Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Yangtze River Cruise, Chongqing to Wuhan, 9-11 January 2011

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world that stretches a massive 3,915 miles from Tibet into the Sea of China. The Yangtze acts as a major artery to China, slicing the country in half and has been used throughout history for many purposes, trading, transportation, irrigation, sanitation and a natural border separating warring factions.

Raymond had come to Chongqing for the same reason as me and wanted to get on a cruise down the Yangtze and so he decided that he would like to join me on the cruise and bought the same ticket. Before the trip we decided that we should buy some food to sustain us throughout the journey as recommended. I also was in dire need to find some deodorant as my can was running dangerously low and I knew that I may not be able to shower on the boat. We climbed the endless amount of steps through the small streets of Chongqing towards the centre of town past the small food shops and a stand where a elderly man performed fire cupping on his patients. The only thing I have had problems getting hold of in China is deodorant, you can't find it anywhere and I was advised that Wallmart might have some. So we checked the store out and the only thing available was a roll on which cost 48 Yuan (£4.80)!! I had no option but to fork out and pay the cost to get some. My question is, do Chinese people just let themselves smell?

On the way back we found a outlet selling Banana Bread which is a sweet bread made with bananas. It was so cheap we both bought a bag full each and ate most of them by the time we returned to the hostel and shared the rest of them amongst the people around. Upon our return, the girl in the hostel had invited us to drink traditional Chinese tea before we left. I cannot remember how many cups of tea I drank but it was a pleasant way to say goodbye to Chongqing.

A man entered through the door and announced that he was our driver, so we collected our bags and headed downstairs to the street. We clambered our way through the mountain of boxes that the numerous distribution warehouses fill the streets everyday ready for lorries to collect them and pack them onto a cargo freighter for their journey down the Yangtze. We climbed aboard our minibus and were joined by Steve, an English man who was teaching English in Tiajin. The minibus pulled away from the hostel and we were all hopeful that the next four hour trip to our boat would be a comfortable one, however, two minutes down the road we pulled up beside a coach and were asked to get out.

There were several hawkers selling things such as maps of the river and off bits and pieces that nobody really needs. We dumped our bags in the hold and jumped aboard to find some seats towards the back of the bus. The next four hours passed by relatively quickly despite the man sitting over my right shoulder continuously cleared his throat and coughed over me. The tour that we were on was the Chinese one as it was cheaper than the international ones. This meant the bus was completely full of Chinese people and we were the only foreigners.

We arrived at our boat after dark and followed the others onto our magnificent vessel that was waiting to take us downstream and our home for the next three days. We were greeted by our young Chinese guide who spoke limited English but enough to organise us. We were shown to our third class cabin on the bottom deck and met our cabin mates. There were six people in our cabin, us, a Chinese man in his forties and a young couple, who were not boyfriend and girlfriend but friends from university on vacation. The cabin was small with a television and an ensuite bathroom the type where you just have enough space to shower over the squat toilet.

The three of us immediately decided that we needed to check out the restaurant and or bar, so we made our way up to the stairs and found the poorly decorated and dull room where it looked like food may be served. It was served and the meal was really quite impressive. After that we chose to explore the rest of the boat which really did not take long. There was a small shop selling vastly over priced goods and the top deck which was a viewing platform which you needed to pay extra for, however, we climbed the dark stairs with a small LED light in our hands, the whole deck was pitch black which was great as it provided a silent and creepy feel to our surroundings. The boat sailed through the cliffs that flanked either side and were only lit by the search lights which extruded from the deck. The silence was abruptly broken by the fog horn which sent out a excruciating blast out into the distance which would not have been an issue if we hadn't been standing directly in front of it!!

Later that evening the boat moored and we arrived at our first destination, The Zhang Fei Temple. Part of the booking process we were offered to purchase all or just some of the entrance tickets. We chose to go for all of them as you never know whether you will see something magnificent. Our guide escorted us off the boat, walking us through an endless strip of tourist trap stalls selling all the same goods and handing us to another guide that worked at the temple. Raymond and I soon became aware that we may have made a mistake as the temple wasn't anything special and we couldn't understand anything anyway as the tour was all in China. Enter James, a thirty something year old man from Shenzhen who took it upon himself to be our translator. He spoke in a rather camp voice and his limited English made him stutter as he struggled to find the next word. A friendly man, but from his translation, the temple did not excite or interest me in the least. The temple was created to honour a famous general during the three kingdoms period in Chinese history nearly 2000 years ago. Many folk stories have been created about this general and the stories surrounding him have made this shrine a popular destination for Chinese tourists. The temple we saw was actually a recreation of the original shrine which was submerged when the creation of the Three Gorges Damn caused the waters of the Yangtze River to rise. The monuments were saved and relocated to the new temple which was recreated exactly the same as the lost one. Thankfully the tour didn't last long and we returned to the boat ready for a good night's sleep.

The following morning we were woken up incredibly early so that we could be at the White Emperor Town for 7am. We left the boat and walked through the compulsory tourist traps and boarded a bus that took us to the 'great' historical site. The town sat on top of a hill on an island which meant we had to cross a long stone bridge and ascend steps that didn't seem to end, it was too early for so much physical exercise. Once at the top the tour guide got out her megaphone and began squawking on about something. Raymond and I had enough of this and decided that we would leave the group behind and explore the place on our own. We reverted back to naughty school children climbing things and going places we shouldn't. It was a pleasant retreat and I'm sure if you lived up there you'd have a comfortable life but it wasn't anything I would recommend. On the way back down we were confronted by a group of tourist trappers selling wooden combs and other useless things. I couldn't imagine anyone buying these things but once we got on the bus the Chinese tourist enjoyed showing us all the things they had bought.

Back on the boat we met up with Steve who had decided not to bother going, we tried to convince him that the place was full of naked ladies and it was a tribute to the female species. However, when he told us he was only wondering because his parents were going to do the cruise and he wanted to recommend places for them to go, we couldn't continue our lie and told him that it was a pointless place to visit if you're not Chinese.

As a group we headed up to the top deck with some breakfast snacks and watch the first magnificent gorge of the Yangtze River. Once we arrived on the top deck Raymond was in a quandary, the apple he had bought the day before had deteriorated. Around half of the apple had disappeared and we thought it was due to some kind of Chinese rotting disease which we don't have in the west. As his apple was not edible, he returned to the cabin to retrieve his packet of crisps. Several minutes later he rejoined us with an empty packet of crisps in his hands. Raymond recalled his story of how he discovered the empty packet and how he had interrogated the young Chinese man in our room who was adamant that he had nothing to do with it. Playing detectives, we examined the depleted packet and noticed that there were small pairs incisions around the packet and we concluded that the culprit behind the mysterious disappearance of food was a mouse, or a number of mice. We later discussed this with our guide and upon revealing that we had a mouse in our cabin, she simply replied “Everyone's got mice in their cabins.”. We no longer felt special.

Sitting on the deck in plastic chairs watching the impressive landscape pass by was a fantastic experience, despite the cold blast of January air making us recoil inside the room on the top deck for protection. The damns, however, are apparently less impressive since the flooding of the Yangtze.

Steve, Raymond and me
In the afternoon we arrived at the Darling River where we left the boat, including Steve this time, and boarded another smaller boat which would take us down through the Lesser Three Gorges. The sun was out and the Chinese guide was doing her thing inside so the three of us went outside onto the front of the boat and witnessed the extraordinary scenery passing by. I personally enjoyed seeing this part of the river more than the Yangtze as it was far more peaceful. Maybe it was in large part due to the warm sunshine which suddenly appeared. Around one hour later we moored again where we transferred to yet a smaller wooden boat which took us up the stream a little bit. Whilst heading upstream the local guide talked about the local area and sang a few folk songs which was enjoyable. All the time James was there to translate for us. The local guide then handed out a keyring to each of us which we just knew meant a money transfer was expected. The Chinese tourists easily handed over their money but us westerners decided to hand the keyring back. This turned out to be quite an insult and the Chinese tourists told us that we should give him money, which thoroughly annoyed us. Just because we are Europeans they expect us to be rich and give everyone of them money. The fact remains, however, that this boat trip was included in the price of the cruise so they are already getting money. If they need more money then they need to up the price of the cruise instead of trying to extort more out of us once we are on the cruise. We stuck to our guns and stubbornly refused to pay. The rest of the day saw us pass the two final gorges and our last night on the boat.

Another day and another early wake up call. During the night we had moored at the Jiuwan Stream where we were going to get on a dragon boat and row along to the rhythmic drums and the horrible sound of the guide talking through her megaphone. We arrived at a side stream where we got off and walked around a while ending in another tourist trap and a traditional operatic performance by the locals. The performance was prematurely ended as we got back onto the boats and headed back to the cruise ship. The journey back was much more pleasant as the guide wasn't talking.

The next few hours were taken up by having our last meal aboard and watching the boat approach it's final destination, Taipingxi, where the boat moored and we disembarked. There were several buses waiting for us, some which were heading directly to Yichang and the others to the Three Gorges Dam. As Steve wasn't going to the damn, we said goodbye to him and boarded the other bus.

The Three Gorges Damn, my next stop on my superlative tour of China, is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. Construction began in 1994 but it the idea actually originated from Sun Yat-Sen in 1919 and it remained a popular idea ever since. The main structure of the damn was completed in 2008 but work on additional generators inside the dam is still continuing and is expected to be totally completed by 2012. Although the dam's major popularity, it was also controversial as the water upstream raised by 172 metres which led to a displacement of over 1 million people and many cultural and historic sites were submerged. The damn is also built near six active seismic fault lines and despite the engineers claims that it can withstand a high magnitude earthquake, if it does rupture, it will be one of the worst disasters in the man made history as a huge torrent of water will flood the downstream part of the Yangtze and will kill thousands if not millions of people within a few minutes. At the moment, however, the dam is helping to restrain floods which have killed many people and destroyed housing in the past. The dam has also made the upstream section 'the world's largest toilet' and an expansion in sanitation works was a compulsory action.

Our cabin mates
Visiting the dam, you can immediately see the immense size of it and the huge engineering feat of the shipping lanes is truly impressive. It certainly is another example of China's need to get one over nature. The tour around the site was another story, being part of the Chinese group had again proved annoying so Raymond and I went off to explore by ourselves again. This marked the end of the river cruise but before I got back on the bus I had a rather uncomfortable experience in the toilet which I feel I need to share with you all. Whilst standing at the urinal a Chinese man who had slicked back hair and a leather jacket stood next to me and started speaking with me. Nothing like, “Nice day today.” but “In the movies...” he pointed down towards my midriff and moved his hands apart as to show length and then pointed at himself and reduced the gap between his hands. He repeated this several times and I chose to leave the toilet and got back on the bus as soon as possible.

The bus took us to Yichang, a journey of two hours where our tour would officially end. Whilst on the journey we became friendly with two children, the young boy spoke minimal English but we had fun playing hide and seek and making funny faces at each other. His sister, however, turned out to be excellent at English and she was only 12 years old. She told us that they were from Tibet and were on holiday for a few weeks. We finished off the journey by flirting with drivers outside the window mainly me acting like a woman and waving at male drivers which made the kids laugh. The bus pulled into Yichang where we purchased onward bus tickets to Wuhan where we were hoping to get a night train to Shanghai. However, when we arrived in Wuhan several hours later, we weren't able to get a train until the following morning at 8.30am. Our next decision was whether we were going to spend the night in the train station or go to the hostel and stay a very brief night in a bed. The decision was easy and we arrived at the hostel 30 minutes later where we were greeted by Steve who had checked in around 4 hours before us.

I was also reunited with Will, the Scottish man I had previously met in Moscow. It was good to catch up with him after all this time and see that he had survived the Russian winter, which he was severely suffering from the in Moscow despite it only being -17 degrees! I suppose he did have an excuse, he flew from Egypt the day before.

Next time: Shanghai, Hangzhou and Shenzhen

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