08 June 2016

Yangtze River, China 2014

Day 1
Our home for five days on one of the world's best-known waterways. From Shanghai we flew to Wuhan, a major river transportation hub in the interior. On the trip from airport to the ship our local guide peppered us with statistics about China's "urbanization" movement that didn't explain the acres of forlorn, vacant residential towers we were passing.

After a day of airports and coach travel, our cabin on Century Diamond looks roomy and pleasing with the bonus of a balcony. Dinner is typical ship-style buffet, unlike our previous days of family-style round table service. We are at Table 1 for the duration, same faces each meal, designed to keep the staff on track. Our attendant is Coco. We chatter about upcoming shore excursions to unfamiliar places. Sailing upriver gets underway at midnight. 
Day 2
At 6 a.m., yes the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., the overhead tannoy speaker system in each cabin BLARES wild Chinese music at us. Bolting straight up from sleep, my roommate and I stare dumbly at each other. There is no way to turn off the shattering racket. Then we are subjected to shouted instructions about breakfast hours and an excursion that is hours away. Followed by raucous bird noises that we think are meant to be soothing. Happily, the cardiac-arrest business is never repeated on subsequent days. 
Today (it's mid-March) is cooler, drizzling rain and windy. Since we are awake anyway (!) we explore the ship. A few shops are on board, including a tailor who makes custom cheongsams for about $200 from gorgeous silk fabrics. The ship library consists mostly of Chinese magazines. There's a definite oversight, no information, about what we are passing along the riverbanks; often mile after mile of industrial mines, smelters, smokestacks. The few available handouts are only regarding the excursions. Some passengers go off to see a battlefield and fort at Chibi, within walking distance.
Fort Chibi

Sun deck; no sun

Nicer just to unwind on the balcony and watch the river activity. We are surrounded by flatlands where the river often widens / wanders into lake formations and seems alarmingly shallow at times. Lots of river traffic, many barges hauling freight. Gravel is coming downstream for construction sites. 

The ship is not full one or two Spanish and German groups, Canadians outnumbering all but meal times at the buffet can be a zoo. The Captain's Welcome Party ensures a fair amount of champagne before the dinner rush. Wine and beer are freely poured at meals which is not the norm otherwise: one glass of beverage at each meal when travelling on land.

Day 3
Excursion later today, good. It's overcast but no fog, just the usual mid-level layer of misty smog. On the ship entertainment program today: "fashion show." Expecting a demonstration of traditional costumes, we grabbed front seats. But it proved to be a sales pitch for the tailor with two live models wearing cheongsams who disappeared rapidly. The cruise director has an unfortunately shrill voice and used the word "actually" about 45 times this does not bode well for the later "fresh water pearl presentation" and "scarf wearing demonstration."

Happily, the sun came out and the sundeck soon filled up. We are passing more signs of life and cities now. The river water is looking deeper and mountain peaks are appearing. Showing a film on the Three Gorges was a bust; the ship does not have the facilities to show a film effectively. Finally, it's time to go see the Three Gorges Dam up close. Into a bus and up, up, up the road past Sandouping, part of Yichang city where the dam workers live.
It's a hike at the heights for a magnificent view of the dam and the locks. Hazy, but you can see everything. The size of the whole complex is gigantic. Thirty-two main generators! It must take an army to run the place. Maybe the army does run the place, heh. We can see ships lifting in the locks, as our ship will do tonight. The world's biggest dam is also installing the world's largest ship lift. I quote from our little handout:
"The project produces clean electricity, prevents deadly floods downstream and enhances navigation. ... However, the dam has also flooded archaeological and cultural sites and displaced some 1.24 million people, and is causing dramatic ecological changes, including the risk of landslides. The decision to build the dam has been deeply controversial in China and abroad."

Twilight approaches as we stop at the back of the dam for photo opps. The opps are largely ignored by the female contingent as we discover a covey of scarf vendors. Scarf-buying frenzy ensues as it does at each new locale. It's dark when we reach the ship and some holdup delays our boarding. The casual class of tai chi ladies across the street do their best to entice us into a small outdoor market. It works; we have time. Now the guys delight in the availability of beer in six-packs.

Tonight's post-dinner entertainment is a masked ball. The Spaniards and Germans are really into all this jollity. Some of our group are being felled by colds, not surprising as we are almost two weeks into the trip. At 10:30 p.m. Century Diamond enters the five-stage locks of the spectacular dam. We will rise 101 metres. Once the gates close each stage goes surprisingly quickly. It's awesome on the balcony facing a concrete wall that slowly slides down as we go up. Amazingly, some people have been able to scrawl bits of graffiti here and there (in Chinese characters).

Day 4
First thing, the morning excursion into Shennu Stream (aka Goddess Stream) on small boats, each carrying about sixteen of us. It seems to be one of the Three Gorges, but the ship handouts lack geographical information/identification. This little side trip is a highlight, amongst the soaring peaks. So much was submerged by the dam, turning mountain tops into islands. The boats have rules: wear life jackets; no more than five people outside on the stern. Soon the rules get ignored and photographers crowd at the back. Tour manager Lisa uses her severe voice.
There's a stop at a tricky floating dock where we assemble on a rocky ledge. The several boat guides line up, for something ceremonial perhaps? Only the people directly at the front of the crowd can hear whatever it is. Then they do a little song for us. Then they encourage us all to join a sort of happy conga line. The treacherous floating dock claims a few victims with twisted ankles and knees.

Back at the ship, the glorious start to the day has become all grey and cool. The passing scenery now is much more interesting, occasional temples, wonderful bridges, cities, but also "surviving" countryside spared the flood waters where family burial tombs can be seen on the hills. The river is so GREEN now! Wushan (not Wuhan) is one place where reconstruction is going on. A huge riverside sign proclaims it: "China Excellent Tourism City; National Sanitary City." Here we park for a while.

Some groups go to White Emperor City aka Baidi Cheng aka Baidi Temple, an optional tour entailing 1,000 stairs to the top. Luckily many old temples were built on mountaintops and do not have to be reconstructed. Meanwhile we could explore the "street" along the floating dock we're tied up to foodstuffs, dried fish, nuts, drinks, water, tea, snacks, odds and ends.
Docks/wharfs of this type are necessary because they easily adapt to changing dam levels. We see supplies coming along to be loaded onto the ship, all carried manually of course. Bags of their famous oranges, what we used to call mandarins.
Mild anticipation at dinner about tonight's talent show. Selected passengers model a few traditional women's costumes (again, a too-brief look), self-consciously sashaying in and out. Our neighbours from Table 2 do a limp rendition of the Expo song CA-NA-DA. The irrepressible Spaniards do an overly long and energetic but rather puzzling operetta (or so it seemed to be); their soprano swathed herself in a bed coverlet to great effect, whisking it expertly around her hips.

Day 5
Wakened at 6:30 a.m. by firecrackers going off on the hill. We have stopped again, at Zhongxian. People are doing laundry in the river at the bottom of steps. This is where we go to visit Shibaozhai, "Precious Stone Fortress." Local guide Romy leads us through the town on the south bank and a gauntlet of souvenir sellers to the fortress, perched way, WAY above us. Aka the Red Pavilion, it's another temple island-marooned by the dam flooding. Twelve stories and ninety-nine stairs to climb. Each level is dedicated to a famous general, scholar, or poet of the 200s AD, with cultural artifacts.
However. In order to reach the bottom (entry) level, we must cross a suspension bridge. It's about five feet wide which doesn't lessen the terror of a very long, swaying, bouncy crossing. So call me chicken-heart; queasiness with heights and unsteady sense of balance are in full force. So why not shop instead, the other few cowards suggest.

Not our ship but a reasonable facsimile

Later I am trying to capture more riverside views and burial tombs. The ever-present smog throws a soft cast over all, reminiscent of old watercolours.

Farewell dinner tonight, self-served in the round. Expectation is high for the special menu.
 It is loaded with fish and seafood dishes, to be expected in a marine environment, but severely limits my choices. Love Chinese sausage but had to spit out this version, heavy with fish taste! Apart from my personal allergies, consensus from Table 1 was altogether a disappointing, mediocre meal. Odd, and too bad, probably the least memorable on a 24-day trip of otherwise delicious Chinese dishes.

Next Day
We are at Chongqing, our next destination. Coolies are taking our luggage from the ship across the floating dock to the city; each man carries a mind-boggling four suitcases on a bamboo yoke. We estimate that's a minimum of 120 lbs. Poor buggers (but strong!), wonder what their pay is. Then they return with supplies for the ship which will turn around to take more groups on the downstream trip.

It's really been quite a lovely time on the Yangtze, a lull in the hectic pace of a long tour, somewhat like floating through a distant exotic film. The passing scenes perhaps more than anything convey a sense of the vastness, the beauties, of this country. But we also remember seeing the work ethic, the daily routines, the cheerful greetings; not so different from us after all.
© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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