Three Gorges to Yichang
Trip Start Sep 03, 2007
220Trip End Jun 17, 2009
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Buffet breakfast was good and with the French and Scandinavian clientele on board, we had fried eggs and bacon available, which was too good an opportunity to miss, even though we had seen on the tv that a huge batch of eggs from the Chinese mainland, had been destroyed in Hong Kong as seriously over contaminated with melamine. Eggs? It seems that the farmers had been feeding the melamine (presumably a job lot left over from the dairy farmers, who weren't using it any more) to the chickens. Ok, so maybe not too many eggs then.
As we were having breakfast the ship left port and headed down the Yangzi in the heavy rain, with the mountains around us shrouded by the heavy mist. The wide river valley had a changing scenery of towns, factories and sloping fields set against the mountain sides with many new suspension bridges crossing the river.
What was becoming evident was that the river, which had a wild reputation in the past and when in flood, had caused thousands of deaths, had now become practically a big lake. This is due to the construction of the 'Three Gorges Dam' downstream which, begun in 1993, is now complete and will raise the water level in the gorge up by 175 metres. Today it has just another 10 metres to go and we saw on the tv the other night that most of the hydro electric generators are now on line, providing 10% of China's power requirements. It also gives them flood control and increases the size of ships that can travel upstream via the set of locks at the 2km wide, 185 m tall dam.
The down side is the diminishing of the towering effect of the gorges, the relocation of one and a half million people, some to other provinces and potential ecological problems. We were seeing part of this, as now that the flushing effect of the river has gone, great rafts of leaves, twigs, debris and litter were gathering on the surface, pushed into the centre by the passing ships, as a kind of debris central reservation.
In early afternoon we stopped to go ashore at the 'Ghost City' of 'Fengdu', which was an old Buddhist temple built on a hillside. Running the gauntlet of stalls and hawkers, selling anything from fruit, booze, souveneirs and even porno dvd's, we climbed the 600 steps in the heavy rain (are we having fun yet?)
The series of small shrines were dedicated to the underworld side of Taoism, including a set of statues of ghosts, which was quite apt for Halloween! There was even a 'torture chamber', in which a detailed set of models graphically depicted what was waiting for wrong doers in the afterlife!
Back on board and the Captain's dinner, a Chinese banquet after which was a show given by the ship's crew, featuring dancing, songs and a game of musical chairs!
Saturday November 1st.
Our wake up call blasted us from sleep at 6.40am to another misty, rainy morning. We had been sailing all night and at a quick look on deck after dinner, we had seen the ship's huge searchlight 'feeling' its way along the shoreline. I'm not sure what this was for, as the channel was adequately light buoyed but all other ships were doing the same.
After an equally early breakfast we entered the first of the Three Gorges, 'Qutang Gorge'. The tops of the mountains were hidden in cloud and it was cold and raining on deck. At least we had not carried our fleeces and waterproofs around the world in vain!
An hour later was the second, the 'Wu Gorge', which is 40km long and has many high mountain peaks, all of which were lost in cloud but the overall towering effect of the gorge was eerily impressive. We stayed on deck for forty five minutes until we started getting cold and then retreated inside.
After lunch we had docked at the town of 'Badong', newly rebuilt like most of the towns round here as a result of the rising river levels. We transferred to a smaller ferry for a one hour trip up the 'Shennong Stream', no more a stream but now a river valley in its own right. In the rain the narrow gorge was still covered in mist but we managed to see one intriguing sight, a coffin wedged up on the cliff face. The tradition was to place the dead in coffins high on the cliff faces, presumably as a kick start to heaven. Now the water levels are rising and some coffins have had to be rescued from the waters.
At a flat spot on the river bank we spotted a group of golden monkeys.
At 'Mianzhuxia' we transferred to a 15 seater sampan that was paddled by five guys further up the narrowing, densely wooded gorge with some elaborate limestone rock formations. They used to be 'boat trackers', who would haul boats up the rocky gorge over the rapids before the rise in levels. What was revealed was that their heavy, rough cloth jackets used to scrape their skin when they got wet, so they used to haul the boats in the nude - obviously a big appeal to the ladies. Ain't it a shame how progress puts a damper on things?
After another half an hour we returned and transferred back to the ferry to Badong - and it was still raining. Back on board and we had a couple of hours to dry out before dinner.
During the evening we motored on until about 10pm when we approached the great 'Three Gorges Dam' and the ship locks. The dam was only outlined by lights but as we entered the top lock, which had only recently come into use whilst waiting for the river to rise, the whole area was illuminated.
Each pound is over 200 metres long, 34 metres wide and lowers ships by 25 metres. We were packed in with another couple of cruise ships, a couple of bulk stone ships and another general cargo ship. Once full, we smoothly dropped the fifteen metres, as the river is not yet full height and entered the next pound.
The whole exercise was going to take up to four hours and we retired to bed quite impressed.
Sunday November 2nd.
Apart from the odd whistle and nudge, the locking exercise was completed very smoothly and we awoke in the morning tied up to another cruise ship, downstream of the dam. Large birds of prey (sea eagles?) floated over the water here, the first time we had seen them.
This morning's visit was to the Three Gorges Dam site and after running the gauntlet of the welcoming stalls and sellers, we boarded a bus in the dry, cloudy morning. It was necessary to pass through security scanners as they're taking no chances with their country's pride and joy. Then on to a visitor centre, where a model showed the dam and the surrounding area. On a nearby viewing area we overlooked the 2.6 kms long, 185 metres high imposing construction. Begun in 1993 and almost finished a year ahead of schedule, there is just the boat lift, which will move smaller craft in half an hour as compared to the four hour locking process, to complete. A road will top off the dam, which at the moment is guarded by soldiers.
There are thirty two, 700 Megawatt generators built into the two turbine houses, twenty six of them being on line at the moment. All this will eventually provide 10% of China's electricity requirements and feed cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
The construction areas are slowly being demolished and cleaned up and the area will be landscaped.
Our next stop was at the upstream side of the dam, where we were shown the stages of construction. Small ships were busy cleaning up the floating debris, presumably to stop it getting sucked into the turbines.
This was quite an engineering feet and I can only use the same description for it - very impressive.
Back on the ship and a couple of hour's steaming through the last gorge, the 'Xiling Gorge'. Now we were downstream of the dam we were seeing the gorge in its natural state and appreciating a better effect from the higher gorge peaks, something that has sadly been lost in the upper gorges. It was pleasant to sit on the top deck in the now morning sunshine.
The lower gorge villages were older and more traditional. At one point we passed three Chinese junks moored at the side of the river below a large monastery. As we progressed into the middle of the gorge it suddenly became misty and the gorge was all but obscured.
The ship moored up and we disembarked with our bags and boarded the bus. As we drove up the narrow road from the jetty the bus was flagged down by a couple of guys, Andy got out and (strong) words were exchanged. It seems the local (Chinese) mafia had taken exception to us not using their boys to unload the bags from the ship (we've always carried them ourselves everywhere) and to make amends for this 'discretion', they were demanding a bag 'fee' to be paid in lieu. Andy was having none of it but they made the bus driver park us up at the side of the road and wouldn't let him out. There were no police about (and it was uncertain whether they would be willing to intervene) so Andy paid up and we proceeded. It seems this procedure had gone on in other areas and had now spread here. It's all good fun being a tourist and knowing the benefit you bring to local people.
The large, nondescript town of Yichang and our clean, basic hotel was just a short drive away. The weather was cloudy but felt a little warmer away from the river. We had a quick walk round to find the local shops, have a tasty noodle lunch and then buy some food for breakfast (as the hotel breakfast was not recommended) and for lunch and dinner tomorrow. We had fun finding some bits at a mini market, as everything was in Chinese, including Norah's 'bucket noodle' (just like 'pot noodle' but bigger). She'd decided that this time she was going to get her own back on any noodle slurping local sitting at the bottom of her bunk.
We wanted some more bits and walked along the main street to find the supermarket. Going in by the 'food hall' sign, we found loads of shoe, clothing and cosmetic shops and even the escalator bringing people down from the store - but no entrance. We looked round the back, round the sides and went back in, where we finally found the sign in a corner above the escalator. You had to know where the entry was before you found the sign for it!
No food on the first floor but Imelda needed a new pair of trainers, so after an interesting session with two Chinese speaking shop assistants we found some. One of the assistants pointed to a (Chinese) sign which read "All shoes come with a free Mercedes", well it could have done for all we know! We'd no chance of understanding, so she took us downstairs, out of the store and we stood in a queue outside. When we got to the end she handed over Norah's receipt and Norah was pointed to a lucky draw bin for a scratchcard. The girl scratched, handed over the card and Norah was promptly given a large size, man's pair of furry, teddy bear, bedroom slippers - just what you need on a trip round the world! Norah tried to present them to our helper, who promptly ran off back into the store. Luckily she was able to swap them for a tube of hand cream.
We still had no food, so taking the trainers (and the hand cream) we went back up to the second floor food section. Deciding as a precaution to show our goods to the security guard at the gate, as we now had no receipt, we wandered round and found the bits we needed. At the checkout we paid for the food and then the checkout girl seized the new trainers and put them on the bill! Norah attempted to tell her no and took them back. The girl seized them back and promptly lost them to Norah again. I started to wonder what the inside of a Chinese prison was like but at this point the girl gave up, we paid for the food and smartly left. We made it to the street and then back to the hotel without being arrested.
It didn't help that we were at the centre of attraction all the way (there and) back. The centre parts of China have still not seen many westerners and we are still quite a novelty. One of the girls in the group is fairly tall and has long blonde hair and she really causes a stir.
We prepared for tomorrow and then went out for another banquet. This was tasty and didn't seem spicy but my digestive system rumbled all night.