First impressions

“Prof Acred” reads the sign held by a slightly nervous looking chap in the Chongqing arrivals hall. A promotion! Already? I knew staying in academia was the right choice. “You are very young!” exclaims my welcome party, who introduces himself as Cedric. I can tell we're going to be friends.

The truth is, I'm just as surprised as him. I was expecting to be navigating the Chongqing metro system rather than stepping into a car. Although I've managed to pick up a couple of bits of arabic script after 15 hours in the care of bilingual Qatar Airways, I've quickly realised I'm not going to have as much luck with Chinese characters and am very grateful for the assistance.

My introduction to Chongqing from the ground is much more revealing than it was from the air. The 'fog city' had made itself known as we made our approach, in the form of a soupy layer of haze that we descended into at about 15,000ft. The haze and flightpath conspired so that the first sign of the city to be seen was the huge, half-finished new airport building that we were greeted by on touchdown. Perhaps not surprising, for one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

On the ground, the tower blocks spring up almost as soon as we leave the airport - twenty to thirty storey buildings occupying hillsides on land that until very recently must have been totally rural. Allotments meet construction sites and completed blocks by the side of the motorway, all shrouded in a grey haze. Cedric points out a public park as we pass, complete with an unmissable red banner telling newcomers from rural areas that this is not farmland and that growing vegetables is prohibited. A talk show panel on the local radio is discussing the house prices in London.

The roads provide my first authentic Chongqing experience. Lane discipline is fluid. Cars squeeze past each other, cutting each other up. U-turns on motorways aren't out of the question and there is the constant hazard of pedestrians on the road. Horns sound left, right and centre, but no one is getting angry: after all, there's no rush. There is a sense of camaraderie that puts me at ease in the passenger seat.

It turns out that it's not just the driving style that is fluid. On arriving at leafy university campus 'B', I'm turned around with a number of last minute changes in plan: a different hotel, a schedule for tomorrow including lots of contact time with students, and a welcome dinner, the time of which changes and is then postponed whilst we are en route.

There's no point in wasting energy on being frustrated (my otherwise typically British response) and Cedric says he'll show me around. He has travelled around south-east Asia, working in South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia, before returning home to Chongqing to do a Ph.D. in the built environment. He is also fluent in English, although I've already discovered that this is not so common in Chongqing. I explain how ashamed I am of my level of Chinese, having earlier used the universal language of smartphone translation app to ask for an iron at the hotel. Cedric reassures me it's not as hard to speak as it may first seem and my first words in Mandarin after níhǎo and xiè xiè quickly become yú xiāng ròu sī', literally 'fish-flavoured meat strips' a local delicacy, which I sample in a restaurant in downtown Shapingba.

We descend into the recently opened, attractive and efficient metro system. The network includes the longest monorail in the world, which emerges from the earth as we travel towards the centre of the city to provide views over the Jialing. It's at this point that the scale of the city really hits me. The size of the buildings grows inexorably as we approach Jiefangbei, near the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing, with even 'modest' blocks frequently exceeding 40 storeys. Multiple blocks are sometimes linked together at ground level to provide joined up spaces for shopping centres and restaurants. Everything is lit up in neon and the tops of buildings glow a candle-like orange, softened by the haze.

Cedric shows me to the city's most famous attraction: the cable car over the Yangtze. He tells me it was constructed as a solution to the fog that regularly lies thick on the river, preventing commuters from crossing in boats. Now it is just a tourist attraction, providing a stunning panorama of the centre of town, which – at night time – looks all the more like a scene out of Blade Runner, or the computer game Deus Ex. No one is going to wait in line for the best spot in the small cars and a couple of elderly Chinese tourists nearly trip over each other in running to the front as soon as the doors open.

Looking towards Jiefangbei district from across the Yangtze.

On the way back home I'm reminded that we're in an international city, stopping for a coffee at a Starbucks. A fitting rebuttal then, that the cab fare for the 4 or 5 mile trip back to the university costs less than my flat white.

Passing over Burma.

20 to 30 storeys: modest.

Downtown Shapingba.

Chongqing metro line 1.

Yangtze river cableway.

The Apple store in central Chongqing with the 72-storey World Financial Centre in the background, at 339m, the city's tallest building.