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Full Circle

Day 67: Chongqing

Michael Palin - Full CircleAlthough there is much evidence of poverty - barefoot street sellers with shoulder poles, a mess of shanty houses clinging to the lower slopes of the cliffs - there is also a certain metropolitan confidence. We are back among mobile phones and traffic jams for the first time since Shanghai. I lunch with Miss Liu, a twenty-three-year-old local girl who last year graduated in English from Chongqing University. We eat in a street where we know the meat is fresh because it's hanging up all around us. A score of butchers' stalls form a gently receding pink and white perspective up the hillside. The food is spicy - the steamed pork is mixed with chillies and the vegetables glow with garlic and ginger. This is typical of Szechuan cooking, says Miss Liu, though she thinks that young Chinese are opting for less spicy food. There is now a Kentucky Fried Chicken house in Chongqing, she admits darkly. But this is about as far as her criticism of China goes. She professes serious enthusiasm for the 'opening up' policies of the government, its spectacular economic growth rate and growing awareness of environmental problems. Though she claims to listen to the BBC, her view of England is still of a land of rain and fog, Dickens and Shakespeare, and gentlemen with good manners. But in one way she gets it exactly right.

'I have some impression of the British people,' she says solemnly. 'That they are very preserved.'

The people of Chongqing, on the other hand, are much less preserved than their compatriots in Shanghai and Beijing. There is more eye contact here, a much more direct and friendly response to my curiosity. I have a long, intimate, mutually incomprehensible conversation with a boy who cleans my shoes for three yuan (twenty pence) and my passing interest in a stall serving take-away pig's head is cordially reciprocated with an invitation from the stallholder to try her stomach, heart and liver.

I'm beginning to be less wary of the Chinese and perhaps less mystified by them. I hope the feeling's mutual.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 67
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Chongqing
  • Book page no: 98

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