Cruising (Chinese-style) along the Yangzi
Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
77Trip End Ongoing
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The vast majority of visitors use Chongqing as a base for beginning or ending a cruise along the Yangzi, and we were two of many such visitors. After our surprise in hearing that our cheap hostel digs would pick us up from the station, we were greeted at the station by a driver holding a sign bearing our names, making us feel rather more important than we, perhaps, really were
This delay gave us a good opportunity to explore the hilly, alleyway-riddled city for ourselves, its narrow streets shrouded in a thick layer of yellowish smog. However, after being rudely awoken by the overnight train lights flickering to life at 4.30am that morning, our heads were not functioning well, and an initial foray into the labyrinthine city to find lunch proved immediately confusing and I quickly became lost.
Eventually returning to the hostel, we sat for some time, dazed by the tiredness that ran through our bodies, performing mundane tasks on the computer, before steeling ourselves for a return to the complex web of hilly lanes. The shady, damp stairways towards the city centre appeared never to become dry, instead retaining a dark, damp coolness that at least helped those scaling the steps to survive the tiring ordeal. Finding the city centre at last, we briefly darted around a supermarket for essential supplies, before, once again, retreating to the calm of the hostel and, eventually, our beds.
Keen to explore what Chongqing had to offer, we emerged refreshed the next morning and headed out. Passing a jealously-guarded Temple with the usual high entrance fee, we ambled through a mid-range shopping mall close to the centre. The Chinese standard issue white tiles, used seemingly for almost every shopping precinct built before 2011, were slightly yellowed, and the mortar between them was dark – thick with the grubby dampness that covered the city. But further along stood a modest clock tower that marked the centre of the Chongqing that its elites perhaps wanted it to be, surrounded by glamorous designer stores and high-rise steel-and-glass financial and business buildings.
At the end of this road, however, a glimpse of the old Chongqing reared its head – a wide vista opened up to us with a patchwork of tiny wooden houses crammed together, their roofs peppered with DIY repairs and their miserable-looking environs more like a slum than the glitzy China of the future that leaders desperately wanted to propagate. The nearby flower and bird market, likewise, was a noisy and busy tangle of narrow lanes flanked by stalls selling unhealthy-looking ducks crammed into tiny cages and flapping, gasping throngs of fish in buckets of water.
At least the flowers made more pleasant viewing; a wonderfully overdone, diamante-encrusted relief from the grim inevitability of the neighbouring bird stalls, their bouquets bursting with teddy-bears on sticks poking out from between glittery objects that might once have been roses or carnations. It was the night before we departed on our Yangzi odyssey, and we eventually found ourselves sat in a park overlooking the mighty Yangzi, watching the evening bustle of the dancers and strollers pass by under a darkening sky and its twinkling lights
We readied ourselves the following day for the boat trip, with snacks, water, and the standard issue packets of instant noodles that all Chinese travellers must carry (maybe, we wondered, by law), on long-distance journeys. We had booked the cheapest room on the cheapest boat we could find, and would be glad if it wasn't riddled with holes in the hull and infested with rats. Our first leg was a four-hour bus journey to the mooring, on a bus packed with excitable Chinese tourists, their cameras fully charged and at the ready, prepared to pounce on any unsuspecting building, mountain scene or road sign that they could pose in front of.
Embarking the boat early in the evening, we hurried to our room and settled in as best we could. It was a tired, pokey, six-bed dormitory, with yellowing walls covered in marks and a toilet so small that one could touch both walls without the use of one's arms, while going to the toilet and having a shower at the same time. We had met five German travellers who were also taking this boat, but they were in a room together, and we shared with a group of four friendly but very 'Chinese' middle-aged men in loud, silky polo shirts. They would occasionally nip outside to spit over the side of the boat, or roll their shirts up to their armpits like 1990s teenage crop-tops, as it seemed was the going fashion of Chinese men of a certain age.
A ripple of excitement ran through the passengers as the boat pulled away from the harbour and into the fast, muddy waters of this legendary river
Bundled back onto the boat late in the evening, we headed for bed early, as the following day would start at 6am with another visit, this time to a ruined palace further east. When morning came, while most of the other passengers piled on board a shuttle bus to the palace, we wandered along the road that hugged the river's shoreline, peering over the shoreline and admiring the steep hills in the foggy distance, while we waited for the others to return. Along the muddy waters of the Yangzi, freight ships rumbled past, their rusted hulls and roughened deck hands just about visible from our vantage point on the shore. My long-time fantasy of running away to sea was reawakened, but the shape that these vessels were in led me to deduce that it was probably best to run away to a sea on a boat with somewhat higher health and safety standards.
On the return of the other passengers, the boat chugged back into life, and we entered the first of the famous Three Gorges. Although made less dramatic by rising waters due to the huge Three Gorges Hydroelectric Dam further downstream, the gorge was impressive, its sheer cliff-faces rising steeply out of the water. A Chinese tour guide barked a commentary through a hissy microphone, while we stood and stared at this dramatic feat of nature.
Soon, the gorge was gone, and the boat moored for another long stopover at a nondescript town on the shore. Once the majority of the other passengers had piled excitedly into smaller boats to visit a tributary of the Yangzi – which a group of German passengers had told us later was the only stop-off really worth seeing in the whole trip – we climbed the steep steps to the town in the blistering heat.
When we arrived at the port, a gaggle of women scuttled up to us, insisting that we should take their boat tours. Politely declining at first, we continued through the port building and out the other side, the women followed us in hot pursuit, beckoning us onto their tours and tugging at our sleeves. With increasingly short patience, we refused their advances, as they followed us onto the street at the other side, where more touts for tours and bicycle hire joined in. Refusing more aggressively, we strode purposefully away, along the waterfront, and to relative safety.
We walked for a while in the sun, admiring a series of bronze statues lining the road, but soon the lack of shade forced us towards a string of shops and supermarkets lining the opposite side of the street, with their cool air-conditioning impossible to resist
Eventually, more than one hour late, everyone returned. By this point, we were agitated, having waited for most of the day. It transpired that while on the smaller boats, they had been subjected to advertising speeches for tacky souvenirs which had lasted a significant chunk of their time away. Soon after, however, the second of the three gorges loomed into sight – a long, elegant stretch of waterway flanked by yet more steep hills and a few gravity-defying patches of farmland clinging to their slopes. We stood, almost alone, on the top deck, and watched the gorge pass as we drifted through dusk and into the night. The air was warm and soft on our faces, and the peaks either side of us faded gently from green, to olive, to grey, and eventually into the blackness of the night
We awoke on our final morning deep in the middle of the third and final gorge on our journey. Cliffs stretching high on either side of us greeted our bleary eyes as we awoke. While the other passengers piled into motorised mock-dragon-boats for a trip down a nearby stream, we climbed uphill into a little village that peered over the precipice onto the waters below. This sleepy village was, perhaps, our favourite place on the trip, with little whitewashed houses clinging to a winding road that hugged the edge of the gorge high on one side. Women strolled past with heavy baskets of produce, while other locals tended to steep plantations of sweetcorn. We sat and looked across the gorge, to the wild hills on the other side, admiring their forested slopes and dreaming of having the time to explore this wonderfully serene area in more depth.
But the boat was leaving soon, and we reluctantly descended back to our cell for the final stretch of the journey to a port near the small city of Yichang. After some confusion about which bus we were supposed to be taking to Yichang, and some heated moments with some singularly disinterested tour staff, we arrived in the intense heat of Yichang. Our onward train to Chengdu would not leave until late in the evening, so we dumped our bags and set off to explore this little-known place
A short time of strolling in the pleasant but nondescript city centre, however, led us to the conclusion that it was far too hot to really do anything. Instead, we darted into a shopping mall, and spent several hours in various states of ambling, browsing and sitting, until the hottest part of the day was gone and we could return to the streets in the late afternoon glow. Making a beeline for the river, we walked for some time in the still-baking sun, until a wide river vista opened up to us.
A pleasant riverside path led us towards a little pavilion in a traditional wooden Chinese style, atop a steep set of steps, where locals milled around between the path and a tiny sliver of sandy beach at the bottom. On closer inspection, most of the locals appeared to be in various states of undress, donning swimming trunks and diving into the murky river. Serious swimmers in tight Speedos and swimming hats swam far out across the fast waters of the river, dragging little orange buoys behind them. A little ferry chugged across from the other side, carrying a handful of foot passengers and one exhausted swimmer who had clearly swam the width of this dangerous and fast-flowing river. Much as the heat tempted us to join them to cool down, the brownish water of what was still a major transport artery for freight and coal deterred us from taking the plunge.
We ambled through a leafy park, towards a large, elegant suspension bridge, that cast an arc across a distant part of the Yangzi, before scuttling quickly back to the train station to catch an overnight train to Chengdu, the capital of Yunnan Province.