To address a letter to a city of any kind is folly. To send a letter to a metropolis of your immensity — 32 million residents! — shows, as we say here in New York, chutzpah. Also it’s a bit weird. And yet I’m writing anyway, because I don’t quite know how else to get a handle on the six days I spent with you in October — six days in which I felt embraced and ignored, beloved and rejected, entrapped and, in the end, liberated. Please let me explain:
When I stepped off the train from Chengdu, the laid-back capital of Sichuan Province about 320km to the west, I felt (I imagined) just like one of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants who flock from the countryside to your crowded streets every year: At once energized and terrified, awed and optimistic. All over, skyscrapers were rising, with spindly cranes adding new stories by the minute, their windowless walls vanishing in the mist (OK, smog). Beyond them, when the sunlight strengthened, I could see the craggy outlines of mountains and sense the distant dips that heralded the conjunction of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers.
To lighten my load for the first day’s wandering, I left my luggage in storage, then went next door to the bus station, where I muscled past the map vendors — “Don’t want,” I told them in dicey Mandarin — to find the No. 601 bus, which would take me into your heart. From my seat at the rear of the vehicle I gaped at your sheer physicality. Your streets curved and climbed, circling around gleaming, Prada-billboarded shopping malls and racing down through construction sites at whose edges I glimpsed neatly terraced vegetable gardens. As the bus crossed a bridge high above the muddy Jialing and curlicued through cloverleaf overpasses and tunnels toward what I took to be downtown Chongqing, I had to admit: You were not pretty, but I was enthralled.
I was also overwhelmed, just as I’d hoped. It had been a very, very long time since I’d felt so dominated by a city — if I’d ever felt that way at all. Years of living in New York had inured me to the challenges (and wonders) of urban living, but years of travel had taught me that other people were still intimidated by cities: their size and density, their crowds, their dirt and chaos and almost arbitrary rules of conduct. Recently, I’d begun to ask myself: How would it feel to be a migrant abandoning the countryside for the urban unknown, or a small-town tourist facing off against the metropolis?
To find the answer I first had to find the right city — no, the right mega-city, a place whose very city-ness was its attraction, whose size and structure warped reality like a black hole, whose impenetrability would reduce me to that gawking, dreaming yokel I maybe never was.
And then, last August, I read “Chicago on the Yangtze,” an article in Foreign Policy magazine that laid out your brief but impressive history. A century ago, you were but a minor port on the Yangtze, a backwater of south-central China with a slightly different name, Chungking. But by World War II you’d become the Republic of China’s temporary capital and the postwar years saw enough growth that in 1997 you broke away from Sichuan Province to become what’s humbly termed a “direct-controlled municipality” — a heaving, swirling industrial nexus that upends our traditional notions of what constitutes a city. More than 30 million people spread through a mountainous, river-cut, quake-prone area twice the size of Switzerland, and you call yourself a mere municipality? Intrigued, I yearned to lose myself among such multitudes.