China Elevator Stories

chongqing: city in the mist

In my imagination, Chongqing was a laid-back mountain metropolis next to the river with lots of culture and history.


Ruth Silbermayr
Ruth Silbermayr


It had been two years since I had left the southwestern city of Kunming – the beautiful city of spring that had become my new home for one year of studying abroad. When I came back to China in the late spring of 2012, all I took with me was a backpack with clothes, the tiniest books I could find, and vague plans of traveling around China for a few months first and looking for a job later. I took a flight from Vienna to Chongqing – after all, Kunming would be one of my destinations and Chongqing was not too far away from it (compared to more frequent flight destinations like Beijing or Shanghai).

In my imagination, Chongqing was a laid-back mountain metropolis next to the river with lots of culture and history. This is not to say that Chongqing lacks culture or history, but when I arrived there on 7 June 2012, it was quite different from what I had expected. I took a cab to a hostel, and from what I could make out in the mist that extended to every single corner of Chongqing, this was not a very pleasant city. Most Chongqingers I met during my stay there confirmed that this first impression of mine was true. They assured me it was true for the city as such, but not for the people living there. Some of the people I met had been growing up in other parts of China and had moved to Chongqing to look for job opportunities. Others had been growing up in Chongqing and went to bigger cities to study. When they came back, initially, they did so reluctantly. They would later form the conviction that Chongqing, a city once tormented by organized crime and corruption, which was shaken by the political scandal surrounding the Heywood murder in 2012, needed them – the good and honest people of Chongqing.

One evening, as I sat at a table with ten Chongqingers, the conversations were as fiery as the hot pot this city was famous for. After drinking some beer and baijiu, my Chongqing friends started telling me in loud voices how much they loved this doomed city and how much they wanted me to tell all my friends that Chongqing is a city worth visiting. They told me that the Chongqing of 2012 was already a much safer, cleaner, and better place than the Chongqing of a few years before that. They said Chongqing was a city of opportunities, a city where good people greatly outnumbered bad people, and a city that treated everyone the same, regardless of a person’s place of origin.

Maybe the garbage I saw being thrown into the streets carelessly, maybe the mold that spread from one house to the next, maybe the mist that made it impossible to see further than a few one hundred meters, or the unbearable summer heat, were just what strangers would see on the surface, keeping them from seeing beneath it.

Have you ever been surprised by how different a place was in your imagination compared to reality?

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