About a month ago my family (and all but the mouthpiece of one of my pipes??) moved to one of the biggest cities on earth. A city-state in Western China called Chongqing, referred to locally as the Mountain City, or the Fog Capital. Chongqing, like most of China, has its’ share of juxtapositions to make the untrained Westerner tilt his head and wonder. Extreme poverty next to opulent wealth, or street sweepers in suits, trash truck drivers in heels, etc… Yet, as many of you may know firsthand, one of the beauties of our hobby is the way it has an ability to bring people together who might otherwise have nothing in common.
Running a small and quiet bar next to a lake in the northernmost part of the city is an averaged sized vegetarian man in his sixties. Old Gan (as his friend’s call him) is the earliest pipe smoker I’ve met in Southwest China, having partaken of the hobby for close to twenty years. When asked if he really is the oldest pipe smoker in town he makes sure to spend a good bit of time telling me of the people in villages who have been smoking home-grown and hand-cured tobacco from pipes for hundreds of years in China. But that said, he believes himself to be one of the area’s earliest smokers of a Western-style pipe and imported tobacco. Before pipes he was a cigarette smoker but then made the switch when he heard pipe tobaccos lacked the chemical additives so common in cigarettes.
In a downtown market in the capital city of the southwestern-most province in China, Mr. Zhang shows me his extremely limited imported pipe tobacco selection. He jokes with me about a shop he ran a few years ago where he sold exclusively fake tobacco. He giggles a bit, it’s a short halting giggle suitable for a 75 year old man like himself, and says, "You just make more money when it’s fake."
Welcome to the world of tobacco in the earth’s most populous nation. A land where cigarettes sell for as little as a dollar a pack, or as much as several hundred dollars. A land with Great Wall brand cigars which taste more like a wall than anything great. And, much to my good pleasure, a land beginning to fall in love with the pipe.