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CHONGQING — We have an eight-day holiday now, so I decided to get one last trip in before I buckle down to teach my 280 students for the next four months. So here I am in busy Chongqing.

I have a friend here, and originally I was going to come for a visit in July for the solar eclipse. But, I was invited at the last minute to visit someone else in Liuyang (in Hunan) the weekend following the eclipse, making visiting Chongqing a little impractical. So I postponed the trip indefinitely.

My options this holiday week were to stay in Jishou and hang out with the many folks who did not go home, or splurge and take this trip. I did both, as it turns out.

Since Moon (my friend here) had to work overtime Oct. 1-3, I stayed in Jishou and observed China’s 60th National Day and the traditional Mid-Autumn Moon Day with my Jishou friends. Nearly everyone on campus was glued to the new flat-screen TVs installed in the campus dining hall to watch the National Day festivities in Beijing Oct. 1. I watched it on and off in my apartment.

The ceremonies included displays of China’s military personnel and hardware, and a sort of creepy review of the troops by President Hu Jintao.Hu Jintao in limo With his Mao-jacket-bedecked torso sticking out of the sunroof of an enormous, black Chinese-made limo (similar to the one Mao once had), Hu repeated the same phrases over and over again as he greeted the troops. I swear he never moved a muscle other than the ones operating his mouth.

The non-military parade floats were colorful and lively, but five decades of watching parades has left me a little jaded when it come to parade floats. Needless to say, there were no helium-inflated cartoon characters joining in this parade.

Criticism of the ceremonies aside, the day is one of great national pride for the Chinese. After six decades — half of which were under the unyielding domination of Mao and hardline Maoists — China has a lot to be proud of, considering its position in the world economy now. China still has a dismal human rights record and it tightly controls the information its people receive, so it’s not a rosy picture in all respects, but the China of 2009 is worlds apart from the backward, impoverished country of 1949.

The next day, I had lunch and dinner with friends. And on Oct. 3, the Mid-Autumn Moon Day, I had nine people over to my tiny apartment to cook dinner and enjoy mooncakes together. This day is a family holiday, when families share big meals together then go out (weather permitting) to eat mooncakes under the light of the full moon. We sat on the soccer field to try to find the Lady (Chang’e) on the Moon.

(Incidentally, I got three boxes of mooncakes this year: one each from the university, my college and one of my private students. So I had plenty to share!)

Chongqing is (as the crow flies) relatively close to Jishou, but since it is on the other side of the Wuling mountain range it might as well be on the other side of the country. I could have taken a train there (about a 10-hour trip), or a bus (along twisty and very bouncy mountain roads for about the same amount of time), or fly. Round-trip tickets between Changsha and Chongqing were 1300 RMB, just a little more than the money I had recently received for my tutoring gigs, so flying was the best choice.

The shuttle bus between Jishou and Changsha takes about 4 hours on the new expressways in Hunan — the superhighway linking Chongqing and Changsha is still under construction — so I set out Sunday morning for Changsha. (Cost is 100 RMB.) On the airport shuttle bus in Changsha, I met Titi, a young woman Chinese woman studying for her MBA in Bangkok, Thailand, and later in Sydney, Australia, and Dick, a 60-ish Australian from Perth enjoying a three-month tramp around Southeast Asia and China.

Dick and I had a chance to talk in the terminal as we waited for our 5 pm flights to Chongqing and Kunming. He’s been retired for some time now, and about 18 months ago came to the startling realization that he did not want to be married to his wife of 34 years anymore. They divorced, and a few months ago, Dick decided to tour Thailand and Vietnam, places he had visited years before. Along the way, he met a Chinese woman from Changsha, who invited him to come to her relative’s wedding in Hengyang, Hunan. Footloose and fancy-free, Dick came up from Vietnam largely on his own.

He was heading back to Bangkok (where he has a significant other, apparently) by way of Kunming, the Spring City, where the climate is spring-like year round. (A new entry on my wanna-visit list)

As for me, my flight took just an hour. I was met by Moon and her brother-in-law at the terminal, and we zipped into town to enjoy hotpot with her daughter, her sister and her niece. The food was indescribably delicious — we ate at one of the premier hotpot restaurants in Chongqing — and predictably spicy.

But it was a different kind of spicy from Hunan cuisine, which relies heavily on chili peppers for its fire. Our hotpot used different peppers I couldn’t identify, including one legendary kind that numbs your mouth temporarily. I ate one by chance, and my tongue tingled for about five minutes — the same kind of feeling you get when your foot falls asleep. Weird, but strangely refreshing. (I also ate slices of cow’s stomach – crunchy, but rather bland tasting.)

Right now, I am chilling in my spacious hotel room on the 16th floor of an apartment building in downtown Chongqing. It’s a bargain at 138 RMB (or $20) a night. You couldn’t touch such a room with less than $100 in the States. After lunch, we’ll tour some places and have homemade dumplings at Moon’s sister’s home.

Chongqing’s monorail commuter train runs near my hotel, which is in the Yangjiaping pedestrians-only shopping area. The monorail bisects the shopping district. (Check this link to see the Google map of it. Marker “B” is roughly where my hotel is.)

Chongqing monorail
Later!

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