they don’t make the rules. I realise this is a bit controversial but I want to say it. I easily get into the habit of ‘oh I HATE them!’ so I come here to recall what their history was and what their culture is, to be patient, instead of feeling harassed as I rush about my city, in my busy daily schedule.

So, that means, I accept the spitting and the talking shouting and the pushing in the elevator. Because there’s so much nice and awe-inspiring and quirky. And they actually stop at the red pedestrian light when there’s no traffic coming, which just blows my mind. //

I choose a more budget hotel, staying in a decent spot frequented by lots of local Mainlanders. I’m still in the area where all of the international hotels are, like the Intercontinental, Marriot etc so there’s lots to do, with Chongqing locals, Mainland tourists and international tourists around.

That said, I laugh out loud (really) when I see the Dairy Queen and Starbucks right next to my hotel, but there are also local fruit sellers squatting right outside the hotel, so I feel gratified.

It’s no joke that Chongqing is famous for hotpot – a short stroll down the road shows me that pretty much every other shop is a hotpot restaurant, mixed amongst more local cha chan teng (茶餐廳) that serve the popular xiao mien (not because the noodle or dish is small but because there’s not many different ingredients in it) along with ma lat tong meen (麻辣and other regional dishes.

I’m staying by Hongya Cave, and soon realise that my hotel room is almost underground – that is, we’re on a cliff face and I’m facing the rock, not the river. But I didn’t book this place for lounging in.

After checking out a local shop to eat xiao mien (yummy, not spicy, containing choi (greens) preserved mui choi and meat which I didn’t eat) I pass through a local mall. Not much interesting for me, especially since the brands are either present in HK or too local to be my style (bright is ok, fru-fru is not). So, off I head to the Hongya cave, which my friends at Banyan Tree kept telling me about.

It’s pretty much what I want: Tons of fresh made local goodies like peanut candy, date candy, Chinese cookies, peanuts, chili products and so on as well as lots of local food stores that sell all kinds of local dishes, all of which I want to try (except the meat).

I’ve now picked out my breakfast of shun lat mai meen (麵), lunch (more ma lat tong meen), sides (cold eggplant) (茄子) and dessert (any kind of local style tong yuen () all of which I will have to consumer before I leave at 2.30pm. Oh and I also ate my second dinner in the form of dan dan meen, which was ridiculously good and might mean I never eat it in HK ever again.

// One warning: These small local eateries are cheap and yummy (5-15RMB per bowl of noodles), but there’s a ridiculous amount of MSG in the food. I know that’s what it is because there’s a half aisle dedicated to MSG at the supermarket and later, I find myself drinking litres of water  – with a slight MSG headache, which believe it or not, never happens to me in HK //

I also find a sweet shop on the ‘traditional folk shop’ floor CHECK of the cave, where they make Chinese name chops. As a painter LINK I like to collect these in different shapes and sizes. I’m even more excited that they have chops made of clay, which I’ve never seen before. It’s cheaper than HK and the skilled man is offering a range of styles, so I’m all in. As a pottery fan, I’m really excited by this. Call me a geek, I don’t care.

People here are friendly and will chat with you, even if you can’t understand. I’m pretty relieved that some bits of Cantonese are useful and I'm very proud of my highly limited and crap Mandarin (I’ve had 12 classes in my life) as well as what I hotchpotch together by trying to figure out bits of simplified Chinese (give me details any day, I’m a purist, let’s be traditional with the written, ok?).

At the chop shop, the owner’s daughter who’s about eight talks and talks to me; I finally get her to speak a bit of Cantonese (she can, a bit) and we connect. I tell her and her mum I’m mixed raced and later, other Chinese customers chat with me saying that Hong Kong people have nice names and take pictures of me.

I haven’t seen much in my 20 hours here, but I like this city and I’d recommend it for a fast weekend food break, just when you know, Thailand is irresistible (like that ever happens).

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