On the Yangze: Days 1 and 2

Trip Start Aug 22, 2006
Trip End Dec 11, 2006

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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Let the awesomeness of relaxation begin. Our first night was mild and not particularly exciting. We had an informational meeting with the other English speakers aboard while our boat took off from Chongqing. We were a little sad not to have the opportunity to be on deck at that time. But luckily for us, we ended up going back to port for a British couple who'd gotten left at port with their baggage already on the boat! We were happy that it hadn't quite happened to us, but it was a near thing. By this time it was about 23:00, the port lights had gone out but there was a curious section of the city lit up all golden. Yes, lucky for us some other idiots got left at the docks.

Sleep was extremely peaceful but morning came all too soon with the loud blasts of the boat's horn well before 6AM. Officially the wake-up song began at 6:45 inviting us to Taiji in the ballroom. The night before I thought I would do it, but when it comes to morning I like my bed lounging time. Breakfast at 7 was alright, the usual fair everyday being some Chinese food like porridge, dim sum and fried noodles with pork, but also scrambled eggs with ham, sausage, bacon (occasionally crispy even), cereals, toast and various little breads (not quite what I'd call pastries).

Our first shore excursion was right after breakfast at 8:30AM - Fengdu, the Ghost City. At the little dock we took a tour bus through the demolished area where half of Fengdu city used to be. Since the waters will rise to 175 meters, the town on the right bank would be swept away and otherwise submerged (you should watch Discovery channel about this for more detail). The Chinese government has put a lot of money into housing projects for flood resettlement along the three gorges area of the Yangze River. IN the demolished area at the base of the Ghost City's mountain, she said they were building a dike but I think she meant an embankment of concrete to stabilize the shore and hence the mountain. Though it seemed very barren with the destruction, only dirt remained; it was encouraging to see they didn't just leave the buildings to be submerged. Yet if you think about it, it was also in their interest to remove the buildings as it would hinder tourism and possibly clog the dam eventually.

The Ghost City situated on the side of the mountain was virtually impossible to see, hidden among the bamboo and other foliage. The only indication that something exotic (to us) was the presence of the chair lift, rather likes ski lifts back home. Though the lift price was not included in our tickets to the site, the time allowed at this stop was insufficient for us to attempt the climb (nearly 400 steps) to the top.

On arrival we learned about the folk lore of the Ghost City that, typically, the Chinese believe when they die they will come to the Ghost City where they will face three challenges that decide for them whether they end up in Paradise or the Torture Chamber. The first test was in the entrance garden, there were three bridges over a narrow pool of water. The challenge was the center bridge, if ghosts were bad they would sink through it. As we were only humans she told us that this was a practice for us before the afterlife so she mentioned some local beliefs: When you cross you should try to take a smaller amount of steps because that meant you were a better person and the challenge was easy for you. But, you should also try to cross in an odd number of steps as even numbers are unlucky - the word even means funeral arrangements. Married couples were told that if they wished to remain married in the next life they should hold hands as they crossed. Interestingly the married couple in our group did not hold hands, the pressure was on as we all watched them. The tiles to cross the arch of the bridge were fairly slippery and looked like green shale.

After passing through the bridge we went further into the complex to a Buddhist temple. We learned that the whole complex is a blend of Buddhism and Taoism (visibly) with some Confucian ideas thrown in. The second test was kind of like the old Orthodox view of Purgatory where we saw cement statues of various man (or woman)-like demons paying for simple sins. Notable figures where the drunkard and a grandfather branding the bottom of a little boy with the label "Naughty Boy."

Following the demons we passed through another doorway where our guide told us to be careful which foot we put forward, right foot if you wanted to be female, left for male in the next life. The final task was stepping into a cement box in the ground (with the appropriate foot depending on gender like above) onto a round cement ball and standing on that foot for 3 seconds without falling, if you couldn't you weren't a good person and you'd go to the torture chamber. Whatever your primal sin a punishment was carried out and after such time the sinner was to drink a special liquid to forget everything in order to be reincarnated in an attempt to reach paradise in the next life. However, if you passed the third task you could get into paradise. There were several statues around that were charged with the duty of helping to catch evil/sinful people, and those with lists of people's names and either good or bad deeds depending on the book.

In a central area we saw a special tablet with a Chinese puzzle word consisting of four characters of which the same part is overlapped in each character. It meant "Only kindness makes a whole peaceful world" simply "Only kindness makes peace." This stone was set outside the chamber of the Jade Emperor, so named for his life's resemblance to the stone - jade - smooth often without blemishes, impurities or pock marks.

In the afternoon aboard our ship we were disappointed by the two demonstrations being shown: Chinese Traditional Painting and the Fresh Water Pearl. Just before dinner was the Captain's Welcome party, also a huge disappointment - promised a glass of wine and dimsum; we got a shot of wine and no dimsum. Oh we were also offered a chance to take a photo with our Captain Yan, but being that everything was extremely high priced, we did not figure it was free and we opted out.

At all meals except breakfast it's round robin style, the dishes are put on a large turntable in the middle where we can choose which dished we wanted to sample and, of course, how much. We whiled away the rest of the time onboard that was not scheduled either playing backgammon, catching up journaling, or on deck enjoying the views and fresh air. Each day had been sunny and 40C (104F) at least, so it was very hot on deck though there was a nice breeze as we moved along.
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