Tuesday 3 March 2015

Misty Chongqing Magic

I wasn’t expecting much from my day in Chongqing. Even though it had a population of 32 million people I had never heard of the city and as far as I knew we were just heading there to get on a boat that would take us down the Yangtze River. It proved to be one of the most vibrant places I ever been and a real hot spot to sample Chinese culture up close.

I only stayed in Chongqing for one night and stayed at the Holiday Inn Yangtze. It’s not the most interesting of places to stay but the room was comfortable and spacious and the place was efficient and clean with friendly staff who were happy to help. In the morning my girlfriend and I visited the Yangtze museum situated in Eling Park. Here we were told about the Yangtze project and shown how the flooding of the river had changed areas along its bank for both better and worse. It was genuinely illuminating and it hides a rather beautiful art gallery as well.

Walking back down the incredibly steep park we came across a couple of incredible ponds. The pools have vegetation planted around them that when it drops its seeds change the colour of the water. This created incredibly vibrant and natural colours. Ornate bridges across the pools of water created a subtle beauty which showed real invention.

Colourful ambience appreciated we were heading for the city Monorail to sample the real side of the city. It proved to be fun being packed in tightly with the local population. Many said hello and it proved to be a good experience. Destination reached, we departed the train and descended down the steep steps into backstreets of the Chongqing old town district. It was fascinating to see how some of the poorer people went about their lives. The back streets had an amazing atmosphere about them with various kinds of Chinese dumplings, ducks, eels, clothes and produce from the various fruit and vegetable stalls all on display.

There is no denying that the backstreets did look poor but this was far from some kind of slum. People didn’t seem to have much but they were incredibly warm, friendly and interested in interacting with us. Our adventure into the backstreets complete we headed back to the hotel. However, the day was not over as a chance to see the city a night seemed to good to resist. With the sun set we headed into the midst of the neon lit city.

Chongqing was proving to be a surprisingly vibrant and interesting place and I couldn’t wait to see what was next. We made our way to the People’s Square. Here thousands of locals gather every night to practice Tai Chi and ballroom dancing. People went for as far as the eye could see in the relatively low lit square. Another difference between Chinese and Western culture struck me as I walked around. In the gloom I noticed numerous bags put to one side with no one watching them and no one even remotely concerned that anything would be stolen. I walked all the way to back of the giant square and stood at the bottom of the steps of the convention centre. It was almost pitch black at this end and I soon hurried back when I noticed a woman entranced in sword Tai-Chi, twirling blades around her, clearly hadn’t noticed me and seemed to be heading a little too close for comfort.

Captivated by such a large public display of rhythm I stood and watched the thousands of people all having a good time together. It was amazing to think that in a city containing 32 million people there seemed to be such a sense of community. After the Peoples Square came another type of square. We went to the main shopping district which is influenced heavily by Times Square. This was the only place in China that I came across the mass of neon that many people associate with Eastern cities such as Tokyo. It was filled with fashion shops and Western junk food places. My girlfriend gave in to the lure of pretty clothes but I was more interested in just walking around taking in the lights. As the night grew later it was time to transfer to our boat for the trip down the Yangtze in the morning with Zing Travel.

On board we sat on the top deck and looked at the giant neon buildings stretching along the waterfront. At 10pm all the lights in Chongqing are turned off to save electricity. As we watched each tower fall into darkness it seemed a fitting way to say goodnight to a remarkable city that shouldn’t be ignored.

Thursday 21 August 2014

A Tokyo Tale

Tokyo is one of the cities that you see all the time on television and in the movies. But it’s hard to ever really know if a place is going to be what you expect from a romanticised vision built up over years of gradual silver screen indoctrination. Before I landed I was hoping to see a city full of life and culture which glowed with neon at night. Happily, it seems the image in my mind was a pretty accurate one.

Although Tokyo is a city of around twenty-five million people it doesn’t really feel like it unless you get stuck on the underground in rush hour. This is because the city is split in districts such as the fashion and electronics areas. This means people with various interests are drawn to various hubs based on what they want. This in turn allows for some wonderfully eccentric and colourful individuals to inhabit their preferred areas surrounded by like-minded people. 

The first one of these areas I found myself in was Akihabara or electric Town as it’s otherwise known. Here you can get laptops out of baskets on the street and just about any electronics you can think of. The place hums with neon lights and the noise of game arcades and grabber machines fills the air. Shops are crammed into every tiny corner and on a quest for Japanese computer games I ended up in a shop which was actually in someone’s front room. There’s a wonderful buzz around the place and it’s somewhere the youth of japan go at night to hang out. It’s also where a lot of the drift racers come to park up their cars for people to stare at and teenage girls dress as maids and hand out flyers (a little odd to say the least). 

However, the neon on show is no match for Shinjuku. This district is famous for featuring heavily in Lost in Translation and is the area where Yakuza like to hang out due to the many pole dancing clubs and bars. Don’t let that put you off though as it’s not dangerous at all and is where most of the night life of the city is. The neon on show here is staggering and is probably the image of Tokyo that you have in your mind. It has a great party atmosphere and many people simply wander around the streets looking at the lights and taking in the glow (as I did).

The fashion district of Tokyo is the place to go to find people dressed in some of the most stunning cos-play costumes you’ve ever seen. Takeshita Street is where people come to show off their latest creations and while wandering down the street in 35 degree heat I was amazed to see girls dressed in full Victorian outfits. There are also an awful lot of imitation school girls walking around which is another sign of how very strange Japan can be at times. Even stranger perhaps are the amount of shops which sell costumes for dogs. If you ever wanted your dog to wear a shark or Pikachu costume then this is the place to get it.

As well the as the glittering neon skyscrapers there is also a lot of culture and tradition to be found around Tokyo. The Shinto Meiji shrine provided some much needed relief from the noise and heat of the city and is a remarkable oasis of calm for those looking for shade and tranquillity. The Asakusa district, though very busy, also provides a view of some of Tokyo’s more traditional houses and is filled with shops and narrow streets just begging to be explored.

Tokyo really is a city for everyone. I normally don’t like big, busy, cities but there’s something about Tokyo that sets it apart from places like Shanghai. It has a great atmosphere to it and the general friendliness of the Japanese makes getting around it a real pleasure as you’ll not be being barged into. I spent four days here and it didn’t feel like enough. It’s just the sort of place you want to go out into at night and just take in. you’ll always find something new and you’re bound to have a great time doing it.

The Hotel

The hotel I stayed in was the rather wonderful New Otani. It’s situated near a metro station and several streets of restaurants. The hotel itself also has numerous shops and cafĂ©’s inside it as well as four different places to eat breakfast. It’s a grand hotel and I normally felt under dressed returning from a day in the searing heat but it’s also very friendly and not as expensive as you might think especially if you book ahead. The cherry on the cake is that it also has a 400 year old garden complete with waterfall within its grounds which is beautiful. The restaurants are as expensive as they look though.

General Advice

The city can seem imposing at first but once you realise how easy it is to use the metro system things soon fall into place. There is normally an English translation for each stop and all you need to do is pay a one way fair to your location – the most expensive of which is just 200 Yen. Though not many people speak English the Japanese are incredibly friendly and polite and will go out of their way to help you. It’s also a good idea to plan your train journey on the underground map before you get on the train. Most carriages have maps and electronics arrows but not all of them do so it’s a good idea to know when you have to get off before you get on. The trains are generally air conditioned which in the summer makes things a little more bearable.

The metro system shuts down at midnight so make sure you know how to get back or you could be out on the town for a very long time. Narita airport is a long way out of town so if you’re flying into it you’ll also need to get grips with the overland train which is a bit more complex.

There is also next to no crime (not even pick pocketing), and police are normally at the end of just about every street so if you get lost there is no need to panic. Always remember to take a card from hotel with you as well, if it’s in Japanese all the better.

Food in Japan can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be really. There are numerous 7/11 shops but small noodle houses offer up good food at cheap prices as well. Fruit is very expensive though with apples often coming individually wrapped and things like melons clocking in at about thirty pounds. There are also lots of vending machines as far as the eye can see so you’ll never be short of a drink if you need one. The water is generally safe to drink as well.