Friday, July 31, 2015

The Travelling Nutmeg: Goodbye, Jiefangbei 解放北,再见

From above, Jiefangbei 解放北 boasts of dazzling lights, immense skyscrapers and constant bustle. Look further in and you'll have to brace yourself for 24 hour access to the heartbeat of the capital.  You will meet a city that is home the world's 3rd longest river(长江), which made it the perfect military base during the Sino-Japenese war and continues to reign as a popular provincial landmark. The large clock monument towers in the middle of square as the first tallest structure and as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the war. You see, this city, for many, represents the constant resurgence of the human race. Hard workers run it by day and even harder players keep a fire going by night.

It was poetic justice that I spent my final night in Chongqing here. A place where both foreigners and locals have learnt to coexist through a wonderful intertwine of activities and events. At this monument, I've had one too many unwillingly "OMG, IT'S A FOREIGNER" photos taken by dozens of locals, which says a lot because people only come here to take pictures with the clock.

 It's also the place where it feels criminal to browse high end stores, because it always ends the same way. No matter how happy you are to see familiar brands, knowing that the knock-off around the corner would suffice is a load of guilt that no consumer should bear.

Without hesitation the best time Jiefangbei has to offer is on New Years Eve, December 31st. It's not only epic because it's the first of two New Year celebrations. Believe it or not. It's the balloons.

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They jump from 5 yuan to 20 yuan in the space of 12 hours. Yes. 400% increase. But it never matters. Everyone from all four roads that lead to the monument fiercely holds on to one. Everyone, as in the hundreds of thousands gathered there.

Then you attach your resolution at the end and release it when the clock strikes 12. It's mesmerizing.

Let's get back to the present though. 

 There are three things guaranteed to see in Jiefangbei

1. Famous Luohan temple 罗汉寺 under restoration, like the eye of a pedestrian storm.

2. A couple sports cars of some kind (said like a true sports car non-enthusiast). Today a BMW, I think, for your viewing pleasure *hides face*

3. And random skin exposure by various people not excluding men of the uniform. #whydoinit

After some last minute activities known as um shopping (I'm not an addict tho, I promise), we made a lunch stop at Pizza Hut, one of the many foreign restaurant outlets situated in Jiefangbei, and honestly, the easiest way to get a slice of pizza. In a country where pigs are much more important than cows, when you find a place that serves good cheese, you bless it again and again with your presence. And if the name of this website isn't indication enough, I love me some cheese.

One wonderful surprise I have to mention is seeing Sorrel drink on the menu. It was labelled as 'Roselle Tea for the Summer Heat' and was sold out. No doubt, sorrel has seduced many an international tongue. However, there was no way we were having tea with our pizza. Sike!

Creamy choocalate and coffee goodness vs. Citrus Apple juice with a sprig of mint
For dessert, none other than my new best friend, Green Tea cake. I'm not sure how many times I have to blog about this until you take me seriously, but this cake changes lives and goes really well with chocolate. The Pizza Hut spin is vanilla cake with green tea ice cream topped with whipped cream sprinkled with green tea powder, based with chocolate..MAMAMIA!

Thou shall not publicly lick thy plate
Of course this was just to put some gas in the tank. So pretty soon, we were back to shopping. Can you blame me? H&M has the best summer sales. We may have spent quite some time in there though because by the time we exited.......

Yea. It was night. Good thing is we were hungry again and the best city grub is always found after dark. This time, I was craving local cuisine. My Chinese friend hoped to introduce me to one of the top five noodle bars in the squares, three years running, but alas they were closed.

We settled for the next best authentic thing. And I don't believe it can be any more native than this.

This meal shocked me and probably not for the reasons you think. Some of these dishes were new to me. Even after five years. Starting at the back with a bowl of chicken soup and noodles, coming forward to rice porridge, those were personal favourites. Green stuff on the plate? Bitter gourd which, true to the name, I had to train myself to like before I even came to China. The spicy pickled meat there, definitely a first. It pairs very well with the blandness of the porridge. The winner though, are those two glasses of 'juice'. Left side being snow fungus and on the right, green lentil peas. Guy walked pass us with two flasks, which I assumed held hot water. My friend stops him and suddenly these were being served. Very cold, very sweet and very delicious.

It was then I got an important lesson in the double meaning of Chinese cuisine characters.

Coca cola 可口可乐-Very Delicious, Very Happy!

Sprite 雪碧-Snow Jade as in precious drink of snow.

Pizza Hut 必胜客-Always Winning Customers!

Buy/Carry soy sauce 打酱油- As the legend goes, a family once lived in very cramped quarters. So when the parents wanted alone time, they would send the kids to buy soy sauce, instructing them to carry it by cupping their palms all the way home. Now, it's commonly used if you want to claim ignorance about a situation. "Hey, what's this big crowd here for, free food?" "Man, I have no idea, I'm just here buying soy sauce" But I have to say, if it's food related, the soy sauce will have to wait. 

The rest of the night took us through the Jiaochangkou's 30 Degrees Night Market. Unlike Beijing's strange array of foods, Chongqing has many strange named restaurants and psychedelic lights. Or maybe my appetite had already been satisfied.

Last stop was surprisingly not the clock monument, but in the opposite direction to an old village called Shi Ba Ti 十八梯, rightfully translated as Eighteen steps. 700 years of history laid to waste. Once a beautiful central community space, now left to collapse upon itself, as it has been overrun by new malls and skyscrapers on every side. 

Most of the villagers spend the night selling trinkets and dancing the traditional square dance. They seemed oblivious to the pain or well versed at masking it.

New Urban Plan for Shi Ba TI
Meanwhile there are plans for a revamped Shi Ba Ti 十八梯 . And that's the truth of Jiefangbei. 

Just like the 嘉陵江 and 长江, those two rivers in the map above, the giant meets Jack, the old clashes with the new and the foreign fights the native causing a hybrid to establish itself. A true reflection of the state of my life after 5 years away from my home, the Caribbean. What new habits will stay? What should be left behind? Will I find noodles back there? or more seriously Will I remember to apologize when I accidentally knock into someone? 

I said self (Yes, I talk to my self in second person) "You have to keep embracing change." It was a leap of faith that brought me to China. Now it's time to leap again in another direction, this time bolder, wiser and more prepared.

Bigger things are coming!
See you there
The Travelling Nutmeg