By Jack Souther
At one end of the world’s largest man-made lake the Three Gorges Dam holds back the water of the Yangtze, and at the other end the city of Chongqing stands poised to use the new shipping corridor and cheap hydropower to boost its economic growth.
With a population of 30 million people, more than half of them living within the city core, Chongqing is already bigger than either Shanghai or Beijing. It is the second largest producer of cars and motorbikes in the country and by far the most industrialized city in southwestern China. Yet both its population and its industry continue to grow.
On the final day of our cruise up the Yangtze the dramatic scenery of the Three Gorges is just a memory. As we approach Chongqing, a perpetual haze hangs over the landscape. New communities where displaced people have been relocated are larger and more numerous, and their clusters of square white apartment blocks are interspersed with factories and warehouses. Coal barges and small freighters scuttle up and down the river. The waterfront is teeming with activity — workboats, dredges, and local passenger ferries compete for dock space. And then we get our first glimpse of Chongqing.
Above the waterfront the ghostly outline of closely packed skyscrapers fades upward into the gray gloom of enveloping smog. Many buildings are topped by construction cranes, the ubiquitous symbol of China's burgeoning urban expansion. Our ship is greeted at the dock by a crew of porters who carry luggage and gear ashore. Using baskets hung from the ends of a bamboo pole slung over a shoulder each man carries an astonishing load. As we climb the long series of stairs leading up to the vehicle landing we are told to ignore the beggars, some with hideous deformities. They are beyond our power to help. But it is impossible to ignore the persistent street hawkers with their tourist maps and trinkets who hassle us every step of the way.
We are met by Johnson, our local guide, who congratulates us on choosing to visit his city on such a nice day. And I wonder if he has ever seen a truly clear blue sky — the kind we take for granted back home in Whistler. Hanson pays the porters and we set off on an obligatory visit to Erling Park. The road is a crush of cars and sputtering motorbikes and Johnson explains why there are no bicycles. "The streets of Chongqing," he tells us "are much too steep for bicycles." Clinging to a steep hillside the various levels of the city are connected by stone stairways — and porters, who can be hired to carry everything from the day's groceries to major appliances. They are a vital part of the city's infrastructure and the daily lives of many apartment dwellers. Even some new apartments have no elevators below the seventh floor and older ones have no elevators at all, ensuring a steady demand for the strong backs and bamboo poles of the porters.