We touch down on the runway at Chongqing’s airport and I glimpse at a heavy haze that weighs the city down. We disembark, gather our luggage from a sluggish carousel and greet our transfer host, Leila. She announces herself with an effervescent smile and a flirtatious spunk we haven’t encountered since landing in China over a week ago.
The air is sticky yet Leila assures us pollution doesn’t exist here. I try to inhale as much muggy oxygen as I can by the gulpful. We weave through peak-hour traffic jams just outside the airport and we ascend mountainous freeways. My ears start popping from our sudden ascent. This instant change in altitude alerts me to Chongqing’s rugged terrain, raw cliff faces trying to shade the city from the extremes of equatorial heat.
Skyscrapers sprout from over-towering ranges. According to Leila, these stick-figured structures house the 35 million who have called this south-western city home for generations. On the side of the freeway are rows of lethargic trees being cradled by ropes and wooden stakes. No signs of litter, just clean streets winding upward; cul-de-sacs of intrigue.
Perspiration starts to roll profusely down my back and I wipe my brow of moisture. I fiddle with my hair, knowing that my straightening skills have been beaten by the city’s dome of humidity. Frizz rises uncontrollably from my scalp and I reach for a headband to hide my mess. Leila asks if my hair is naturally black. I reply with an embarrassed ‘no’ and explain my hair is normally light brown. Leila giggles in recognition and reaches for her own artificially dyed brown ponytail.
She then reveals to me that Chongqing has ‘three hots’ – hot weather, hot spicy food and hot spicy women. Leila thrusts her shoulders and flashes a cheeky grin to accentuate the latter.
Within an hour we’re offloading our backpacks and fatigue before setting out to take in the sights of Chongqing’s towering riverside banks. Dancing bright lights gleam from tall buildings, caressing us with the promise of nourishment and relaxation.
We take the elevator to a nearby restaurant as locals cram in with us, shoving us into every free inch available. The ride lasts only seconds before we all burst out from behind automatic doors like confetti. We’re seated urgently and our waiter fills chilled glasses with frothy local beer. By the time it takes to dress my lap with a napkin and fondle my chopsticks, our sturdy lazy susan is mounted by share-plates. Rich, red sauce drowns a steamed fish, its eyes paralyzed in time.
Bowls of sticky rice are dispersed among platters adorned with beans, bokchoy and morsels of spicy chicken. After filling my bowl, my chopsticks latch onto a slither of white fish flesh and shove it into my mouth. My tastebuds instantly burn from chilli before the sweet fish gradually nurtures them back to safety.
Our rotating lazy susan hypnotizes us with traditional Chongqing fare and I, despite my lack of a palate for spice, am all the better for it. This is one of Chongqing’s true idiosyncrasies in its seductively spicy glory, nestled in the shadow of its cousin, the neighbouring province of Sichuan.
As we pile back into the lift with full bellies and make our way to our cruise boat, Leila stares at my face. She says I have a highset nose that she would love to have. I’m startled by her compliment. I explain to her that, by Western standards, my nose is extremely unfavourable – big and ugly. Leila dismisses my claims and says many Chongqing women would die for one.
She claims that some even go under the knife to achieve the look. I am mortified, trying to convince her that a large, high set nose is nothing worth bleeding for. Alas, she merely stares in awe at my face while pointing fondly at the bump that makes my nose such an eyesore. We climb the gangway and Leila bids us farewell, showering Chris with affection by telling him he has a beautiful wife. Our stay in Chongqing is a whirlwind, and totally unexpected, love affair. I sail down the Yangtze and leave the city feeling a tad bit spicy myself.
First photo property of and by author, “hot pot” photo in public domain via wikipedia