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Tourist dock on the Yangtze River.

For centuries Chongqing (pronounced chong ching) has been the heart of commerce for Sichuan and the western provinces. Supplies going up and down the Yangtze River were processed here and sent on their way.  Much like Manhattan in New York City, the center of Chongqing sits on a peninsula at the junction of two rivers, the Yangtze River and the Jialing River.  The city then spreads beyond the rivers and up the sides of mountains in all directions.  

Today, thousands of porters, called the "help army," use bamboo poles to carry merchandise up steep concrete staircases as they unload hundreds of ships held by cables against the relentless flow of the rivers.  The winding, muddy cart paths that used to wind up from the tops of these staircases to the city center have been replaced by four lane streets, but they still have the same climbing, twisted feel that one gets in central Hong Kong.

Central Chongqing's skyline is vertical, with hundreds of gleaming hotels, office buildings and shopping centers rising 30 or more stories.  The many steel skeletons going up amidst these buildings promise an even greater central city to come.  Away from the city center, clusters of high rise condominiums are springing up, providing housing for the masses of rural people anxious to get jobs in the city.  

I met my brother, Sam, at the exquisite five star  "Yangtze Island Hotel", which was perfectly situated on Monument Square in the very heart of Chongqing.  The uniformed staff could not have been more attentive.  The complimentary breakfast buffet included western and Chinese dishes, with such haute cuisine as "Thorasic Gasping Duck France," and "Spicy Pigs Throat," which were both delicious.  Our large designer room on the 15th floor, with two queen beds, set us back $75 per night, about what Motel 6 costs now days back home. 

Looking down into Monument Square from the

Yangtze Island Hotel.

Morning soy bean milk in the financial district.

It was excellent, even after thorasic gasping duck.

Our first order of business was to book passage down the Yangtze River.  We caught a taxi to the Chao Tien Men docks and were soon going over a large array of possibilities with a helpful, candid ticket agent.  The foreign tourist boats had a wide range of fares, ranging from $800 to $5,000.  We finally settled on first class accommodations in a Chinese passenger ship.  This 2 1/2 day trip, through the three gorges and ending at the Great Dam included most of the tours for a price of $180.  

With that settled, it was time to buy tea.  Chongqing is a major market place for the tea grown at altitude in the high mountains of western China, and so we handed a taxi driver directions to the wholesale tea district.  We crossed the Yangtze River and eventually came to a street full of tea shops.  Each shop specialized in one or two of China's many varieties of tea.  The proprietor would politely ask us to sit at his tea pouring table, and then inquire as to our interest and price range.  He or she would then pour tea, perhaps for 45 minutes, explaining the origin and pedigree of the tea, how it should be brewed and the best storage for that tea.  It was invariably informative and without sales pressure.  One famous tea, Pu er, is packed tightly into wheels and should not be drunk less than two years old, but preferably a decade or two old.  A 60 year old wheel of Pu er sold at Sotheby's recently for $100,000.  Other teas are best quite fresh.  Most were a little less expensive.

The Wholesale Tea District.


Sampling a fine Tie Guoa Yin,

China's oolong tea.

Aging Pu er wheels.

Some two year old Pu er wheels which may be aged at home.  These were about $20 a wheel, but that represents a lot of hot tea.

Sorting tea by hand.

Tearing down an old hotel for a new tower.

Art district.  Lunch hour mah jong to the right.

The next day, before getting on the boat, Sam and I visited the art district.  As a high school student in the 1980s, Sam had back-packed here and picked up exquisite scrolls for $20.  He was surprised to see comparable art now at $5,000 to $10,000.  Many Chinese people can now afford art and are passionately buying up China's treasures.  Prices have exploded, and as can be expected, forgeries are everywhere.
A few words about Mah Jong.  Everywhere I traveled I saw people playing this table game which is equivalent to playing bridge with domino shaped ivory or plastic chips.  It is a gambling game and a social problem which is illustrated by the following story.  The day before Sam met me, he rented a taxi for half a day to run errands in Shenzen.  For lunch, Sam stopped at a dim sum restaurant (Chinese Tapas) and asked the driver if he thought the place was good.  The driver said that he had never eaten in a dim sum restaurant, which is the equivalent of living in Philadelphia and never having had a Philly Cheese Steak.  Sam invited him in.  During their lunch the discussion got onto Mah Jong and Sam asked him if he played.  Of course, he said.  Sam asked if he gambled and he said that in the course of a night's play he could win or lose a month's salary.  Only in China could one ask this frank question, but Sam asked him if he was ahead or behind.  "Oh, behind," he said.  He was currently down 200 months of salary.  He said that he used to run his own business, but that he had to turn it over to his creditor.  The cab he was now driving belonged to his creditor and he was driving for his creditor. "Will you play Mah Jong tonight?" Sam asked. "Of course."  Although one does not tip in China, when the half day was over Sam gave the driver some money and made him promise that he would take his wife to eat dim sum.  Of course, no one would spend so much money on something so frivolous.  It would most certainly provide a stake at that night's table.


Mah Jong.

Contrast; old and less old.

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