I'm booked on the early morning optional excursion (260Y =$26) to the White Emperor City. This is now an island at the start of the Qutang Gorge and has been a strategic point throughout history. A general with ambitions to become Emperor maintained he had a dream where he saw a cloud in the shape of a Dragon which said he should be Emperor. He realised his dream and built a temple here in celebration. During the Ming Dynasty this was destroyed on the basis that he was a usurper, but the legend persisted and the temples rebuilt. The place is also famous for a particular poet and the site has many poetry stones. There’s one poem which all Chinese children learn and it has been reproduced by various leaders in their own writing, including Mao. I’m with an Italian family of 5 and we have an English speaking guide to ourselves. The problem is that Mama does not speak much English and one of the young lads has to translate
. The guide is very sweet though and struggles to be heard above the microphones of surrounding groups as there is not a spare set for her. She is at university learning French and has done well to learn English. She shows us a particular stone statue of a Buddha which has lost its head and hands. She says the Red Guards did this during the Cultural Revolution. So, I think, she’s allowed to mention it. Her grandfather was a principal of a college and he was killed by them. I’m glad that there’s an acknowledgement that this all happened. Later I ask Bin how all the treasures of the Shanghai Museum survived. He says a lot of the stuff was given to the Museum after the Cultural Revolution. Back to our guide who shows us the studios and in particular a tableau of an Emperor in the time of the three kingdoms and his two brothers. One of them was killed and the Emperor went to war and lost. On his death bed he entrusted his faithful minister to help his son become Emperor or even to become Emperor himself. In the end the Kingdom was lost to the other two Kingdoms. Further on are figures depicting the chamber of horrors and Hell mouth – all very medieval and reminiscent of the Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore. There are some good views of the start of the Qutang Gorge from here. This is the shortest, only 8 Km and the steepest. It takes only a few minutes to motor through it and I find shade up a ladder on the foredeck in front of the Sunday Club. After lunch it’s time for the second and longer Wu Gorge
. Here we are told about the devastation caused by the dam flooding and how millions of people were relocated higher up the hills. The project continues to be controversial in China. One particular area used to grow mandarins, now, higher up they have had to learn how to grow corn and sweet potato. Everywhere there are newish blocks of flats clustered here and there. No one in China lives in a house and we’ve passed cities of dreary dirty beige tower blocks reflecting the colour of the river. The architecture of these great and growing places is unrelentingly soviet looking and joyless. Contrasted with this is a job lot of quite elegant bridges spanning the river. There are about three different designs which alternate depending on the geography.
In the late afternoon we all go on an excursion to Shennong Stream. This involves waiting in the dining room to be assigned a guide before getting on a special ferry boat. As usual we are waiting for the same few people, who I think are old enough to get themselves organised. I’ already tired and hot from the morning excursion and have a moment when I loose my rag and suggest we go without them. They materialise at the last moment, but by this time all the seats in the downstairs air conditioning have been taken and we have to sit on the furnace like upper deck, in the hot breeze. Our guide Coco, is from the local ethnic tribe here and speaks good enough English
. She rushes around telling our group about the sights and makes sure I get photographs. She somehow senses that I’m pissed off and makes an effort to cheer me up. As the ferry enters the Shennong stream, we can see that the discrepancy between the high water and low water marks is still evident. This stream used to be narrow and shallow, now the Yangtse brown water floods up the gorge. We pass a crevice in one of the cliffs where 40 metres above are the hanging coffins. No one is quite sure how old they are or how they got there, but the idea was that the higher they were, the nearer to heaven for the person inside. With the flooding of the valley, many coffins had to be rescued and can now be seen in museums. Further up the Stream, we transfer to small boats. All our party are in Boat number 4, rowed by four boatmen and steered by a captain. The men all elderly (the eldest is 80) and wiry, are local farmers and their oars made out of square planks of wood, lashed to a pole with wire, propel us upstream past clay stalactites and strange shapes caused by the rising and sinking of the water level. The colour of the water starts to change and eventually it turns blue and cold. Coco says we can drink it, but no one tries. When we reach the shallows, the boatmen leap out and grabbing a bamboo rope, begin 'tracking’ or hauling us up the stream. This is only a token tracking exercise and we only travel a few yards before turning round and rowing down stream. In the days before the dam, teams of ‘trackers’ used to haul the boats up the rapids
. Traditionally they worked naked, the excuse being that then, clothes were of such poor quality that they didn’t last. Coco shows us a picture of the naked trackers taken from behind and point to one of them saying it’s her Father. This may or may not be true, but it’s a good story. She works here for the tourist season many miles from her husband and children. She’s put me in the front of the boat so I can get better photos and my mood has calmed down somewhat, especially when she gives us a recital. She’s got a lovely singing voice and at the end of the ride she brings out her CD for sale. I decide to buy as she has been one of the best guides so far.
In the evening it’s the Captain’s farewell banquet with more delicious dishes. There’s a talent show for the passengers later up in the ballroom, but I take the opportunity to catch up with writing and the never ending sorting of photographs. Later I pass by the ballroom and see the staff doing a Can Can, and even later a Chinese couple are doing ballroom dancing. I’m off to the sun deck to watch the boat go through the locks of the Three Gorges Dam. We gently manoeuvre into a huge lock followed by a coal barge which comes alongside. Behind us are two more barges and then the gates in front open and we go straight through to the next lock. The first one being the storm lock for high water
. Eventually we are followed by two cruise boats so we are six. Once we are enclosed behind, the water drops 20 metres quite quickly and the gates ahead open to reveal an identical lock before us. The Process repeats and we’re having a party. Ernesto has bought a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, but it has a taste of coconut and the verdict is that it’s fake. China is full of fakes and we’ve quickly cottoned on to the fact that anything cheap is a fake. This includes Calvin Klein underwear, watches, sunglasses, handbags and even Crocs. At least I’ve got the real stuff with my cheap rice wine which warms everyone up. Bin thinks this is the biggest lock system in the world but Mike thinks Panama might be bigger. Bin looks crestfallen, but later we find out that Panama is smaller, according to Ernesto who has been there and studied it. Time for bed for me, the others stay on to party down the locks.
22 August Day 9
The Cruise boat is tied up below the huge dam and after breakfast we are all bussed of to take a closer look at this vast enterprise. The dam at the moment produces only 3% of China’s electricity. There are apparently plans to build more hydro dams to reduce the dependence on coal fired stations. We have a comedian called Teddy as our tour guide, who claims he’s learnt his English from Movies and to emphasize his point makes a pun about not giving a Dam. Ha ha, some of us laugh. He makes a joke about tour managers having beer bellies as a requirement for the job, along with membership of the Communist Party. He jokes that he’s put in his application 8 years ago and is still waiting for a reply. Teddy went to High School in the 90’s at a time when not everyone could get to college
. Now most people have this opportunity. He’s the eldest of 3 and left school to work in Beijing, but ended up in a fight with his restaurant boss who was jealous of the attentions a female co-worker paid him. He came back to the village and worked on the dam as there was not enough land in his family to support the family. He also went to night school to become a tour guide. His grandfather was a fisherman and his father also lived by using his hands in the fields and the dam. He advised Teddy to learn English and become a tour guide. He’s had no girlfriend for 3 years even though he has a part time job as a DJ in a bar. The problem is that there are only men in bars. He and his Father gave all their savings to his younger Brother to get a Masters in Engineering and then get married. Apparently his Brother had been with his girl for 10 years and couldn’t hold out any more. Now his brother is about to pay him back a lot of money so he can get a girlfriend. His last one from the city dumped him, so he recons he’s going to get a girl from the village, it will be easier. Believe what you will of this, but he tells a good story. It’s threatening to rain but hold out while we look at the top and the bottom of the dam and then get whisked back to the boat for an early lunch and then it’s on to Yichang to disembark and take another coach.
We have to pay to get out of this place and the local farmers demolished their houses and built the landing
. Bin says they are not supposed to charge, but nothing can be done to stop them. More extras! We drive to the railway station to catch the train to Xi’an. We wait in a large dark waiting room until the light becomes so low that they turn on half of the ceiling lights. We’ve called in to a supermarket to get supplies such as pot noodles and snacks for the journey. We’re on a hard sleeper and all drag our luggage up the train steps and along the corridor looking for our allocated berths. There are no doors on the compartments and six bunks to each one, bottom middle and top. I’ve got the middle one, but we all put our hand luggage on it while we sort out the suitcases and large rucksacks. Each bunk has a clean white sheet on the bed, a pillow and a duvet with a grey, dirty looking cover. To start with we all just sit on the bottom bunk and look at each other. There’s a nervous looking Chinese chap on the opposite bottom bunk. It’s early, so I read as there’s nothing to see out the windows. The toilets are squatting ones, which has some of the group in hysterics. The women dab lavender up their noses before going and some manage to invade the soft sleeper car for a sitting toilet, where I’m told the smell is no better. Trolleys of food and drinks pass down the corridor squeezing in between the bodies; some people are sitting on the fold down window seats across from the cubicles where there is a small shelf for putting things on – precariously. Everyone on the train has brought their dried pot noodles and at the end of every carriage is a boiler with a water tap. Gradually everyone gets their noodles soaked. You have to open three sachets of various flavours and dried bits, depending on what you’ve chosen. I’ve got spicy beef, which involves a sachet of hot chilli sauce, one with a couple of lumps of dehydrated beef and who knows what was in the third. It’s extremely hot, but surprisingly OK
. Andrew has made friends further down the carriage with a Chinese bloke who keeps buying him beer and then opening the bottles with his teeth. They talk away, not knowing a word of each other’s language except Pejio (beer). The lights go out at 10pm and we all settle down. It’s to hot for the filthy duvet (Phillip would have had a fit) so I put it under me and cover myself with my Balinese sarong. The beds are very narrow for a western frame so there’s not much room to turn in the night. Actually, the Chinese are all getting bigger and plumper so they might have to upgrade the trains or perhaps the plump ones can now afford a soft sleeper. I sleep, but the quality is not good, even though I’ve done the rice wine thing to help knock me out.