Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Days 212 and 213: Yangtze River Cruise Days 3 and 4

It's fair to say that the first day of our four days of river cruise wasn't really a day at all - we wandered around Chongqing and the boat only left port at 10pm. And the second day, although not unpleasant, wasn't quite the luxury surroundings or the world-class scenery we'd been expecting, and was characterised more by being herded into a Chinese tour group, moving rooms as the walls weren't thick enough to block the passion of the couple next door (in fairness, it would have taken a Great Wall to do so), and scenery that although pleasant veered more towards the industrial than the world-class. Fortunately, on the third day, it came good. And that's because we entered the Three Gorges.

Two of them anyway, I'm not sure what happened to the third. At 10am, as per schedule - the cruise, to its credit, was astonishingly precise as to its schedule - an announcement was made telling everyone to go to the top deck. Burness and I were already there, as we'd noticed the scenery had picked up. Qu Tang Gorge was on its way, and as our English-speaking guide, Tony, informed us, it was most known from being the image on the 10 RMB note.

Qu Tang Gorge was short, but dramatic. Burness had been looking for scenery to compare to the Norwegian fjords, and by the time we'd passed through Qu Tang, he agreed he'd found it. Green and craggy mountains plunging into the river on both sides, it was immensely picturesque. We had moved into the realm of world-class.

A few hours later, it was time for our next gorge - Wu. Longer and just as scenic as Qu Tang, Burness and I agreed that we preferred it. It was just a little craggier, a little more rugged, and much, much longer. Qu Tang is more celebrated I believe, and Wu might not be represented on the currency, but Wu was our highlight. Which is why, I suppose, it has famous hip-hop pioneers named after it.

Wu led onto the expedition of the day - Shennong Stream as Tony called it. Our boat was channelled into three smaller boats, which chugged up what was much closer to a mini-gorge than a stream. In fact, it was once a stream - or a river, more like - but since the flooding has become more of a gorge. The scenery was at its most dramatic now, sheer cliffs rising from the water. It was a three hour round trip in all, the culminating point being where the gorge actually turned into a river, with a fair amount of concrete development. Everyone disembarked, took a few photos, then got back in the small boat for the return leg. This leg was characterised by the Chinese-speaking guide, for the entire duration of the return journey, turning into a saleswomen and selling all kinds of stuff from bags of tea to stamp albums of the Three Gorges to what appeared to be piece of rubber chicken on a string. The Chinese lapped it up and bought loads. The Westerners stayed at the outside section at the rear, where we could enjoy the scenery instead.

The remainder of the day was spent relaxing in the main boat, drinking rum or beer, and watching the world go by. The scenery, although having peaked at two of the Three Gorges, continued to be impressive, and the gentle pace of the boat was pleasant. In the evening, the American guy and Chinese girl invited us to join them for karaoke, which we with all politeness declined, but still had a tinge of regret at our anti-socialness. It was nothing to do with having heard their intimate noises, which by then I had mostly got over, it was just to do with the choice of karaoke. "Just say no to karaoke" is a motto I am urged to adopt, simply through courtesy for others. I am neither gifted with a joy of singing or a talent, and nobody will think better of me after a karaoke evening in my company. Later, I happened to pass by the karaoke bar, and the sounds emanating were hideous, so my tinge of regret faded. Instead, Burness and I turned down the lights in our cabin, put on some dark minimal techno, and played cards. It was great.

That should have been the end of day 3, but there was one small finale - the Dam. At a bit after midnight, the boat arrived at the Three Gorges Dam. I'd been sleeping but had set my alarm, and so on a quiet and still boat, I was able to get my first glimpse of my next Wonder. Or a set of horizontal lights, at least.

Still, the peace and quiet of the night, and the tantalising glimpse of the Dam, proved a worthwhile disruption to my sleep. For a short while, I stood at the side of the boat, in the cool night, and watched the orange light of the Dam to the quiet background hum of the boat's engines.

Sadly, it proved to be my highlight of the Three Gorges Dam. My review, when its done, will give more details, but Day 4 of the cruise did not do it justice. The final day of the four day cruise had us off the boat by 8am, and for the next three hours we were bussed around. This day was the reason I'd gone for the cruise in the first place, because this was the visit to the Three Gorges Dam. Or a couple of viewpoints at least, and not even well-selected ones. Many hundreds of Chinese tourists joined us, bustling around with the guides speaking through microphones. It was not at all peaceful. Chinese tourism has quite some way to go to make its tours feel "special".

We were all deposited at the harbour of the city of Yichang, a city of four million, by noon, and were free men again. Yichang didn't hold much in the way of allure for us, so we quickly found an internet cafe and began plotting our escape. Burness took a flight back to Beijing, and I took the last train to a more-or-less unknown city called Pingdingshan, seven hours to the north. Which is where I write from now, on a smoky, noisy, but very friendly "hard seat" carriage, packed with the very best of the Chinese character, unsubtle and unpretentious, but very eager and interested to find out about me despite a lack of common language. It's a great experience but... well hard seat is hard seat, and after seven hours I'll be looking forward to alighting. And hopefully tomorrow, another fleeting glimpse of a Wonder awaits - the tallest statue in the world, the Spring Temple Buddha.

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