Finding bearings

One good sleep later, accompanied by a few hours awake in the middle of the night thanks to jet lag, and I'm woken again by Cedric, this time sounding far more relaxed. Today is a day to explore in the company of my new friends, and to start to find my bearings after yesterday's whirlwind.

“Do you mind walking?” Cedric is apologetic about the fact that there is no car for today's excursion. I explain that I love walking to get to know a city. The American style of driving short distances between otherwise walkable places – or where there is good public transport – is not something I'm keen to see take off in Chongqing, espcially given the scale of recent traffic jams in Beijing.  Cedric understands this well, having travelled a lot himself, and luckily – as I had discovered on day 1 – Chongqing has an excellent metro and bus system. David joins us again, keen to keep expanding such essential music vocabulary as 'rhythm guitar', 'effects pedal' and 'math rock'.

Looking out from Eling Park.

We climb up out of the metro and into the green of Eling ('goose leg') Park, which is lined with avenues of trees, offering glimpses of the endless tower blocks beyond. We pass old buildings that used to be embassies – a throwback to the second world war, when Chongqing was the temporary capital of China – and even an old shelter for chairman Mao. I join a number of locals in taking in the peace and quiet and, climbing a pagoda at the top of the park, am greeted by a stunning 360 degree view of the city, overlooking both the Jialing and Yangtze rivers. The city really does stretch as far as you can see, with tower blocks on top of steep hillsides that until recently must have been green. The spread of the towers is curbed only by the two parallel lines of mountains running north to south which can just about be seen through the haze. Cedric hopes that the steep slopes will remain free from development to provide public parks, which are much needed oases in this huge city.

View from Eling Park pagoda, looking east towards Jiefangbei (click for full resolution image).

View from Eling Park pagoda, looking east towards Jiefangbei (click for full resolution image).

View from Eling Park pagoda, looking west (click for full resolution image).

View from Eling Park pagoda, looking west (click for full resolution image).

'Green way' through an old town area.

Descending following a 'green way' through a quiet old town district, we are greeted by friendly pint-size dogs and the occasional battle-hardened cat perched on a wall. We pass a new development of luxury flats with views over the downtown area and prices that wouldn't be out of place in London. They have been designed by Moshe Safdie, the architect in charge of a huge new development at the confluence that looks like his Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore on steroids. Whilst attractive, well-designed new developments are arguably important to instil a sense of thoughtfulness into urban design, these flats seem oddly exclusive in this otherwise welcoming and unashamedly rough-round-the-edges city. This, of course, is a sign of the pace of change here. Having only just begun to explore Chongqing, I find myself hoping that gentrification does not start to eat away at the character the place, in the same way that it has in parts of London like Brixton or Hackney. Although this may seem an absurd thought given the size of the city, the skyline changes on an almost weekly basis. Another good reason to get our work right.

Restaurant area near Jiaochangkou.

Booming automated voices on the bus announce our arrival into the downtown area. Apparently Chinese people enjoy noise. Cedric has explained to me that the military-style adverts barked from speakers on shopfronts positively encourage shoppers to take advantage of various sales and offers. Interesting, given that peace and quiet is ranked as one of the most important factors in determining property values.

Cedric (left) and David (right) at dinner.

We start up a pedestrian street lined with bars and restaurants, Chongqing's equivalent of Brick Lane, perhaps. Ducking into an unassuming eatery, Cedric orders a large and varied selection to share – four or five different types of sweet and savoury dumplings, various noodle dishes and even a duck's head. The initial compliments on my chopstick use are quickly retracted when I nearly cover David in soup whilst trying to extract endless strands of noodles from a serving dish. Incompetence aside, chopsticks (when used properly) are great for avoiding mess, as is slurping your noodles straight from the bowl. British table manners here would probably end in your shirt quickly becoming a palette of assorted delicious sauces and soups.

Downtown Jiefangbei.

We walk off the excellent meal with a stroll through downtown surrounded by Christmas-tree-like skyscrapers. The garish signs lit up in red provide a great opportunity to learn the language, and locals turn and laugh as the laowei (foreign friend) repeatedly tries to pronounce Chinese characters, not without a lot of help and patience from Cedric and David. Sadly, my visit is abruptly coming to an end and I quickly find myself back in the company of our stoic driver on the way to the airport. I laugh quietly to myself at the cheesy pop ballad on the radio, 'Chongqing xie xie ni', although it seems quite fitting.

Ordering a beer on the flight, I realise that I look ridiculous – pony tail, sunglasses, t-shirt and suit jacket, with a page of scribbled maths in front of me – I've joined the ranks of the many before me who have tried and failed to match the cool of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. Although the beer is disappointing, this first visit has been anything but. Chongqing clearly has a lot to offer. I hope that our project can offer something in return and am looking forward to the next visit in a few weeks' time.