Down the Great River

On arrival in Chongqing we made our way to the ticketing offices for boats travelling down the Yangtze River, which the Chinese call Changjiang (literally "long river"). Playing a couple of the offices off against each other we managed to get a bit of a discount. We were starting to learn how to play the game. Everything in China is negotiable. The ticket office also got us into a classy hotel at a considerable discount. At the hotel someone sent a prostitute to our room. Misreading the situation somewhat Rick got her to do his washing for him. Needless to say he got a fairly expensive laundry bill.

Chongqing was previously part of Sichuan Province but has since gained the status of Independent Municipality on a par with Shanghai and Beijing. It was also the KMT (guomingdang = nationalist party) capital of China and the scene of firece conflict between them and the communists. We only spent a night in Chongqing so we didn't see too much of the local sights, though we did take time to peruse the galleries of the Chongqing Museum.

Down the River:

"Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream....."
John Lennon: Tomorrow Never Knows

If only it were so simple. The river trip was a bit of a disappointment for me. I know others have taken this trip and enjoyed it very much but I'm afraid it just wasn't for me and I know Rick found it to be a bit of an ordeal as well. I don't know the Chinese word for torture but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it carries some reference to that river. That said, in retrospect I'm glad I did it. The Three Gorges Dam project (see below), when completed, will irreparably alter the landscape. I will however think twice before I sign up for another Chinese package tour. So why was the trip such a nightmare for me? Any number of reasons really, read on.

Boarding the boat our first surprise was our second class cabin, which didn't really resemble the photograph they showed us in the ticket office. Maybe they had used a wide-angle lens. We were to share with a couple of middle-aged women from Xiamen who were actually very pleasant. In this regard we could have done a lot worse. Tickets range from 1st to 5th class. Fifth class ranges from a berth in a ten bed cabin to simply a spot to camp on the deck. Often there are more than people than beds in the 5th class cabins as people share beds to cut costs.

The first stop was a place called Fengdu which was characterised by a "ghost" theme. There were pseudo-erotic statues of vampires suckling animals and other bizarre stuff. There were also some tacky sideshow attractions such as the "ghost train". Our so called "English speaking guide" left us at the stairwell on the boat wondering where we were going, what we were going to see, and when we needed to get back on the boat. Eventually giving him up for lost we ventured forth into the sea of people milling about on the foreshore. There were megaphones blasting from the front and the rear. We tagged onto a group wearing the same funky red caps as us. We soon discovered that our "all inclusive" ticket didn't cover everything after all, forking out money for the cable car up to the temple site.

As well as the "Three Gorges" there is also the "Three Smaller Gorges" and/or (I'm a little vague on this point) the "Lesser Three Gorges". I saw a sign at one point referring to the "Least Small Gorge". Anyway, once again we left the boat, and once more there were hundreds of people milling about. There were red hats (like us) and blue hats, and a new sect, the yellow hats. We were mercilessly herded onto buses, and driven through what may or may not have been the town of Wushan. Wherever it was it closely resembled a bombsite, no doubt in anticipation of rising water levels associated with the Three Gorges Dam project. From the bus we were crammed onto smaller vessels to navigate the Lesser Small Gorges.

At the dock we were crammed onto some very noisy and smokey river boats. One got the impression of a demolition derby on water as the boats jockeyed for position. After much crashing and bashing we finally headed up the river. I was already feeling a bit chesty from fume inhalation and these old smokers didn't help my situation one bit. By the time we reached Yichang I would have a full blown cold. Some of the views were quite nice but the design of the boats didn't really facilitate getting a good view, much less being able to take pictures. The boat stopped on a few occasions to let us drift through a line of vendors selling the usual crap, while the more scenic spots were simply passed by. We were both suffering from "Hey mister" syndrome a bit with persistent calls of "hello, water!". There was a cocky little shit on the boat (one of the operators) who was doing his best to be a pain in the arse and will probably never know how close he came to going into the river. Rick was a calming influence. On the way back down the river the roof was pulled over for most of the trip to keep the sun off so we didn't get to see anything. I couldn't wait to get back on the main boat. I was fast realizing that mass tourism Chinese style was not my cup of tea.

We did have the pleasure of making the acquaintance of some Philippines Chinese on the boat. Gilbert had come over to get married and had brought his brother and 88 year old father out with him as well as some friends. They too it seemed were less than impressed with the tour and their guide. Gilbert actually seemed a bit depressed with the state of things in China, particularly at what he perceived as the lack of manners among many of people. Sadly it's true, people are very pushy and often rude. On the other hand I was, on occasion the recipient of tremendous hospitality there.

The Three Gorges Dam Project:

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful though we did pass through the site of the dam which when completed will be by far the biggest on the planet. It's due for completion in 2009 though the reservoir will start filling up in 2003. It will be 2km across, 400m high and visible from the moon. We on the other hand were able to see the moon from the dam as it was late at night when we passed through. A pity really as I would have quite liked to have seen it properly.

While the dam will produce one fifth again the amount of electricity that is generated in the whole of China, it will cause considerable disruptions on several fronts. As well as the forced relocation of 2 million people and drastically altering the landscape, some 8000 archeological sites will be lost including one where a 2 million year old apeman was discovered. But progress is progress! and China is thinking big these days. The resulting reservoir will allow ocean going vessels to navigate all the way from Chongqing to the open sea, a distance greater than 2000km. The dam has in fact been in planning for over half a century and has certainly had its detractors. I have heard that no western construction company would touch the project. Certainly the consequences of a dam that sized bursting, don't bear contemplating.

We disembarked in Yichang, and quite frankly I couldn't have got off the boat fast enough. We spent the night there before taking a sleeper bus up to Xian. The bed was comfortable enough but due to the condition of the road and various delays the 12 hour trip took 22 hours.