“Four days, three nights” sounded like a lot when I booked my trip, but as the last morning dawned it felt like I was just getting started. Despite everything– the mealtime negotiations, the Kramer visits, the raspy loudspeakers– floating up the Yangtze gave me a feeling of depth and contemplation. I seriously considered bargaining to see if I could just keep my cabin and join the return trip back to Yichang; if I had nowhere to be, I might have. But I did, so it was mixed feelings that I prepared to disembark the Princess Sheena in the misty industrial city of Chongqing.
But first there was the small matter of the gratuity. Like all cruises worldwide, they began talking tips the night before and hit it again hard the morning of departure. I’m pretty lukewarm on tipping generally– it might have made sense back when lots of people worked for nothing, but today it seems wholly anachronistic. I know from being a waiter that it doesn’t really improve service; you do what you do and they pay what they pay. It’s just a cultural standard. Luckily, in Asia it’s quite rare. You don’t tip restaurants; you don’t tip taxis; you don’t tip massage therapists; you just don’t tip. There are some fancy bars and nightclubs that try to institute the practice, but that’s just because it’s supposed to be trendy and Western.
On the other hand: most of the people in China who actually make your life better are also the ones least likely to receive your money. Cleaning ladies, boat captains, schoolteachers, cooks– they get paid by someone, but not by you. You pay the middleman; the middleman middles things, a large amount of money gets lost and the workers get whatever is left. It’s probably only barely an exaggeration to say that all of China’s wealthy are middlemen, from English school owners (who speak not a word) to the children of powerful politicians (whose main business qualification is the ability to call daddy). Talk about exploitation of the working class! From that perspective, it was somewhat appealing to give something directly.
My early-morning mind came upon what I thought was a perfect solution. When I checked in, I gave Y100 (about $16) as a key deposit– they made a big deal about the keys being originals that came with the boat from Germany. I was due back my deposit, so I would just put that in the envelope and be on my merry way. It was less than what was clumsily suggested on the English paperwork ($10– no, $20!– per day), but almost assuredly more than what any of my Chinese compatriots would leave. These were penny-pinching, bone-chewing retirees who would haggle over the last piece of tripe; from a purely anthropological perspective, I was interested whether they would leave anything at all.
But alas, China is where good ideas come to die. I went to check out and collect my key deposit, which produced a flurry of excited discussion before they finally announced that they didn’t have it. Ah, I see, I said– and waited. “Maybe you gave it to the Kramer guy? Yes, that must be it. You gave it to the Kramer guy, so you have to get it back from him!” Nope, I said, I gave it to you. “Ah, but we have no record of it!” Really. That’s interesting… wait. Scurry scurry scurry. Phone Kramer guy. Scream at Kramer guy. Find English-speaking minder to explain to dense foreigner. “I’m very sorry, but there isn’t any money left from the deposit fund, so we can’t give you the money back, have a nice stay in China!” But this is not my first day at the rodeo. My face the prefect expression of samadhi, I sit down in the lobby and tell them to let me know when they work it out.
Magically, the Y100 reappears, or at least they realized that I was going to sit in that lobby and pester them until it did. At this point I somewhat awkwardly remember that this was supposed to be their tip. Suan le, I think: this will be a lesson in capitalism. Next time, side with your customer.
8AM is not typically when I make important decisions about life, so I walked a short distance to a nice looking hostel and settled in with some coffee and wifi until the world started to make sense. Basically I had two options: I could hang around Chongqing a bit, or I could taxi over to the train station and make my way for Chengdu, which was my next major destination. I had no particular reason to stay in Chongqing… but then again, I’d never been there either. I looked through the guidebook and identified some Buddhist carvings that seemed promising, so I decided to stay a night and see how I felt.
I walked a short way to another hostel I had read about, located deep within the warren of steep pedestrian streets that define the city. Chongqing could never quite be called “charming,” but it was pulsing and interesting and alive, which was more than a lot of Chinese cities. The city was built up on steep hillsides that make road traffic problematic, so life exists in between the major roads in narrow alleyways connected by steep stairways. For a country where you’re always in danger of being run over, it was a refreshing change. Chongqing is also known for its fabulously spicy hot pot: you dip things in a giant metal pot of bubbling red broth until they’re ready to eat. You must also part the sea of red chilies floating on top of the broth, which can be a wee bit intimidating.
I checked into my hostel, though “hostel” doesn’t quite capture the feel of this place. Set back from a narrow side street, the Chinese double doors open into a small courtyard with a quiet sky-lit reflection pool. There are a few shared rooms, but mostly it is small singles and doubles set around a traditional courtyard, a converted old-style house that creates another world inside the steaming, thriving, noisy city. Once again, I kinda wished I could stay here a week.
It was so peaceful and quiet that I had a hard time relaunching myself out into the city to catch a bus to the Dazu Buddhist sculptures, which were about a 2 1/2 hour bus ride away. I’m glad I did, though. Someone 700 years ago had discovered a natural grotto surrounded by steep sandstone cliffs, and into those cliffs they had decided to carve some of the most amazing depictions of Buddhist deities and teachings I’ve seen anywhere. What is most remarkable is the color: in some cases, the artists used the natural red color of the sandstone to create carved flames encircling the giant stone Buddhas. The quality and detail is equally amazing. I found myself wondering, once again, what China might have been like during that earlier era when all civilization called the Middle Kingdom home.