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Cruising the ‘Three Gorges’ – Chinese-style


Leaving my hostel in Chengdu I was still a little pissed from the night before. Shunning the idea of hailing a taxi, I skipped the 2kms or so distance to the train station in a relative state of contentment.

The fast train I had wanted to catch to the city of Chongqing had just and so filled up by the time I arrived, so I was put on the next available train. I was soon to learn that this wasn’t departing for another two hours unfortunately, and it was upon this frustrating realisation that my hangover decided to painfully kick in too.

One of the hours I spent in KFC pitifully nursing a pretty gross coffee. The next was arduous sixty minutes or so was exhausted in the stations cold waiting hall, wishing to hell I had just stayed in bed.

The train journey itself was short, but grim. It was a modern, high speed train and at times our speed was displayed at exceeding 200km/hr. For the entire two hour trip I felt as if my brain was going to explode. The kind after affects of a night of drinking Great Wall red wine.

I took a taxi to my hostel. I’d arrived at the city’s northern train station, and as the car ventured south and crossed the high bridge into Chongqing proper the skyline became excitingly reminiscent of Manhattan. There was just skyscraper after skyscraper. The further into the city the higher the building. I didn’t know at the time that this was due to this part of Chongqing being situated on a steep hill. I just thought the place looked incredibly futuristic. A bit like that spot where George Jetson lives. And I was half right, and half very wrong.

A very Chinese cruise experience

After checking in I hastily signed myself up for a cruise along the Yangtze. They needed full payment pretty sharpish, but I didn’t have the funds on me at the time. The chick on reception said that a bank was nearby, I just need to go up a few steps and I’d soon find one. It turns out that by a few steps, she actually meant about three hundred. And not the fancy, state of the art kind of stuff like I had predicted on the way in. But steps through dirty, primitive streets of wet filth.

From a distance Chongqing looks great. Up close and at street level however, in my opinion it is crap. I feared that my negativity was due to my hangover. So after a day of feeling incredibly sorry for myself I went to bed early and vowed to give the place another chance to impress in the morning.

Up at around 9am I traipsed up the grimy stairs again and entered the new day’s bedlam. The city of Chongqing was no better hangover free. And in fact, it could have even been decidedly worse. It was a shit hole. The whole place just seemed like one giant market selling naff clothing.

All I had wanted was to find something that resembled a supermarket so I could pick up a few bits for my up coming boat trip, but I couldn’t find anything anywhere. The traffic was bad on the roads so it was almost impossible to cross without fear of getting smashed into. And the pavements were almost as bad, except they were overrun by porters carrying wardrobe sized bundles of goods on their backs. Merchandise that had either just arrived, or was about to be sent along the Yangtze river to other parts of the country. I don’t know if it was just that particular area by the docks, or whether it is the same city wide, but Chongqing to me came across as utterly charmless. I hated the place. Maybe my head was in the wrong place when I visited, but I really didn’t enjoy being there at all.

The hostel on the other hand was actually ok. It was run by a bevy of cute local girls who were all pretty sociable and chatty. I got the impression that a couple of them thought I was a cock though. Presumably because I was all over the place with my hangover when I had earlier spoken to them. But the other were lovely, especially one who told me her name was White Rabbit. She came across as incredibly flirtatious. And when she would say something she’d stare deep into your eyes and sexily stick her tongue out a little bit. I got it in my head that she was a bit of a nympho and asked her why she had got her name. Expecting some sort of suggestive, euphemistic retort I was more than a little disappointed when she said “because I can do this” and pulled some hideously goofy mammal like face. Resembling a herbivore isn’t the sexiest look in the whole world, but white rabbit was still a sweet young girl all the same.

Ten minutes after seeing White Rabbit’s party trick I was picked up in a minibus and pointlessly driven to a bus station about fifty metres away. From there I was given a ridiculous tag to hang around my neck and herded onto a bus with a load of riotous Chinese folks.

Entering Wu Gorge

The three day cruise I had signed myself up for was about to take me along the famed Yangtze river, all the way to the city of Yichang. I could have taken a hydrofoil and made the journey within twelve hours. But I figured it would probably be a more enjoyable experience if I ventured at a more leisurely pace. When sat on that hectic bus though and a noisy old bitch behind me started rattling my chair I really wished I hadn’t bothered. My enthusiasm for the cruise was pretty much non existent. And there was a moment when I was all set to sacrifice the £80 the trip had cost me and head over to the train station instead.

Deciding that £80 was way too much money to frivolously throw away I stayed where I was. I’d come to the conclusion that whatever happened on the cruise it would be a novel experience, even though it was more than likely going to be a big old pile of shit.

The three hour bus trip took us to the port city of Wanzhou, and it was here that we all boarded our vessel. The cruise ship wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I had expected it would be. It was way more luxurious. But still a long way from anything special, that’s for sure. I found my four bed berth with the help of an eager staff member, and then shown which was my bunk. A bedbug which scurried across the sheets disheartened me somewhat. But after I splattered it and made my bed in a way that I hoped would prevent the blood sucking bastards from getting to me I became a little more at ease.

The three other people sharing my room soon arrived to say hello. They were a couple from the city of Changsha, and their female friend was with them also. They were all very amiable towards me, but spoke little English so conversation didn’t evolve into anything overly profound.

Making my excuses, I left my new roomies and buggered off to explore the ship. It cost me an extra £5 to get a pass up onto the scabby viewing deck, £2 more than what I had been told. I wasn’t happy. Coughing up the money though, I then sat out in the dark and watched as various vessels flowed past along the famed river. Our ship’s horn almost perforated my eardrum as I sat there, and it wasn’t long before the engines revved up and we set out on our way downstream. It was at this point that I finally began to appreciate how cool it was to actually be on the Yangtze river, the third longest in the world, and sailing towards some of China’s most beautiful scenery.

Fancying a beer, I left the chilly deck to see what I could find. Grabbing a couple of expensive and quite vulgar lagers off the friendly old woman running the little snack shop, I then made my way back to the room. Before I could even put the key in the door I received a shout from down the corridor. It was the lad from my berth and his two female companions. They had switched on a karaoke set in a kind of disco like area and were blasting out Chinese love songs to one another. The guy invited me to join them and I graciously accepted seeing as though I had a little alcohol on board. The couple were actually quite good singers, but their mate on the other hand was fucking dreadful. Still, I happily nodded along to their incomprehensible renditions, even though the songs were utter shite.

My new friend Cho-Che-Hue

Dashing back to the shop, I grabbed more beers and a small bottle of whiskey. Whilst I had gone my new friend Cho-Che-Hue had returned to our room and brought back a table full of food. Encouraging me to tuck in, I tentatively acquiesced and picked up what I hoped was a slender brown vegetable. It soon became clear that the jellified object I was trying to chew through wasn’t a bloody vegetable. Cho-Che-Hue kindly informed me it was a chickens tongue. He said this just as he was practically forcing me to nibble on a giant chickens foot.

It was hard to say no to Cho-Che-Hue. He thought I was just being shy and not getting stuck in because I was being polite. But he couldn’t have been more wrong. Both items were fucking disgusting. That guy absolutely loved that shit though, he couldn’t get enough chicken tongues in his gob. Within minutes a small mountain of bones and claws had formed in front of him. The polio riddled looking talon he’d given me got slung in my bag as soon as his back was turned, and I legged it to the shop and bought a big bag of crisps so I had something palatable to dine on.

At midnight the boat moored and the ships entirety piled onto dry land. It was pitch black, and I was a bit pissed by now, so it wasn’t the most ideal moment to be wandering around a dark harbour.

We had stopped in order to visit the Zhang Fei Temple. My interest in the place was limited to taking a couple of half arsed photos and then making my way back to the berth. I was the sole whitey on the cruise, and as the ratio of Chinese to Foreigner ranked at 1000/1 it would have been a bit unfair of me to demand English explanations of the sights. So without any background info the Zhang Fei Temple was just another boring religious building. Except one marred by bright neon lighting.

After making myself an instant coffee early the next morning I made my way up onto the quiet deck. One of the reasons I had expected the cruise to be a bit shitty was due to the weather. The girls in the last hostel had told me (after I had paid them) to expect fog and rain for the next few days. Thankfully though, they couldn’t have been more wrong. It was chilly and a little hazy, but the sun was bright and quickly rising. It’s heat rapidly evaporating the morning mist.

My brew and biscuit didn’t sit overly well, so I made my way back to bed and spent the rest of the morning lying there rubbing my belly. At around lunch time we moored once more and the majority of the boat piled out to visit the ‘lesser three gorges.’ The ‘lesser three gorges are supposedly one of the most spectacular places on the entire route. Not surprisingly, you have to a pay extra to visit them. And in this instance, a lot frigging extra. I really don’t know why, but whilst away I find myself converting and comparing the cost of food, tours and transport etc to very strange things I feel familiar with from back home. Things that have no bearing whatsoever on my life however. But for some reason they have always stuck in my mind and I uselessly contrast their cost to equate whether something is reasonable value. The earliest I can remember was when I used to compare the price of things to Mc Donalds extra value meals. This was when the meals were generally around £3.20 or so in the UK. So if say a ten hour bus journey cost me the equivalent of £6, that would be around two extra value meals. A bargain. Whereas if a meal cost me £5, that wouldn’t be so great because I could get a meal AND a drink for £3.20 in expensive UK. Utterly fucking ridiculous, I know.

The ironic thing about this stupid form of identifying value was that I never even used to go to Mc Donalds at that pint. I was a health freak. Kind of. And now that I’m weak and regularly in Maccys I have changed my strange unit of conversion to something even more ridiculously irrelevant to my life: The price of an adult ticket into Alton Towers. God knows where this has come from. And the figure I have in my head of £19 is from around 1999 so my comparing clearly isn’t based on anything factual.

Anyway, the cost to go and visit the lesser three gorges was around one Alton Towers entrance fee and a Mc Donalds extra value meal. Fucking expensive to sit on a boat and look at rocks with a load of shouting and pushing Chinese folk. Instead, I saved my £23 and stayed in bed watching videos on my laptop. I got obsessed with a HBO series called Entourage in that four hours while the others were off gallivanting. It was brilliant. I’d downloaded the 7th series on a whim whilst in Macedonia, and now wish I’d started with the other six.

When the ship set sail again we started to make decent headway along the Yangtze, or Chang Jiang as the locals would call it. The one sheet of A4 paper I had been given when I coughed up my £80 had mentioned about passing through Wu gorge, the first of the big three gorges along the route. My guidebook had said how spectacular this place was too. I didn’t know we had already approached the gorge, but the increasingly amiable Cho-Che-Hue came specifically back to the room to drag me out of bed to witness it. And I’m very glad he did.

The Wu gorge was stunning. Soaring, tree covered peaks and sheer rock faces lined either side of the relatively narrow channel. The jade green water became more alluring in this section and sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight. The deck had filled with boisterous, aggressive Chinese at this point. All desperate to capture the beauty of the place on their digital cameras. Cho-Che-Hue and his two ladies were around somewhere, but I ended up being befriended by a young Chinese boy who I’m sure was a third spastic. Not mongoloid, just simple. In a lovely, quite endearing way. He was all over the place. Knocking people out of the way in order to get himself and I into great viewing positions. There will have been some decent bruises on the shins of a fair few Chinese folks the morning after my little buddy had finished swinging our stools about. Chairs I mean. He wasn’t fling our shit. Although he probably would had he been left unattended. They do that sometimes them types.

The only thing that either of us could say in one another’s language was hello, thank you and both count to about nine. Neither of us could remember ten for some reason. Probably because we were both a bit spazzy and double figures exceeded our mental capacity. Although we couldn’t talk, my new friend and I got on great. He would talk incessantly and pull silly faces at me, and I would nod in agreement and pull the odd grimace back. We soon became popular with our fellow shipmates despite the kids cavalier attitude with the furniture, and a good number of them wanted to get their photos taken with us.

As stunning as the scenery was, I soon became bored and craved another Entourage fix. I don’t know what it was about the program that hooked me so much. But it could possibly have been the statement “How about you get your c*nt removed to reduce your some of your c*ntyness!”. Naughty words, but funny all the same. I left my little buddy to give clumsy dead legs on his own and made my way back to the room. The boobs and porn stars in Entourage had got the loins working overtime somewhat so it was necessary I temporarily switch programs for a few minutes and watch ‘a bit of ‘Big Tits At Skool’ . It was bad timing though as Cho-Che-Hue and his women entered just as I was becoming romantically attached to myself. Thankfully I was sheathed in my sleeping bag and my tool was well concealed.

After force feeding me a vulgar jelly coated chicken leg, Cho-Che-Hue poured me out a shot of China’s firewater called baijiu. I have no idea what it is made from, but one would assume it is a concentrated rice wine. Although by the taste of the stuff, I wouldn’t be surprised if it came from the sweat glands on a camels ball sack. It was absolutely rank. And it took a lot of will power to prevent that and the scabby chicken leg from coming right back out of my mouth again. There are few shots in the world more despicable than the stuff Cho-Che-Hue was throwing down his neck. He and his harem left me to get back to my visual entertainment soon after his attempted poisoning, but I was then interrupted by a more worrying presence.

My new mongy mate

How, I don’t know, but my little retarded pal had picked the lock and let himself into my berth. He had been knocking and running for the past hour since spying on where I was sleeping. But he had waited till the others departed before letting himself in and scaring the shit out of me. I wasn’t fearful of him as being a danger, I was terrified of a kid being caught in a bloody room with me. They do a lot of things differently in China and possibly tolerate things us Brits wouldn’t, but I don’t think hanging around with an eight year old in your room is one of them. Hurriedly I rushed the little shit out and told him to bugger off. He didn’t understand the last part I don’t suppose, but pulled a funny face at me and went back up onto the deck anyway.

The lot of us in our four bed berth hit the sack early that evening in order to get a good nights sleep. The next day we were all up at around 7am and getting prepared to visit the Jainwu stream. I am still clueless as to which bit was the actual Jainwu stream, but the little outing was fun nonetheless. And so it should have been for the price of four extra value meals.

The entire ship was shepherded onto long native Indian style canoes known as dragon boats. Presumably because there was a massive dragons head carving at the front of each one. We each had been given a paddle, but the lifejackets which had made an appearance for the first time since leaving Wanzhou hindered any kind of movement and just caused us to splash one another. The dragon had a giant motor for a tail so why they wanted us to row I’ll never know. We all soon gave up anyway.

The long, thin boat whizzed us through some beautiful mountainous scenery. It was great to be able to feel the warm Yangtze river and get a view from so low down. Our cruise ship was pretty big, and the upper deck a long way from the water itself so in a sense you felt quite detached from the river.

We moored at a small dock and were directed along a floating platform. I assumed this was a temporary pathway until something more stable was available, but no. The entire ship was then told to walk along this wobbly, slippy, accident waiting to happen of a platform for about 300metres along a narrow inlet. In the middle of the sodding river. I have trouble walking on solid pavement in a straight line with my bandy pigeon legs, never mind a piss with though moving inflatable. It was basically three 1ft square boxes joined together, with a flimsy fence on either side that was supposed to make it safe. It didn’t feel so bloody safe. I felt like I was on that Wipeout programme and any second I was gonna get clocked in the head by a stupid boxing glove or something.

Having successfully navigated the path along the gentle stretch of river we checked out the stalactites on a nearby cliff face before entering the ubiquitous gift shop. There was a large queue amassed at one end of the room. I say queue, it was more of an Indian style queue – a giant brawl of pushing and shoving bodies. Curious, I made my way over with Cho-Che-Hue and he managed to get across that they were giving out gemstones as they were included in the ticket cost. Determined to get my moneys worth I joined the battling hordes and brayed a load of screaming old women out of the way. When females stop behaving like females to me they become androgynous beings. If they push me then the yapping little twats will get pushed back. And over here, unlike many other places in the world, I’m about three times stronger than them so I usually come out on top. I was like Bananaman in that ruckus. They had no chance. And I was soon the smug owner of a small lump of jade that had been dredged from the bed of the Yangtze.

Cho-Che-Hue had pointed at something moving along a cable that was suspended around 100metres above the river. It looked like a cable car to me, so I nodded enthusiastically to his “vely good” and didn’t think anymore of it. When I got back in the dragon boat however and began the journey back I soon realised why he had been so excited. On the tiny, taught wire was a person on a little motorbike with somebody else sitting in a swing like chair thing below them. It was one of the weirdest things I have ever seen. And they were hanging there on a tightrope of sorts high up above the river chatting to another bloke on a pushbike who also had a suspended passenger. Presumably discussing which one of them was going to reverse, as there isn’t much room for an overtake on a 5cm thick cable. Very bizarre.

Back on the cruise ship we set off to our final destination. Although passing through another stunning gorge, the four of us in our berth crashed out and slept for the journeys entirety. Once we had arrived, around ten coaches were waiting to drive us all to what for me was the most important part of the trip – The Three Gorges Dam.

Like most males at some point in there lives, I got into those pretty rubbish TV programmes that began with the word MEGA. I cant remember which mega programme it was, most probably mega-structures, but I once watched a show that was all about the three gorges dam. Not a great deal of the information remained in my sieve like brain, but from that moment I had always had a subconscious interest in the project and really wanted to see it one day.

The dam is absolutely massive. It is the worlds largest dam, and has backed the Yangtze river up for 550km. The dam is around 2km’s wide, and 185 metres high. It not only produces incredible amounts of hydroelectricity, but the dam also dramatically reduces the damage and loss of life caused by the wet season floods. And since the water is much deeper upstream from the dam, the river is far easier now to navigate for cargo vessels.

Although hugely impressive, the dam isn’t exactly gorgeous. Once I had seen it, and been told a few facts by the very nice English speaking guide Susan, I was soon ready to leave. Although Susan answered some of my questions, it wasn’t until we made a quick stop in the Three Gorges Museum that it really hit home who huge this project was.

The Three Gorges Dam

The most poignant thing that caught my attention was the displacement it had caused. Around 1.6million people had to move as their homes were lying under the projected level of water. 1.6 million sounds quite a bit, but it wasn’t until I looked at a painting which showed how the gorges were before they dammed them up that it really hit home. Countless cities and towns have been completely submerged. Not just little wooden villages like I had supposed. But actual cities with hundreds of thousands of people once living in them. It was astonishing to see images of these places and realise that they exist beneath the jade green waters which I had spent the past two and a half days cruising down. Its a little sad to think of them places as gone forever, but the benefits the dam brings to China must have been worth the sacrifice. Susan said that the government provided accommodation, jobs and education for those that had to be relocated, so it wasn’t like they just kicked them out. Yet still I think how I would feel if my grey old town was to be flooded. It must have been devastating to those who’s entire lives had been based around them towns and cities.

Read more on Jordan’s Travelpod Blog.

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