Last summer I made a pilgrimage back to the Three Gorges area, where I used to live for two years before the region was flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. From 2000-2002 I lived in Wanzhou (previously called Wanxian), a small remote city built on steep mountains on the banks of the Yangtze. If you’ve read Pete Hessler’s book Rivertown, I had a similar experience as I lived in a nearby city just 2 years later than his term. At the time I was one of only 5 foreigners in the whole city.
Wanzhou is built on the sides of steep mountains. It is a city of winding, curving roads and countless staircases that cut between the curved lanes. I never saw a bicycle in the city because it’s simply too steep.
Wanzhou is the river town that was the most impacted by the Three Gorges Dam. I lived there during the years that the city was preparing to be flooded by that dam. A full third of the city was flooded by the dam, so during the preparatory years the government pumped money into the area to demolish all the buildings near the water, and build new buildings on top of the cliffs. All over China there is a great deal of demolition and construction, but this area experienced particularly extreme changes because of the dam and strategic flooding.
During those two years, I learned to live with loss as I saw building after building demolished. On one of my last weekends I was moved when I discovered the old Catholic church was reduced to a pile of rubble, with only the front door arch remaining. By the time I moved away in 2002, the lower sections of the city were mostly piles of rubble.
Over the years I have wondered nostalgically what happened to my former home after the dam was completed, always wanting to return and explore the changes. A few months before this pilgrimage I had a dream that I returned. It was meant to be.
Now that I live in China again, teaching in Nanjing, I had the opportunity to return to visit Wanzhou. My jaw hung open in shock as I saw a new glitzy waterfront, complete with a smooth riverside boulevard lined with stylized street lights, a luxury hotel, and a shiny mall with an H+M. It was a new city.
As you can see, the historical structure of the city before 2003 had no river walk. The buildings were pushed right to the edge of the water.
The current waterfront has a wide, empty space below the riverwalk boulevard which is set aside for dining al-fresco in the summer.
I visited my old campus where I had taught, and saw many new buildings, including new apartments which now cover up part of the green cliff behind the college track.
Of course It was incredibly emotional for me to make this pilgrimage back to Wanzhou after 11 years away, especially because the city had changed so drastically. Part of me felt nostalgic for how the city used to be, with the tight alleys and cluttered markets. But another part of me understood that most of the residents like that their city is cleaner now. The small city used to be incredibly filthy (a few months after I moved home, there was an outbreak of cholera… and I have numerous terrible rat stories that I don’t want to share here). Now the streets are much tidier and the sky is clear and blue. The air pollution used to be horrendous. I don’t know if I visited on a fluke clean weekend or if some factories have actually moved away.
It is common for Western observers of China to lament the loss of old architecture in China because recent years have seen incredible demolitions all over the country. I’m usually in the camp of lamenting the loss of old buildings, but after numerous conversations with Chinese friends I can understand their desire for new buildings. When we as outside visitors are appreciating old architecture in China, we are usually walking around taking photos. We don’t have to sleep in those rooms or cook in those kitchens. We don’t have to experience how uncomfortable the crumbling buildings are day after day. I’ve softened my view over time after empathizing with friends who want cleaner, solid homes.
My pilgrimage visit was more meaningful because one of my current students in Nanjing happens to come from Wanzhou. She and I met during my first week in Nanjing and quickly became close friends. When I returned to Wanzhou last summer she was also home on vacation so I stayed in her home and went to her grandparents’ place for a homecooked meal. My friend knows exactly what local foods I had missed, and made sure to take me on a thorough culinary tour.
Here is my friend’s cute grandma preparing lunch for us. She cut the si gua gourd roughly in her balcony kitchen.
Her grandma also prepared dou ban, a local dish of pressed bean curd served room temperature in a spicy marinade. It is slathered in plenty of hua jiao.
In various places in China, a common street food it stir-fried potatoes in a huge wok. I have to put it out there that the Wanzhou variation of street potatoes is special. I’ve tried street potatoes in other Chinese cities, but they taste like plain fried potatoes. In Wanzhou they are deeply spicy with a strong shot of cumin, sesame, and numbing hua jiao. When I was walking around downtown, I usually picked up a bowl for about 20 cents. My friends who visited me in Wanzhou remembered these potatoes as an essential flavor of Wanzhou. Now living in Nanjing, my Wanzhou friend and I reminisce about those incredible street potatoes.
The local noodle specialty is xiao mian, meaning literally “small noodles”. They are called “small” because the preparation is a quick assembly of strong flavors. It requires various types of chili sauce and fermented vegetables, plus garlic, huajiao, greens like kongxincai, and various other aromatics. It’s not something one usually makes at home because it requires small amounts of so many ingredients, and also because you can find it all over any town in the Chongqing region as a regional staple. When I lived in Wanzhou I ate these xiao mian noodles all the time and didn’t realize how regional and special they were. They were just street noodles to me then. Wow, how I missed those flavors. Here on the return trip I had them for solid and satisfying breakfast.
Here is the xiao mian preparation.
The noodles are served in a loose sauce but the proper method is to toss the noodles for awhile until they fully absorb the sauce.
Here are some various preserved vegetables and beans in the market.
Wanzhou still has staircases everywhere. These stairs lead down to a vegetable market.
This is a classic Chongqing regional soup, sour preserved vegetable and noodle soup, suan cai fen si tang. This was another favorite of mine in Wanzhou, and since then when I eat in Chongqing-style restaurants, I often ask for this simple soup. It’s clean and restorative.
Classic mapo doufu.
Late at night we went out for shao kao, which is essentially late-night street grilling. People eat it out on the sidewalk sitting on low plastic stools. The marinade is chili, cumin, hua jiao and sesame. My friends ate the meat pieces the photo, but there are always plenty of veg options like various incarnations of tofu, eggplant, taro, rice gluten, green beans, cauliflower, and every kind of mushroom.
When I lived in Wanzhou I ate hotpot with friends pretty much once a week, but I didn’t have time to eat hotpot during this pilgrimage trip. The following weekend my Wanzhou student and I met in Chongqing and made a point to have a hotpot meal with her boyfriend and his mom.