The Three Gorges 2002
Visitor number (since September 2002):
This is a freak show isn't it? On the slow boat in China...
We had decided to undertake the a trip to the Three Gorges in May before it started filling up next year and we booked what seemed to be a reasonable deal on the 'San Xia Fengqing' through an agent in Chengdu. Being a long weekend it seemed that half of China had decided to do the same. Along with this we got off to a bad start. We were both suffering from headache/fever type things, we got stuck in awful traffic and to add to the misery had to wait three hours for a delayed plane. This must be normal practice in China domestic airline land as they actually have a special 'delayed flight' lounge. I swear, it's true! Most of the flight was okay. Airlines in China have progressed quite a bit since the days of bench seats and live chickens on board. The plane itself was a bit old. I'm sure I flew on it as TAA plane probably back around 1983 or so. There's not much in the way of entertainment, apart from the other passengers. There was one girl who spent the whole flight chewing on her boyfriend's ear, plus the old country couple who had trouble opening the toilet door. Then there was the whole bloody annoying sports team that got on in Wuhan. They were all women in their 40's and 50's so I honestly have no idea what sport they were competing in. I didn't think the Chinese were into lawn bowls or croquet - which my first choices. They obviously had not been on a plane before. They were dropping luggage, sticking their feet where they shouldn't be, putting the chairs and trays up and back - and this was all before we even took off...
We emerged from the airport in Yichang to a quiet deathly fog. We tried to slip onto a hotel bus carrying a tour group but they were having none of that. We finally negotiated a cheap price with the owner of a beat up taxi who ignored the road conditions totally and sped all the way into Yichang, even passing a police car on the way that had it's emergency lights on. We booked into the Taohualing Hotel in Yichang and even managed to get ourselves a V.I.P. room. Woohoo! Being the best hotel in town they must get a lot of American tour groups there. The bellhop insisted on carrying our bags to the room, then stood around obviously waiting for a tip, which I eventually obliged him with. Bloody Yanks. After the late flight we weren't particularly in the mood and didn't end getting to bed until 2am
We had the day in Yichang before getting on the boat and it proved to be a painful precursor to the cruise. We didn't have time to get on a bus tour to the Three Gorges Dam so we negotiated a fee with a taxi driver to take us there. The trip there was very scenic and reminded us a lot of Japan. Only problem is that taxis are not actually allowed to enter the dam area. Of course the driver had neglected to mention this. Then the 'military' staff at the gate wanted us to take another car for a fee somewhere between 280-500RMB. We told them them in no polite terms to their extortion bid to go get stuffed and huffily climbed back into our taxi. The driver was patently in a hurry to get back and we closed our eyes as he overtook on blind corners and took the 'racing line' through others. About 10km out of Yichang we asked him to stop at the Three Visitors Caves that we had seen on the way out to the dam, and we indicated that he could wait for us seeing he had not had to wait for us at the dam. He was having none of that and still insisted on getting his full 150RMB. EDITORS NOTE: If you are ever in Yichang do not take taxi number T1361. He's a total rip-off merchant.
At the caves things unfortunately didn't get any better. A lady followed us through the cave with her camera taking photos. We kept on telling her to stop but she wouldn't. She also wouldn't let us take our own photos. Of course when we got to the end of the cave she wanted us to pay for the photographs she'd taken. Once again we were forced to indulge in the Chinese remonstration street theatre type thing. Bloody hell, was there anyone in this town that didn't want to rip off the lo wai? EDITORS NOTE: Don't go to the caves either - unless you can shake off the photographer somehow. After this we were forced to pay the driver of an old rusty minivan 30RMB to take us back into town. Before heading off to the boat we decided to have a meal at a nearby Cantonese restaurant. Only problem was that they didn't have any Cantonese food. Things weren't getting any better.
We went back to the hotel around 5pm and things still continued to slide. First they had locked our bags away and lost the key. So they were forced to lay into the door with a hammer plus various other heavy objects and electrical appliances. That's the bellhops and service staff pictured doing their thing on the right. We rang the local boat agent just to check the place where to leave. We were instructed to 'wait there' and she came screaming in with a minivan a few minutes later. Apparently our agent in Chengdu had stuffed up our details. If we hadn't have called we would've gone to the wrong dock, and at the wrong time. We were told that we were leaving at 7.00pm but were no sooner on at 5.50pm than the boat was pulling out at 6.00. Whew, a close thing. At least one thing went right for us, and a fairly vital one at that...
On the boat
When the agent got us on the boat we thought we had done well. We were given a cabin on the top deck right at the front behind the wheelhouse. We steamed out of Yichang under a fairly impressive bridge and then just after dusk past the Three Gorges Dam (so we could finally see what we missed earlier in the day). Some photos taken on our return trip can been below. We didn't realise that meals were included so we missed out on dinner the first night. We didn't have any meal tags anyway. They weren't brought around to our cabin until 11.30 that night - after we'd gone to bed. I said before that I thought we'd done well. However, not really. The fumes from the exhaust were so noxious that we had to open the door for most of the night to try and get some sleep.
In the morning we slept in late then ambled down to the dining room for a leisurely western buffet breakfast. After a couple of cappucinos we strolled back to our room, lay on the deck chairs outside and watched the scenery go by. Well, that's what we would've liked anyway! Instead we were woken at 4.30am (and 3.30am the next morning) with the most annoying muzak. On the right is an example of the horrendous schedules that they ran on the boat. We had to compete for chairs in the dining room with the Chinese who, as usual, gave no quarter and left us standing waiting to consume a fairly ordinary Chinese breakfast. Things looked like they were not going to get better any time soon...
We were meant to be going to the Lesser Three Gorges at 7am but that didn't eventuate due to floods so the boat just kept going up river. Most people appeared to go back to sleep, unlike the boat on the left where they obviously did not get up as early and hence were more alert. We didn't seem to go at a very brisk pace. I don't ever remember passing another boat, they all seemed to pass us. Hence the title, 'Slow Boat in China'.
Some of the spectacular scenery below and right
The consolation was that the gorges REALLY are spectacular in sections as seen by these photographs. It's sad that they will be (mostly) disappearing under metres of water in the near future. All along the route there were signs showing how high the water will rise to. Also sad was how ordinary Chinese seem to be still far from being ecologically aware. I constantly saw rubbish being thrown off the boat. The water along the whole breadth of the river was strewn with flotsam, includingly interestingly enough, many many shoes. There must be a lot of people out there with one cold foot.
Finally around 9am there was an announcement and a small boat came alongside and began ferrying people to shore to see Baidi Temple. There were always plenty of announcements but knowing little Chinese we were generally left to ponder their meaning. It could be something as simple as, 'Breakfast is ready', to 'Look at the nice rock on the left', right up to, 'We have hit an iceberg - man the lifeboats...'. Anyway we noticed the boat coming to fetch us and joined the clambering crowds going ashore. As we left the boat and made our way up the stairs we were consumed by the crush. We are used to crowds in China but this was getting rather agrophobic. One poor foreign tourist behind us pointedly remarked to his travelling companions, 'This is a freak show isn't it?'. We took the cable car to the top and looked over a valley that will soon be flooded and a castle on a hill that will become an island. We wanted to stay longer but were worried about what time we would be ferried back. We hurried down the hill, and I slightly twisted my ankle in the haste. Down at the bottom it was unorganised chaos with various groups from the boat sitting around not sure where the boat (which had left) would come in and pick us up. We attached ourselves to one group near to our arrival point. Later someone came over and said we would have to go to the other side of the harbour, to which some heatedly replied, "Go get stuffed! You can bring the boat in this side". This is not a literal translation but just what I imagined given the decibels, gestures and expression of the exchange. Eventually we had to walk to the other side where we once again fought and clawed our way onto the ferry. The boat did three about-turns on the way back as they obviously kept thinking they were missing someone - then realising that they weren't. Either that or there were battling some awfully swirly currents...
After Baidicheng we headed back down river to Wushan at the junction of the Lesser Three Gorges. There were still no boats leaving so we were to be stuck there for the rest of the day. We took a leisurely stroll up the hill and were quite surprised by the lack of tourist traps. It appeared to us that most tourists must only have time to jump on boats going up the Lesser Gorges and never take time to wander around the town. Wushan appears as a reasonably prosperous town, for the moment. The lower part of the town is under the wrecking ball to make way for the rising dam waters but a plethora of new buildings are being built higher up the slopes. We were subject to the usual stares at lo wai, but all the locals otherwise proved themselves uniformally warm and friendly. Two young girls, barely into their teens, appointed themselves temporary tour guides. One in particular had excellent English skills. There were many others who passed by practicing whatever phrases they could remember, such as "OK", "Bye Bye", "Hello!", and even, "Welcome to China". Another young girl tried talking to us but was so nervous all she could do was mouth "hello" with no sound emanating. We took the opportunity to stock up on some snacks and drinks, plus partook in some delicious fried potatoes - a local delicacy. We took a picture of the seller, though she was very shy about it all.
We wandered back to the boat and sat around waiting. At dinner time there were no seats available again so we gave up and went back to the cabin. I went back a little later just to check again and was given a new table that had been set up. As I began to eat the maitre'd came over and got quite upset with me. I told him I was put there by the waiter and therein followed a fearsome argument between boss and worker. Eventually it was dissipated when another lo wai and his Chinese girlfriend showed up. Apparently they had ordered the meal specially for their other lo wai friends who were not handling the food very well. So the chef had made up a substantial order more in keeping with western palates. The problem was that their friends were not even interested in that so they (Jerome, a Canadian lawyer working in Beijing and his girlfriend May) were more than happy to share with me, and later My wife as well.
The Lesser Three Gorges tour was re-scheduled for early the next morning, meaning a rising bell at 3.30am. We got to bed early but around 9.30pm another boat pulled in alongside with some noisy s****y kids who just wanted to keep singing and shouting. Nobody else seemed to want to ask them to behave respectably so My wife and I had a good spit at them (and the babysitter/ayi who was sitting with them), before an embarassed crew member also came along to tell them to quiet down. Needless to say it did not put us in a happy mood for the next morning...
The Lesser Three Gorges
We skipped breakfast in the morning (as it wasn't too long since dinner...) and 'slept in' till around 4.15. Around 4.30 there was an announcement made and we were made to rush off the boat evacuation style. If they had had a couple of jackboot Nazi's there yelling "Rouse! Rouse!" the picture would have been complete. We were put into small buses and bounced on a small rough road over the hill. What met us there was pure madness. There was an impatient crowd of thousands all trying to get onto these small boats (as per on the right). Without my common tendency toward exaggeration or flippancy I can honestly say that this unruly mob were little different from any you would find fleeing a war zone. I was half keeping an eye out for mortars flying across our heads. There were police, shouting, megaphones, pushing, shoving, choking exhaust fumes from the boats - it was unbelievable. At one stage the crush got so bad that they were forced to hand small children over the fences to stop them being crushed.
Finally we were able to get onto a boat around 6.30am. We sit there while guides jump backwards and forwards arguing, collecting tickets and moving people around. Finally ropes are unhooked at 7.08am but still we just wallow there about 10 metres away while the tour guides continue to argue on the bow. It seems every boat is moving forward except ours. Given our luck so far on the trip we could expect little else. 7.31am and they are STILL arguing, AND THEN, YES, AND THEN, at 7.44am they tie up again! By 7.49am they finally seem happy, we untie and at last we move forward. NOTE TO GEORGE W BUSH: Please stop being so difficult with the Chinese. They are no threat whatsoever to the U.S. You will NEVER have to go to war against them. If you don't believe me, just send some of your best lads to the Lesser Three Gorges and check out how organised they are...
As can be seen in the photograph on the right the views in the gorges are sensational. Unfortunately rain set in about 1/3 of the way up which ruined the experience somewhat. However, there was a silver lining to this. Given the late start and the rain the boat bypassed ALL of the usual mandatory tourist traps. Once we reached near the junction of the Three Mini Gorges (which, I believe, are just before the Three Micro Gorges and the Three Zygote Gorges) the boat turned around and started back. Along the way there was a small partly demolished village ('Two Dragons') that was either remaining positive or very tongue-in-cheek. They had placed a large sign facing the river stating how many days left till they were submerged. 241 was the count the day that we sailed past. I got a photo of the village (below) but was not at a good enough angle to get the sign.
It was definitely less hassle getting off the boat - but definitely not getting back to our boat. We were told to, 'get on any bus' but none seemed to want to let us on. We walked up the road for quite aways, in the pouring rain, without an umbrella, before being allowed to be graciously shoe-horned into a bus that must've dated back to before The Great Leap Forward. Hanging on for dear life we endured a bone jolting ride before finally being dropped off at the wrong dock. We picked our way through the sand and mud back to the boat and finally after cleaning ourselves up partook of what was, given the past history, a reasonably pleasant meal. And we didn't even have to fight for a seat...
A late return
As a send off the kids on the next boat decided to continue their aggravations. My wife and I are both teachers so obviously we are used to putting up with the nuances of children, but these ones set new levels. We ambled off pleasantly back toward Yichang and enjoyed the scenery. Along the way we saw more towns being demolished (like below), plus a day view of the Three Gorges Dam - which was just too huge to get in one shot. We were impressed with the features that will come into play next year such as the shipping lift. With all the interruptions the boat ran about 4 hours late into Yichang. There was an extra meal put on but to add insult to injury they requested payment for it. After quite a bit of strong wording, and interpretation from the gracious Jerome, plus their resignation that we were simply not going to pay for it, they decided the meal was free. We whiled away the last couple of hours playing the 'shoe gomi (rubbish)' game where we had to guess how many shoes would be in the next lot of rubbish floating by in the river. We finally disembarked at 8.30pm - four and a half hours late.
We stayed the night at the Taohualing Hotel and took a taxi along an incredibly quiet highway the next morning to the airport. There was also a hotel bus going, but that just happened to leave at the same time the complimentary breakfast started (7am). Incredibly bad timing there, or perhaps they would think good. The flight to Shanghai was quite quiet and, despite there being no seat allocation, there was no need for elbows when boarding. Flying home I scanned through my phrase book looking for the translation of the name of the boat. 'San Xia' means 'Three Gorges', and I think 'Fen Qing' means 'Abandon all hope...'..