Well, I got the scenery bit right, but 'tranquillity'? What was I thinking?! This was a Chinese
cruise ship... 'tranquillity' was never going to come into it!
I had had a choice of the fancy foreign vessel, dealing predominantly with wealthy tour groups, or the Chinese tour boat dealing almost exclusively with domestic tourists. The first of these options was three times the cost of the second, so that was the decision made! Given the budget category I was in, I was pleasantly surprised on boarding to find I was in a four-berth cabin with clean bedding, a private (albeit very smelly) loo,
and a huge window through which to view the scenery. So far so good! And then I noticed it also had a tv... well, why look at stunning vistas when you watch crap-tv in Chinese? Especially when it's the local variant of 'Pop Idol', with a line-up of talentless crooners, one of whom even whined his way through the dreaded 'You Raise me Up'... I left Sligo weeks ago, why am I still having to suffer Westlife?!!! Aaaaarrggghhhhh!
Despite their appalling taste in television, however, my cabinmates were very kind, all four of them (two seemed to be saving funds by squeezing themselves into one narrow berth). One woman seemed to adopt me and kept an eye out to make sure I always found my way up onto the top deck whenever a choice bit of a view was announced, and followed me closely when we dis- and re-embarked, ensuring I didn't get lost. Likewise, a young couple in the cabin opposite, who both spoke a little English, kept checking up on me and put me on the correct bus at the end of the trip. I had thought I was the only foreigner on board, until I met an Aussie couple up on deck, both nurses, both well-traveled, both with a good awareness of the prevalence of diseases such as TB in Asia, and both
appalled at the widespread attitude to coughing, sneezing and spitting. We ran through all the spitting cultures we have visited and agreed that this is the worst. I understand the notion that it's better out than in, but not if that means depositing it at your feet on the floor of the bus, for example, or beside the seat of your dinner-mate... Big business is definitely attempting to sell cleanliness, but good luck to them: as I lay on my bunk, while the cabin-folk watched tv, an ad appeared in which a father sneezes while talking on the phone, puts the phone down to be picked up by his daughter who is then attacked by a cloud of evil-faced germs... cut to squeaky clean lab where white-suited woman uses a dettol-soaked cloth to wipe the phone... ahhhh, no more germs! The assembled audience seemed oblivious to the message, as they continued to splutter all over each other for the duration of the ad!
The spit that landed in the river, along with the bottles, cans and carrier bags of rubbbish hurled overboard, was lost in the general pollution, I guess: I read that pouring into the river is the untreated waste from forty towns and four hundred factories, along with toxic pollutants from numerous industrial sites... mmm, don't want to fall in that
then! It all fits with the Chinese government's lack of environmental awareness. The facts and figures for the Yangtxe and the Three Gorges Dam are both striking and alarming: at 185m high and 2km wide, the dam is the world's biggest, as the result of backing up the river for 550km and flooding an area the size of Singapore. It has the potential energy generation equivalent to
eighteen nuclear power stations. The monetary cost of this engineering feat was 75 billion dollars. The human cost was the displacement of 1.5 million people whose villages were lost to flooding. The slowing of the river is expected to cause it to lose its ability to oxygenate, creating an impossible environment for several river creatures. Then there's the loss of ninety percent of the 8000 important archeaological sites. Reading much of the above information in the Lonely Planet guidebook, on deck, certainly affected my view of this route which was once a magical trip, I am sure, but now feels a little sad.
We passed through the fir st of the gorges, Qutang, early on the second day and I sat on deck watching the towering grey rocky walls on either side appear to close in on the boat, as the channel narrowed to a mere 100metres. It was only eight km long but it was a beauty and the welcome sunlight after days of damp made the view all the more gorgeous.
There was a halt for the afternoon as we moored at the ugly, almost vertical town of Wushan, built up the rock face, to disembark and board a smaller craft for the trip up a tributary, through the 'lesser Three Gorges', and thence into small motorized/rowing boats to pass through the 'three Mini Gorges'. And it was here that the whole different aproach of Chinese tourism became more evident. What would be marketed and operated as a 'get-away-from-it-all', 'back-to-nature' trip back home, is more of a comical circus, from the Western perspective, here in China. A crackling loudpeaker blared an ear-splitting running commentary all through the lesser gorges, while the passengers maintained a photo-frenzy throughout, eager to catch themselves on film at every bend in the river. The presence of three foreigners added potential to their photography and the Aussies and I had individuals plonking themselves beside us for a quick snap, or were accosted to join others' group shots, and every time I looked up, there seemed to be a long lens trained on me!
The paparazzi had to take a break when we climbed on to the row boats and here things became even more bizarre: the captain sang and seemed to tell jokes, to hearty applause and raucous laughter, then rustled up a traditional grass cloak and hat awhile the visitors took turns being photographed thus attired, poling the boat. On the return stretch there was much singing and
clapping to what seemed to be well-known songs: the entire boatful seemed utterly oblivious to their surroundings and just how lovely and calm they were (or might have been!) It's certainly not how I would choose to do it, but I have to hand it to them, the Chinese tourists were having an absolute blast and loving every minute of it... they must have found the foreigners very quiet and mournful, by contrast!
Wu Gorge, the second of the main ones, loomed ahead as dusk approached, and I headed up on deck to take in the scenery, settling on a little stool by the rails. An announcement was made over the tannoy and suddenly the Chinese passengers appeared in droves, carrying stools, looking for the most densely-packed areas and heading for them, attempting to squeeze into the teeniest of spaces. I was surrounded as the tour guide appeared and began her commentary through a megaphone while the crowd pointed and
applauded certain rocks and peaks. My English-speaking friends were lost in the throng and I had no idea what was being said so after ten minutes of bewilderment and growing claustrophobia, I stood, head down and shoulders up, and forced my way through, escaping to the serenity of the back deck, empty save for the Aussies, as baffled as I was by the performance up-front! And so we sat, in silence as the light faded, appreciating the stillness and the atmospheric silhouettes of the pointed rocky masses around us.
I awoke on day three to find that we were moored near the end of the third gorge. Apparently, while the foreign boats time their progress to catch all in daylight, the Chinese attention span doesn't stretch to three
whole gorges, and so we had sailed the length of the final one during the night! I hared up on deck to enjoy the last section as we set sail, and a couple of hours later the walls of the mighty dam appeared and the cruise was over. It hadn't quite been the relaxing float I had expected, but the weather and scenery had not disappointed and it had been a fascinating opportunity to observe the Chinese at play!
Three days cruising the Yangtxe River, through the famous Three Gorges, as far as the dam... it sounded idyllic, as I pictured all those wall hangings I'd seen in Chinese restaurants over the years, of tiny quaint boats in waters curving round misty rocky peaks... it was just the antidote to all these cities I have spent too much time in lately - peace, quiet, tranquillity, a total recharge...