I love to write about the joys of adventurous travel, but it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. Filthy dirty and unwelcoming to foreigners, Songji is definitely one of my least favorite places in China thus far. Lonely Planet has been the trusted source on China travel for years, but many recent articles state that LP is slipping and now I have to agree. Why the Chongqing section of their China guidebook recommends Songji but fails to mention incredible Jindao Gorge or Wulong is beyond me.
Less than two hours from Yongchuan by bus, Songji seems to be a long forgotten country town along the Yangtze River. So forgotten, in fact, that it is filthy dirty, closed off to modern society and the pollution factor is very high. When Xia Yuan and I arrived by mini bus, we were greeted by clouds of dust and smoke billowing up from factories in the distance. China is certainly known for its pollution (except during #APECblue – google if you don’t know what I’m talking about), but some cities do a better job of hiding it than others. Take my town for example – some days the air smells like fire and the students don surgical masks. But on important days when a special guest is visiting the university, the local factories seem to shut down and the air clears up just a little bit for just a little while.
Trust me, I’m used to a lot of stares wherever I go in China, but Songji was exceptionally bad. One woman approached to say that she had seen me on TV that morning. Another woman interrupted our lunch to beg for money and show us her deformed right hand. She was relentless until we finally forked over 1元 (equal to about 16¢) and she trotted away satisfied.
I’d love to keep hating on Songji, but the truth is that this is the REAL China. Like Songji, the vast majority of Chinese cities are dirty and poor, and the people are uneducated. Shanghai is a rare jewel – there’s a reason it’s one of the only places most tourists visit.
In the old town, we came upon a huge family home, which housed tablets listing the family members going back fifteen generations. While we were there, we intruded on a gigantic courtyard birthday party, celebrating a 1-year old boy. I’ve learned that in China, the most important thing in a family is a male heir. In fact, my friend Xia Yuan’s grandfather has told her in no uncertain terms that he “cannot die” until she gives him a grandson. And he is not kidding. She is married but has been unable to get pregnant, so she faces relentless family pressure to produce an heir on a daily basis.
While Songji is not the most enjoyable or beautiful destination in Chongqing, it is definitely educational. Wandering through the streets of the old town, you’ll find that almost every door is wide open and you can see right into the family homes. In order to save money on electricity, the homes are kept very dark and cold at all times.
The streets in Songji are lined with tiny temples. Here is a small temple where women will pray for the gods to give them a son. If there’s one thing I was reminded of during my visit to Songji, it’s that to the Chinese, family is absolutely everything.
Another strange thing about Songji was the size of the doorways, which were designed hundreds of years ago when the people were even smaller than they are now. I (literally) would not fit in here.