Cultural Exchange and Travel in Chongqing, China
Recently, I took part in a cultural exchange in Chongqing. I was able to live there for six months whilst working in a local kindergarten and learning the language. I experienced life in a host family, as well as life on my own, and would like to take a few moments to share some of what I learned about the culture, people and the area itself, as well as a few travel tips. I hope that this article helps anyone planning or considering a trip to this unique city.
First off, it’s worth mentioning that Chongqing is about the size of Austria, and I was really only able to see one portion of the city during my stay. There are almost thirty different city districts, most of which could be seen as large cities themselves. Also, there are close to thirty million people who live within those various districts, many of whom are recently relocated due to the flooding of many areas after the construction of the Three Gorges Dam (which is the largest in the world at the moment and a huge tourist attraction in Chongqing). I spent most of my time near a CBD area called Jeifangbei, where both the Yangtze and the Jialing rivers meet. Its location makes it a hugely popular tourist destination in China, and it’s rapid growth makes is a growing interest to international visitors as well.
The city is mountainous and humid. The winters are mild, but the summers are stiflingly hot. There are a number of large parks which make Chongqing seem oddly green considering the contrasting city areas. An important detail to note is that the air pollution isn’t nearly as bad as some other large cities, however it isn’t to be compared with western cities, and they still caution people to be aware of it.
During my stay another notable attraction was definitely the local cuisine. I was able to try a lot of local foods due to the fact that I was living in a host family and working in a Chinese kindergarten. Chongqing is famous in China for its spicy food, and in particular for hotpot and their hand made noodles. The food is incredibly tasty in my opinion, but it truly is spicy. One of my first culinary experiences was during summer. My host family invited me to have hotpot with them. For those who are unfamiliar with this, hot pot (pictured below) is a giant bowl full of different seasonings, vegetables, meats and chili which is boiled on the table for everyone to share.
For those traveling to Chongqing who are hesitant to give the spicier foods a try, there are plenty of other options, including KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, etc. Western food is in fashion in a way, and is available in any of the larger city areas, although it is more expensive than local cuisine. That being said, I have listed some local foods which are not spicy, but are also very tasty:
- Bāo zi (包子) (roughly pronounced: bow-tsuh): These are steamed buns with different fillings (most commonly filled with seasoned pork meat)
- Jiaozi (饺子) (roughly pronounced: jee-ow-tsuh): These are known in western culture as dumplings, and can be found pretty much anywhere.
- Shān chéng tāng yuan (山城汤原) (roughly pronounced: sh-ahn ch-uh-ng tah-ng you-en): This is a sweet, local soup. This is a bowl of small gluten balls filled with a special black sugar paste made in the area. It’s a quick and cheap snack which many locals eat for breakfast.
- Miàn tiáo (面条) (roughly pronounced: mee-yan tee-oh-are): These are noodles, and can be ordered with many different condiments, but is probably one of the safest dishes for someone looking to eat local food that isn’t too spicy. Normally, you would order this dish with the local meat sauce and chili paste, however there are other less spicy options such as tomatoes and egg. I ate noodles like this nearly every day.
Food aside, there is always more to do and see while in Chongqing. The city itself has grown rapidly over the past few years, and is currently one of the most popular cities in China. This means that there is also a huge market for high end stores, as well as other international business. For many Chinese tourists, the enormous variety of stores, restaurants, bars and clubs, makes Jiefangbei a very popular destination. Within this area you see a contrast between Chinese and international, old and new, as well as rich and poor.
Near the river, you can visit a small city complex called Hongyadong. This plaza (as seen below), although it appears on the surface to be what one would expect of an ancient Chinese city, is in fact quite new. The plaza is fashioned to look traditional, but is really a trendy leisure destination. There’s a Mexican-American bar, a Starbuck’s coffee shop, souvenir shops, and even a small mountainous pathway with a waterfall. The souvenir shops were particularly intriguing to me, as there is really a wide variety of options. You can purchase anything from real jade beads and beautiful hand made wooden combs, to the more affordable armbands and fans. The entire complex is rather aimed towards the city’s international visitors, which is also apparent in the prices. It’s worth mentioning that anything international or western, is usually quite pricey.
If you take a short ride on the subway, you can reach another interesting area called Ciqikou. This is a larger, and slightly less international version of Hongyadong. There isn’t very much in the way of international cuisine, but it’s fantastic for buying souvenirs, art and simply enjoying the scenery. There are also many small bars, which look much more like trendy coffee shops. You can hear musicians performing in different bars throughout the city. This area is actually filled with art in general as well. My friend and I were really impressed by both the musicians as well as some of the artists we saw there. There is also a beautiful temple in Ciqikou, and the entrance fee is very reasonable. However, while visiting I was pretty saddened to see the temple in disrepair and to see that it was full of litter. This is something quite common in China, and was hard for me to get used to. On a whole, Ciqikou was one of my favorite places in Chongqing, and I can only recommend it (see below).
Another tourist hotspot is the Chongqing zoo. I was taken there a few times, but it was not my cup of tea. I know it to be very popular, especially among Chinese tourists, however it was difficult for me and also for my other foreign friends to see some of the animal enclosures were not very well maintained. I honestly wouldn’t suggest going, as it’s also quite out of the way, but because it’s a big attraction for the area, it is worth mentioning. There’s an area in the zoo which is dedicated to dinosaurs, and I know that this was hugely impressive to my 3-year old host sister. The dinosaur area has animated figures, and rides for small children. So if you find yourself there, I would say that that is one of the highlights along with the pigs. I personally loved seeing the pigs, who seemed equally happy to see me (see the picture below). So…if you decide to visit the zoo: pigs and dinosaurs.
The nightlife in Chongqing is another one of it’s many attractions. People from all over China have told me that the nightlife in Chongqing is spectacular, and after living there for six months I wouldn’t argue. It is notably safer than some other cities I have been to, taxis are incredibly cheap and easy to find, entrance to clubs are almost always free, and the people are friendly. The clubs are great, but some advice to anyone who is foreign or foreign-looking, is that you get a lot of attention. This applies to most areas in China, but it is most apparent whilst clubbing. My foreign friends and I never felt threatened, however, foreigners are pretty rare even in a city as international as Chongqing, and it is something that one can expect. Needless to say, the skyline of Chongqing is most impressive at night (see below).
Life in Chongqing
Something I really loved about living in Chongqing was the public transport- the subway in particular. Due to the shear numbers of people who have to use the system, there are subways and busses arriving (at the very most) every 10-15 minutes. Within Chongqing you are able to move about easily without needing a deep understanding of the Chinese language, and more importantly it’s affordable. If you pay 25 RMB (approximately 3.36 EUR), you get a small card which you can top up with money. After that, you simply scan the card upon entering and exiting the tube stations, and like this you can get around very easily. You can also use these cards on the busses, and they can even be linked with a credit card and scanned at some of the vending machines (I never figured out how to do this, but apparently it’s very simple and convenient). The only notable drawback of the subway system for me, was that it stops running at about 23:00 every day. This is slightly inconvenient, however taxis are easy to find and very cheap as well. So this really wasn’t an issue either.
Medical care is another aspect which is worth explaining. This is of little concern to most people traveling to Chongqing for a short while, and most people would be covered by a travel insurance of some kind. That being said, many people in Chongqing do not have health insurance, and cannot afford hospital fees in general. This means that there are quite a lot of people on the streets who beg for money (often with their wounds or photographs of afflicted loved ones on display). This can be distressing whether or not you’re expecting it, and is simply one of the downsides of visiting anywhere where there is a large contrast between rich and poor. That being said, I think that for most international travelers, if you can afford the trip you can probably afford a hospital visit should you need one. I spent over twelve hours in the hospital once, and had several tests taken. In the end I think I paid less than 700 RMB (approximately 94.01 EUR).
Finally, I would like to briefly mention the people and the culture in Chongqing. In the six months I spent living and working in Chongqing, I have to say that I didn’t encounter even one person who wasn’t kind to me. Occasionally there were misunderstandings due to the fact that I didn’t speak a word of Chinese upon my arrival, but on a whole I was thrilled with the exchange. I spent the time volunteering in a kindergarten and lived with a host family for a while as well. I was slightly surprised to find that most people could not speak or understand English, but they were so patient and willing to help me, that it wasn’t much of an issue. The language barrier also inspired me to learn Chinese faster than I might have done if everyone was able to communicate with me in English. All in all, I have scarcely met a more helpful and kind group of people. There were also many foreigners with which I became acquainted, and largely we all felt the same about Chongqing. There are still cultural differences, and a few were difficult to get used to, and I wish someone would have told me about them before I moved to Chongqing. For this reason, I have a short list of things I think are useful to know prior to a trip to Chongqing:
- Toilette paper is a rare thing in public bathrooms. This is perhaps the most important tip, and is something most foreign visitors might not know before visiting China. Due to the fact that there are so many people using the public facilities, I can only assume that businesses aim to cut costs by not providing things like toilette paper, hand towels and soap. So be prepared and carry your own tissues (and even soap or hand sanitizer) at all times.
- Tap water is NOT safe to drink, and can make you very sick (see above where I mentioned my lovely 12 hour hospital stay). Now, I knew that the water wasn’t safe, but for those who are more susceptible to illness, even eating fruit washed in that water or rice which is cooked in the water, can lead to illness. So make sure you plan ahead, and buy bottled water, although it usually isn’t more than 1-3 RMB (0.13-0.40 EUR) for a normal sized bottle of water.
- Chongqing is just south of the Yangtze river, which means that there isn’t normally any indoor heating in winter. Winter isn’t bitterly cold (usually anywhere between 5-15 degrees Celsius), but it was still a surprise to have the inside of most buildings be the same temperature as outside. You often see people eating inside or outside in winter while wearing their coats, and this is totally normal in Chongqing.
- On the flip side, summers in Chongqing are incredibly hot (about 35-40 degrees Celsius at any given time of the day). There are often small electric fans about, but air conditioning is not common, and so there is little relief from the hot, humid air. Many people walk around with fans, and most men wear their shirts rolled up.
- Most people traveling to China hear about the difference in toilettes so I’ll mention it briefly as well. The western toilettes are pretty rare in Chongqing (and in China in general), and most places only have the squatting toilets. There are many names for these toilets (Turkish toilets, Indian toilets, or squatting toilets), but basically you have to squat over them instead of sitting on something. It’s not rocket science, but it is one of the big differences, and literally every foreigner I have met who went to China has mentioned this in some capacity. So now you needn’t be surprised.
- The exchange rate on western currencies to the Chinese Renminbi (RMB or CNY) is widely known to be a perk for foreigners traveling to China. For example 1.00 RMB is equivalent to just 0.13 EUR, 0.12 GBP, 0.19 AUD, or 0.14 USD.
All in all, I think Chongqing is one of the most exciting cities I have had the opportunity to visit, and would recommend it to anyone planning a trip to China. I would also like to point out that my time there was limited, and there is so much more to do and see. I cannot comment personally on it, but I know there are hot springs and panda sanctuaries, beautiful mountain regions and river cruises that go from Shanghai all the way to Chongqing. This article is just on what I experienced first hand. I hope you found this useful, and wish you all safe travels!