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Chongquing, China: Mountainous Terrain, Spicy Food

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Chongquing, China: Mountainous Terrain, Spicy Food

Asia

Chongquing, China: Mountainous Terrain, Spicy Food

Chongquing, China: Mountainous Terrain, Spicy Food

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In China, residents of Chongqing will tell you that their geography makes them who they are. Their city is basically a steep chunk of rock jutting over the intersection of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers. So when Chongqing residents talk about directions, it's usually not north or south, but just uphill or downhill. At local hot pot restaurants, people dip meat and vegetables in woks full of oil chili peppers and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

China is not much larger than the United States, but it has more than four times as many people. The range of cultures, geography, dialects and cuisines is so diverse it's sometimes hard to believe that they're all part of the same country. NPR's Anthony Kuhn recently traveled to the southwestern city of Chongqing and filed this report about a big and dynamic city that many people have never heard of.

ANTHONY KUHN: Chongqing residents will tell you that their geography makes them who they are. Their city is basically a steep chunk of rock jutting over the intersection of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers. So when Chongqing inhabitants talk about directions, it's usually not north or south, but uphill or downhill. They also say that their city is brighter at night, when their skyline blazes with neon, than during the day, when a soupy haze coming off the river blots out the sun.

(Soundbite of car horn)

KUHN: Add to this the incessant din of traffic and construction and you have one spicy urban stew. You can even taste the local character in its incendiary cuisine. Just visit a local hotpot restaurant, where diners dip meat and vegetables in woks full of oil, chili peppers and mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns. The effect on your mouth is a cross between napalm and Novocain, but of course much tastier.

Chongqing people describe their own character as straightforward and even brash. They say this includes qualities of loyalty and righteousness. Descended from the Jung-Hu(ph), or world of chivalrous outlaws described in Chinese kung-fu novels. Then again, we may need to take this with a grain of salt, as people in other parts of China say this about themselves too.

The outlaw lore certainly seems appropriate right now, because the city has put on trial several mob bosses and the officials who shelter them. Outside the courthouse, animated crowds discuss the colorful mobsters, their riches, their victims, and their lovers. Chongqing feels worlds away from Beijing and Shanghai. It was once the capital of the Ba Kingdom and the area was independent on and off until the 14th century. From 1937 to 1945 it was known to the world as Chongqing, China's war time capital.

Today, Chongqing provides a window on some of the challenges facing China's vast inland regions. The city includes large rural areas and has a population of more than 30 million. Many of them are poor and live on very mountainous terrain. Because it's poor, the priorities of economic development and environmental protection clash more sharply, particularly on the 360 mile long Three Gorges Reservoir.

For me, Chongqing is a sobering reminder of how difficult it must be for rulers far away in Beijing to govern this land and for observers of China like myself to generalize about it.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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