The point where Chongqing turns from a county into city is not noticeable initially; the only hint is the amount of cars on the roads. Suddenly, just like the mountains, it all begins to lurch up. We arrive in late afternoon traffic, tumbling slowly into the sprawl that envelopes the banks where Yangtze and Jialing rivers meet, where skyscrapers jut up like a mouth of glass teeth on the hills. A major hub for sending things downstream, Chongqing city has boomed by design under China’s westward development program. We’ve heard that this is the motorcycle capital of China, home to the factories of almost all domestic motorcycle producers. Almost more importantly, the city is all built on hills, so steep that bicycles —who reign supreme elsewhere in China— are rendered useless against a motorized engine.
Even on the cities periphery, it’s clear that this is true. We’re passed by a mix of motorcycles we haven’t seen elsewhere in China, bigger and modified enough to make it clear that these are no longer machines of necessity but of pleasure. Strangely enough, though, it’s also the first place where we’re not allowed to fill gas straight into our tanks. Instead, motorcyclists at the gas station are shunned off the side, forced to use essentially large metal teapots to first get gas at the pump, and then pour into the bike; nobody we ask has an answer as to why.
Under a florescent orange suspension bridge that spans the Yangtze, we meet up with two local motorcyclists, Xiao Jiang and Miao Miao (who goes by the English name Mon), introduced to us by Du Ri, the owner of Tourfella, avid motorcyclist, and now a good friend. On the recommendation of another friend’s friend, we decide to drive up the nearby mountains across the river to see the view of Chongqing. Both Xiao Jiang and Mon have brought their scooters: Xiao Jiang’s orange, red and black with custom Tourfella panniers, and Mon dressed in army fatigue pants and desert combat boots. Setting off through the winding uphills and sudden downhills, driving feels like a part of something beyond just ourselves, a team —a culture. Thrust forth by the momentum of our two new pace setters we break from the hillside congestion and out onto the bridge, a defining experience of driving in Chongqing, a city where off-ramps twist high into the sky with nothing but water below. As we make it up the mountain, it’s already almost dark. The roads are steep and slick with moss soaked by sub-tropical humidity. We slide calmly around the curves, but up a steep incline the bikes falter. Nate’s bike, already lurching from a fall in the rain two days earlier (which, thanks to good gear, he came out of completely unharmed), stalls and slides backwards, whipping into the rock wall to his right. Again his body is completely unaffected, but the bike now needs more fixing. We walk the next 500 meters to the summit.
Chongqing at night burns like a mass of fireflies in the summer. Glimmering from across the river the city almost seems like if it was made for the dark. It’s a city that’s awake all night, Mon says as we head off the mountain and towards a hotpot restaurant, a dish Chongqing is famous for. When we get there it’s nine o’clock and the restaurant is packed; we sit at a table outside under a tree-lined street. This restaurant never closes, Xiao Jiang mentions, its literally open 24 hours, every day of the year, and almost always this busy. Once we start eating, it’s easy to tell why. We begin slow, starting with cow’s stomach, which ranges in color from brown to black, the ridges of which begin to whiten as the meat cooks in the water at a rolling boil. Then soon we toss the whole platter of assorted, indistinguishable cuts of meat —and those, like pig’s brain, that are perhaps too distinguishable— and a variety of vegetables into the pot. Half spicy, half not. We drink peanut milk and herbal tea; everything tastes great. The spice of the Sichuan peppercorn only numbs our tongues slightly, and when dipped into a sauce of sesame oil, garlic, and salt the original flavor of what was put in now seems to feel new on our tongues.
After dinner we go for a ride. On empty midnight roads, the motorcycle veins of Chongqing really begin to pulse. Low lit boulevards suddenly become stage for groups of young dirtbike riders to rock back into wheelies one at a time. We cruise around slowly, as new riders, some with girlfriends clinging to the back of sports bikes, rip out revs from custom mufflers. We stop under a wash of pink and green neon light; across from us is a replica of San Fransisco’s Lombard street with a “love” statue written in a mass of incandescent blubs blaring white light at us from halfway up the hill. This is where all the bikers in Chongqing hang out says Mon; we used to be here all the time, Xiao Jiang adds.
In the morning we head to their friends shop on Shixin road to fix our bikes. Under a mass of tents, half modded motorcycles, and shopfronts for every local brand, Nate’s bike gets opened. The mechanic takes out the clutch and washes it in gasoline; we change the clutch cable too. We change our oil for the first time on the trip and hang around and eat lychees as a stream of visitors come to the mechanic with new questions. More and more we have found ourselves comfortable inside repair shops, at home amongst the tools, alive in the metal and the possibilities they hold. A couple more minor adjustments to the shocks, a realigning of the front chassis, and we make our way to dinner where we meet Xiao Jiang’s girlfriend and Mon’s wife and son, five years old with an impeccably well trimmed bowl cut. Past massive murals painted on the buildings by art students we make our way through the city on foot, half awake, half amazed and fully alive, the colors of the night all tinted yellow by the street lights.
The next night, Mon invites us all over for dinner at his house to celebrate dragon boat festival. His wife cooks us an amazing meal, with so much food that it soon the plates are stacked on top of one another. We play video games with his son, who Mon says he doesn’t want to control like other Chinese parents, a difference you can tell by free-reigning energy his son has when you meet him —just like you feel the difference in Mon’s house from most apartments when you enter: a wall of car ads, a wood paneled study soft-lit by fuax tiffany lamp, and his son’s drawings in crayon left untouched etched into the wall. He wants him to develop his own interests –and he and his wife answer every question his son asks them, thoughtfully and respectfully, talking at length to find an acceptable explanation for “why do they like motorcycles.”
The next night, Mon invites us all over for dinner at his house to celebrate dragon boat festival. His wife cooks us an amazing
meal, with so much food that it soon the plates are stacked on top of one another. We play video games with his son, who Mon says he doesn’t want to control like other Chinese parents, a
difference you can tell by free-reigning energy his son has when you meet him —just like you feel the difference in Mon’s house from most apartments when you enter: a wall of car ads, a wood
paneled study soft-lit by fuax tiffany lamp, and his son’s drawings in crayon left untouched etched into the wall. He wants him to develop his own interests –and he and his wife answer
every question his son asks them, thoughtfully and respectfully, talking at length to find an acceptable explanation for “why do they like motorcycles.”
Both Xiao Jiang and Mon have mostly stopped riding at this point in their lives, sold their big bikes in exchange for more practical, smaller, and convenient scooters. Over the past few days Xiao Jiang has talked at length about how he too desperately wants to get out and drive for a distance, but he feels trapped in his current life, pressured by different aspect of Chinese society —to buy a house and a car with a salary that’s way too low to match. More so he thinks here isn’t a place were you can leave and your relationships will stay the same. If I leave I’d have to start all over, he says.
The next day though, him and Mon have decided to ride with us out to the border of Chongqing and Sichuan. It’s just past 6:30 when we meet, eating a bowl of xiaomian and then lunging out into the pale grey cityscape as dawn turns into morning. Halfway there the rain has picked up again and they’re getting soaked. We eat lunch in a restaurant whose only other customers seem to be a family reunion and they decide to head back. We head our separate directions —us, the mountains; them, the metropolis— but we part as friends that are comforted in knowing they’ll see each other again.
Exhausted by early afternoon, we take a nap in a small village shrine to the daoist earth gods. Surrounded by lotuses, the days rain pooling in their wide, waxed leaves, we slip away into a new day and a new place.