Cruising on the Yangtze
Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
One night we head out to a Sichuanese hot pot restaurant. This is a bit like Mongolian hotpot (see entry for Hohot), except the broth has a local blend of hot hot hot Sichuan spices in the pot, and some say, a dash of opium too.
We dip in bamboo shoots, lotus flower, lamb, beef, eels, and other vegetables into the induction-heated bubbling pot, sunk into the specially designed table. With help from the eager restaurant staff, I find that post-dipping in hot water and sesame oil reduces the heat to a very palatable level
Wei suggests we visit Dazu stone carvings about 100km west of Chongqing. We negotiate with an unfriendly stone-faced taxi driver to take us there and back for Y400 (GBP28). The driver thrashes a little yellow Suzuki at 140km/h down the motorway grumbling every time he goes through a toll. Taxi drivers rarely seem personable in China.
The day is dark and overcast and I'm beginning to wonder if the mantle of gloom will ever lift. However, we enjoy looking at the 1400 year old carvings which still have traces of colour pigment and gold on them. Not so many tourists have penetrated these parts and its pleasant to walk around in the parks gazing at the well-preserved stonework. Back in Chongqing Wei accidently overpays the taxi driver by Y100 and he speeds off with an uncharacteristic smile.
We board our luxury (a relative term you understand) river cruise boat in the evening. We walk across pontoons secured in the wide brown racing river, and understand immediately how the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai could claim that you could travel 1000km downstream in a day. The River moves at a startling pace, and I consider survival strategies should I happen to make contact with the water
As the sun sets in the amber leadened sky, flocks of egrets whirl above Chongqing.
Once inside the boat we are greeted by the ominous sound of the Titanic theme tune being played on the ship's PA system, which we ignore and head to our cabin. We are on a Chinese boat in a second class cabin with 4 bunk beds, shower and a/c, which will cost us Y680 (about GBP50) each for the 3 days.
As purveyors of all things luxury, we avoid the restaurant, which rumour has it is overpriced and serves disgusting food, and head to the upper deck observatory to eat from our supplies of luxury goods brought onboard.
The boat heads off at 8pm and we sleep well until the early hours of the morning when the a/c is turned off.
At 6am we are herded off the boat along with the 400 other passengers to the first of the main attractions: Fengdu, the City of Ghosts. Street vendors are in a highly excited state as most cruise boats stop here for just a couple hours first thing in the morning, so they have to compress a days trading into about 15% of the normal time. We pass by to a chorus of a thousand hellos and I practise the Chinese word 'buyao', which means 'I dont want it'.
We climb a hill behind the city where there is a temple where one can perform various rituals that influence your soul's destination in the afterlife
The lower half of Fengdu is gradually being demolished because the damming of the Yangtze river will raise the water level there by another 40m or so. We see labourers demolishing concrete hi-rise buildings using just sledgehammers, and other workers scavenging the iron reinforcing bars from the rubble. In the hubbub of the tour groups, morning heat, and noisy street vendors, its a fairly depressing experience all in.
Early afternoon we stop at Shibaozhai, a 12-storey pagoda on a steep bank of the Yangze. From the top of the pagoda there are expansive views of the river, which has now slowed its pace and widened to lake-like dimensions as the dam starts to exert its influence.
After sunset the boat stops in White Emperor City (across the water from the town of Fengjie) where there is a temple that was moved brick by brick from lower down the slopes to save it from a watery demise. We avoid the temple which we've heard has nothing of interest in it, and find street vendors with tasty looking snacks to scoff. Across the water, Fengjie greets the arrival of the tour ships with fireworks that sparkle in the black water
The next morning we pass through the first of the three gorges at sunrise. In days gone by the river was 80m lower here; the narrow banks left room for only one sailboat to pass and the pace of the water was ferocious through the narrow canyon. To move upstream in unpowered craft, teams of naked men scrambled along the steep banks, tethered by rope to the ship and whipped by a master on the boat. Nowadays much of the drama is lost as the limpid water flows through Qutang gorge at a much higher level.
Rachel sleeps through most of the first gorge but wakes in time to disembark for a cruise up a tributary known as the 'little three gorges'. This involves jumping off the large boat and on to a smaller vessel that chugs up the Daning river. The scenery is more spectacular here with steep cliffs on either side the less steep parts covered in green vegetation. We spot wild goats and monkeys in the forest from the deck.
Another round of dismbarking and boarding an even smaller vessel takes place to see the 'mini three gorges'. The boat driver encourages everyone to sing along to local folk songs and to provide a more entertaining experience for the tourists, locals sing and play musical instruments from the riverbanks
Later in the afternoon we pass Wu gorge, and in the evening, Xiling gorge. We see many towns on the riverbank as we float past, which have prepared for the increase in river height by moving up and back from the banks. Bold and modern bridges span the river all along its length; it seems to me that China would be the best place in the world to work on big civil engineering projects.
At nightfall we finally reach the three gorges dam, which is the largest dam in the world, and is scheduled to produce 10% of China's electricity demands. We slowly pass through the first enormous lock, which drops us 30m or so, along with container ships, cargo ships, and barges. After the first lock we retire for the night and as we sleep we drop through a further 3 locks and dock in the town of Yichang.
At 6.30am we are kicked off the boat and I'm surprised to see that we are the last people on it, most having elected to leave at 4am when we arrived in Yichang. We find a bus to Wuhan, which is predictably an uncomfortable journey, and we arrive about midday
In Wuhan, we all take it easy and enjoy the availability of good food once again. We visit Yellow Crane Tower and enjoy some good views of Wuhan by night. In the park there is a huge gathering of Chinese piano-playing youth. I count 60 pianolos all playing along in time to the leading grand. It feels like China.
Next day we say goodye to Wei and Stu who are going by train to Hangzhou where Wei's family live. We take a trip to the hairdressers because its our last day in China and we may not have a chance for another pampering-for-so-little-money opportunity in a while. It takes about 1hr for the hairwash, massage, and haircut and we hand over Y30 (about GBP2.00) for us both. We both try to leave a tip but its not accepted.
Wuhan has plenty of themed cafes to chill out and drink coffee, so we dive in to one just along the road from the hotel. Rachel finds a green tea at Y28 (GBP2.00) per glass and I take a cafe latte for Y25 (GBP1.80). These may seem like high prices for China, but we get the most person attention, with a waitress hovering by the table just in case the coffee should need stirring.
We have now finished our travels in mainland China. Its time to head to South East Asia. We will have a short stop in HK first before heading to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.