The dam will be completed in 2009, if not before, and once we knew it was still possible to take a cruise we decided we had to do one - it's a once in a lifetime experience and as it almost coincided with my birthday, it seemed like a no-brainer. There are all types of boats that run down the river taking passengers, but we decided to live it up. We splurged and booked a 5* cruise. Mainly for the reasons above, but also because we wanted to avoid anything like the experience of travelling on a public ferry. The description of every available surface onboard being awash with bodies, luggage and phlegm was enough to put us both off.
Before we boarded our luxurious ship though, we had the slight problem of getting from Xi'an down to Chongqing. The plan was to take a direct overnight train, but it turned out all the seats in every class were booked for the one we wanted. You see, despite having a computerised booking system, for some unknown reason you can only buy train tickets from the station you want to travel from and then only four days in advance. Although we've been generally lucky, this time we ended up having to get a train to Chengdu and then completing our journey by day. This wouldn't have been so bad, but we realised when we got on the train that we'd been sold tickets for neighbouring compartments. It's not quite as bad as it sounds as there are only 4 beds per compartment in soft sleeper, but it is the longest we've been separated in the last six months!
Despite much grumbling we settled down to sleep. In the morning when I went to see Jim I slid the door open and was practically knocked out by the cigarette smoke. Although the trains are nominally non-smoking, the area between carriages is often used - however on this occasion Jim was sharing with three heavy smokers who woke him up by lighting up and subsequently gobbing up phlegm onto the carpet, only narrowly avoiding his shoes! By comparison I'd done rather well, as the people in my compartment didn't smoke, only spat on the floor under the table and didn't start their impromptu karaoke session until 6am.
After this less than ideal journey and the four hour train from Chengdu, we were looking forward to a bit of luxury on our cruise. When the taxi pulled up at the dock side it was already dark and without any signs in English it was difficult to tell where we were going. Once we'd shaken ourselves free of the stick-stick men offering to carry our bags, we climbed down the steps to the bank and started to walk along a series of gang planks. Still there were no signs and so we asked one of the many people stationed along the way to greet us, if we were on the right boat. Fortunately we were.
While we were checking in, we were asked if we'd like to upgrade our cabin - we asked what the cost would be and immediately ruled it out. What we had would be lovely anyway. But after all the paperwork was filled in, we were shown, not to our room, but to the presidential suite. Coco, the very persuasive receptionist, made us an offer we really couldn't refuse, so now we were really going to live it up!
There are two presidential suites on board (it's always best to be prepared, just imagine how embarrassing it would be should Hu Jintao and George Bush choose the same week to grace you with their presence) and they have to be seen to be believed. You first walk into the lounge area which has floor to ceiling windows on two sides which open onto a private deck from which to enjoy the views. You can lie on the sofa and watch TV too. From the lounge you move to the bedroom with a massive double bed and again large french windows so you can enjoy the views from the bed and finally the lovely marble bathroom with a massive Footballers' Wives style jacuzzi bath. This was beginning to make up for the privations of the train journey!
It was the following morning at breakfast that we got to meet some other guests - it turned out there were only 7 Westerners on board - most of the passengers were Chinese, although there were large groups from Thailand and Singapore too. There were Cathy and Rhys (Australian mother and son who had the other presidential suite), Ute a lady from Heidelberg who was travelling alone while her husband was tied up with business in Shanghai and Carlos and Mercedes a very nice Spanish couple who made us laugh with their introductions ("My name's Carlos - like the prince" "And my name's Merthedes - like the car"). We passed the morning flitting between our cabin and the ship's lounge to watch various demonstrations like dumpling making and embroidery and then settled down for a massive lunch. In the afternoon we docked in the town of Fengdu, known as the Ghost City for some complicated reason our guide tried unsuccessfully to convey. Whilst there we took a trip inland to see the Snow Jade Cave. It seems that most recently opened wonders in China need to have been accidentally discovered by a peasant (see the Terracotta Warriors above) and these caves are no exception - they've only been open for three years after a farmer wandered into them while hunting rabbits.
The caves are impressive for the number and range of stalagmites and stalactites they contain, although it isn't possible to just enjoy them for their undoubted beauty, no in China when viewing things like this they need to be given names, human or animal characteristics and stories. So instead of just seeing some amazing rock formations that are thousands of years old, we were treated to the "Fairies Bathing", the "Giant Penguin", the "Lovers" and perhaps most bizarrely, the "Half-Eaten Chicken Foot"! Some of the descriptions took an awful lot of imagination and we were amused that some Chinese bureaucrat thought the effort worthwhile.
After the excitement of the shore excursion, a jacuzzi bath and dinner we retired to the bar for what was billed as the crew's cabaret show. The singing, dancing and musical performances were mostly highly professional - there was however one glaring exception that was the potato pushing competition. Along with two Chinese volunteers, poor Jim found himself singled out for attention and called up on stage. He had a rope tied around his waist with a potato hanging from a string like a tail. The object of the game was to use this potato to push another one along the ground and win a race. Of course the most effective way was to swing your hips backwards and forwards and use a thrusting motion - all designed to make you look ridiculous and I'm afraid to say it worked! Despite the tears of laughter rolling down my cheeks, I did managed to get a couple of photos. After a valiant attempt, we both agreed that Jim's fame and fortune doesn't lie in this particular field.
With all these diversions, it was almost easy to forget why we'd booked the cruise in the first place. The scenery we'd passed through up until now, had been very interesting, but not particularly beautiful. That all changed though when we entered the first gorge the next morning. The weather was awful - really foggy and with a persistent light drizzle - but it didn't manage to detract from amazing views that greeted us. Mountains rose up from either side of the river and even in the murk you could clearly make out the reds and golds of the autumn leaves; you could also see that lots of places had been cultivated until recently. The unmistakable signs of rice terracing scarred the slopes and hastily abandoned houses could also be seen. The provinces of Sichuan and Chongqing (which has only recently been granted special status as a province in its own right) are home to 1/40th of the world's population - more startlingly 1 in every 12 people on earth apparently live within the floodplains of the Yangtze. With such a large population its easy to see why the dam project and all the jobs it creates and energy it promises (it'll provide 10% of China's overall power needs when its completed) on the whole seem quite popular in this area. Inevitably it's difficult to gain a true insight, but from what we heard and read opposition isn't a great here as in the West.
After spending much of the morning snapping away and generally gawping at the magnitude of the first two gorges - just imagine what they must have been like before the water rose by 90 metres - we had lunch and then set off in a smaller boat to explore the Three Lesser Gorges. For this trip we travelled up a side branch of the Yangtze for an hour or so and then disembarked when the water got too shallow and got into small sampan style paddle boats. With a crew of six and a local guide we set off to explore the back waters. There were three oarsmen at the front and a watchman (at least we assume he was watching between cigarettes) and an oarsman and captain who steered at the back. After sailing in such a big boat the sampans did feel a bit unstable at first but the rowers soon found their rhythm and we began to feel more comfortable as our guide, Daisy, regaled us with tales of the 50-odd indigenous communities in China who all rejoice in their diversity. She was a member of the local Tuja people and she taught us how to sing in her language and how to egg the rowers on (what they thought of this, they were too polite to say).
When we'd been rowed upstream for a good twenty minutes we came to a very shallow stretch of fast-flowing water. There was a bank of pebbling ground to our left and all of a sudden all the oarsmen rolled up their trousers legs and jumped in the water. They then harnessed themselves up using special homemade bamboo rope and proceeded to pull us upstream. The work looked backbreaking and undoubtedly accounted for the taunt sinuous look of the men who started set about it with gusto only once they'd all lit up their fags. Whilst we did enjoy the surroundings and the knowledge that few tourists had seen these gorges because access is only really possible now the river levels have risen, we did feel slightly guilty that these men were breaking a sweat because of us. It could have been worse though as Daisy informed us that in past times the men used to perform their task naked as they found their clothes chaffed when wet. Apparently this practice was stopped because of the increasing number of tourists - maybe, but that doesn't account for the fact that all the guides try and sell you picture books of the gorges with prominent photos of butt-naked boatmen in them.
Our final night on board was an opportunity for the captain and crew to bid us farewell and there was a speech and toasts with a rather sickly pink wine - it's not uncommon for affluent "modern" couples to order imported wine with dinner only to then mix it with Coke or Sprite in an effort to make it palatable. If our fellow diners were getting one drink for the price of two, we were getting two meals for the price of one: Coco, the helpful receptionist, had somehow got it into her head that Westerners didn't like Chinese food - so despite our protestations and obvious enjoyment of the various dishes laid out on the Lazy Susan - the seven of us were also treated to a massive plate of steak, chips and salad! The three Chinese people on our table clearly wandered why we were getting special treatment and asked her what was going on, her reply, although unintelligible to us, made our fellow diners look sympathetically in our direction. This was strange as it was a role reversal from lunchtime when the seven of us had looked rather similarly at one of the women when she helped herself to a very strange combination of food for desert from the buffet. She set about eating lettuce, sweetcorn and blueberry mousse all drenched in thousand island dressing as if she did it everyday of her life.
After dinner we retired to the bar - again we were the last to leave the table as Chinese people have a very perfunctory approach to meals - eat then bugger off. A stream of our fellow passengers were taking it in turns to belt out Chinese karaoke classics and after a few more drinks Jim somehow persuaded me that it would be a good idea for us to have a go. He asked for the song list to be brought over. It inevitably had a strange mix of music on it - everything from Boney M to Aulde Lang Syne (that one's very popular here - we've heard it in taxis, station tanoys and bars, both in English and Chinese). We decided upon George Michael's Careless Whisper in homage to our friend Tomo - Jim and her livened up a particularly long and boring journey on the Dragoman truck in Tibet with their hysterical own "special" rendition of that song, along with several other classics. Jim seemed to think that our own karaoke performance went well on the whole - I wasn't as convinced; I'm not sure it's a good sign when the Chinese audience claps politely, yet insistently every time you stop to take a breath - it was almost as if they were willing us to throw in the towel.
After our performance I didn't think I'd be able to show my face in public again, so maybe it was fortunate that today was our last day. Less fortunate was the fog (smog?) that seems to have followed us everywhere we've been in China, that meant we couldn't see from one side of the Three Gorges Dam to the other. Despite this difficulty we disembarked for the last time got on a bus and drove to the dam - it is enormous and our guide proudly pointed out all the ingenious engineering aspects - the turbines encased within the dam, the ship locks which are already in operation and the lift for smaller ships in a hurry. It was all quite mind-blowing and definitely worth seeing - it was just a shame we didn't travel through all five locks on the boat - but then it did take about five hours to get through them all and we had a tight travel schedule to stick to.
Before we started leafing through our guidebook to China, we were both under the impression that we were too late to take a cruise down the Yangtze river. Wasn't the massive Three Gorges Dam putting pay to all that? It turns out that boats still run, although the rising water level means the valleys aren't as impressive as they once were and if you just go for the short cruise from Chongqing to Yichang, you don't cruise down the third gorge or go through the locks on the dam. At least not at the moment, although that may change.