China - Cruisin' the Yangtze River Last Updated: 13-May-03

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Itinerary Map 

My room is on the third deck, with a nice view out the starboard side. Larger than a Japanese business hotel, it has 2 beds, a workable bathroom, closed-circuit TV (which plays a show on the history of cheese), and too few electrical outlets. The fourth deck has rooms, and the fifth houses the nightclub. Most decks have balconies fore and aft.

Boarding the Star Dipper  My stateroom  Amenities  My excellency's escape rouit  Rear (poop?) deck  The swimming pit  Exercise room  The all-important bar (with painting, chop, and snuff bottle kiosks)  Dance and Karaoke  Amy logging in the lounge  Hallway (or is it a gangway?) on big luggage day 

After getting settled (and sneaking off the boat to get more munchies), we joined the conga-line buffet (rubber Kung-Pao chicken, without the spice) on the first deck, and then Alan (the Entertainment Director) gave an extended briefing on the boat and its revenue opportunities. To imagine Alan (best described by Jeff, another passenger), think of a Chinese person doing an imitation of Billy Crystal doing an imitation of a Chinese waiter. I hope that someone was taking notes on the schedule, because I certainly was not.

A negotiated disembarkation for more goodies  Goody spectators 

The buffet line - we got to know these ingredients very well  Dinner 

11 Oct. Dam day A bus excursion took us to the 3 Gorges Dam project. Unfortunately, it was very hazy, and we were unable to see the whole dam thing clearly. Nonetheless, the scale is impressive - it is six times the width of the Hoover Dam. We drove past the large boat locks (or larks, as our guide called them) to the top of the viewing hill. There we got the story of the dam, the origin of the idea, and its benefits. After seeing it and being herded quickly through the store, we got to sail through the temporary lock, which only rises a few meters at the moment. However, when they flood the first phase in June next year, it will take only one month to reach the 135 m level. They are building a temporary dam to enable this, and will then complete the final dam to raise it to the full 175 m in 2009. As we sailed up the river, and into the Xiling Gorge, the first and longest of the three. A high and low-light of the gorge was an ancient coffin which hangs from the gorge wall. At almost the same moment, someone spotted a very not ancient dead body floating in the river. The Swiss guide aboard said that he has seen several in his trips on the river.

Ain't we all tourists, though? Our route from Tongling, West of Wuhan (at the right) to Chongqing (at the left) 

Morning on the Yangtze  Dawn in Tongling (I think) 

The lowest of the five new ship locks on the 3 Gorges dam  The 3 Gorges dam, shrouded by damn haze  Project model - or else giant people  Going through the temporary lock  Damn big dam 

All along the way, we saw signs which indicated the water levels (135 m and 175 m). Gleaming new towns sat above the final level, and workers dismantled and demolished buildings below that level. But, life still goes on; farmers can still get one crop in before the flooding, and numerous coal boats continue to load up at the uncounted coal chutes along the river valley.

Washing lotus roots 

More locks (no bagels)  Tight fit 

Up  Up  Up! 

Up the Yangtze River traffic is constant, ranging from small wooden sampans to coal barges and passenger boats. Barges with all sorts of imaginable products move up and down the river, with pigs, water buffalo, shipping containers, cars, rolls of wire, piping, and many others. We passed numerous passenger boats similar to the Star Dipper, and many of higher and lower class. Fast hydrofoils periodically passed in either direction. And still, ferries carried people from one side to another. Periodically, our boat bellowed its horn to signal intent, and when we were in the gorges, its echo hung in the moist air for many seconds. The river width changed constantly, narrow and swift through the steep gorges, and lazier where it spread up to 1.5 km wide. And the entire way, it keeps its muddy mocha coffee color. This silt comes from as far as the Tibetan plateau, where denuded landscapes are eroding down into the river. It is this silt which brings fertile soil with the Yangtze's floods, and which experts say will clog up the huge dam - too huge to keep up with the needed dredging. Some say that the turbines and dam will become useless within 20 years.

Fishing in cafe mocha  Xiling Gorge  The gorge walls should not be taken for Granite...or should they?  New villages up the hill 

12 Oct. Small Pleasures 12 Oct. Our second full day on the river started after the run through the Wu Gorge.

The day's schedule 

New and old houses  Number signs count the future depth  Walls of the Wu Gorge  Coal shoots and barge  This temple will be flooded 

Boat breakfast (Toast, bean curd ribbons, sauteed garlic shoots, potatoes, salted duck egg, rice porridge, and pork dumplings) 

After an early breakfast, the schedule called for an excursion into the Little 3 Gorges along the Daning River, behind Wushan. Or, at least, we were told to queue early, and then waited in the sweltering lobby for too long. Once we were let out, we flowed onto small pleasure craft, where we were to enjoy many small pleasures. The fleet of small boats (40 waiguoren each) swarmed up into the Daning, jockeying for position. We passed the sparkling new town of Wushan, high up on the mountain, well above the picked-over ruins of the old city. The river is shallow, and we often loudly scraped along the bottom. Competing boat companies turn the expedition into a day of bumper boats, and we get the chance to look through the windows at other tourists from China, Korea, and Thailand. We entered under the Dragon's Mouth Bridge, an impressive span which will be "exploded" because it lies 70 m below the eventual water level, and rebuilt at the top of the mountain. As the government took a count of us big noses, we passed a sign (in Chinese) which declared that the flooding will just make tourism better. It is clear that the tourist business up the Little 3 Gorges is a major economic contributor to the area.

The dock at Old Wushan  Lily, our river guide (and future merchant)  Drying fish and underwear  Bumper boats under the Dragon's Mouth Bridge (which will be exploded because it lies 70 m below the future lake) 

We passed an area with small square holes spaced high along the cliff, all that remains of an ancient wooden pathway. Lily, our gorge guide, told us that there were 3 reasons that this 4 km boardwalk had been built: military, communication, and water. I suspect that, in its day, it also got some tourist revenue as well. It is not known how the holes were made. We motored on up the narrow river, banging into other boats and noisily scraping bottom - more than the other boats, it seemed. At one point, we had to get out, mingling with locals on their way upriver, and wait for the boats to go single file through a particularly narrow and shallow portion. At several of these slow places, boys ran out with long poles which had nets on the ends. They extended these to the boat windows, fishing for money. All along the way were spots where people would land; these were crowded with trinket stalls. To the chagrin of much of the group, there was no time to stop and shop. In fact, due to the unexplained late start, we did not reach the end of the 3rd gorge before we had to turn around, thereby missing the replica of the ancient walkway and the wild monkeys. (I missed the chance to make Ebola jokes.) Rushing downriver, we had to make it to the Star Dipper by 1:00 - again illogical, since almost every passenger was out having these small pleasures; the ship would not leave without us. As we floated down, Lily the gorge guide broke out the sales pitch for the DVDs, videos, and books with naked men. (I'm not making this up - in the past, before motors, there were "draggers" who pulled the boats upriver. They were naked to make the job easier.)

Holes for an ancient walkway - and we did not get to see the recreation  Entry into the Little 3 Gorges  Dredge  We got us a convoy (of bumper boats)  Chinese tourists  We had to get out for the traffic jam  Fishing for money  So much to see  Life and nude sunbathing on the river 

After lunch, there were seminars on the boat on "stamps making" (personal chops) and Chinese tea. Since I'd already had enough small pleasures, I did not go.

After dinner, we had the much-dreaded talent show. Passenger acts were interspersed with dance numbers by the crew. Our group sang a tribute to our national guide, Lucy, who was hard to coax onto the stage. The Swiss group sang a number in 4 languages, and even included a Swiss Acrobatic number. (Stand up, sit down, etc. - you know the song...)

If you knew Lucy  Minority Costumes and Dance 

After all the excitement, our small group sat down, had some wine, and I taught them to play Bullshit.

13 Oct. Before the Flood A typical breakfast, and then we disembarked for the Shibaozhai Pagoda. A short walk on a long pier brought us to the bottom of the hill where it stands, skirted by numerous trinketeers. We were warned to not take the sedan chairs up the hill, because we waiguoren are too heavy, but a few of the older Swiss passengers did. As we walked through the stalls, there were many, many, many calls of "Hello" and "Come inside." Most of us did price checks, but worked our way up to the pagoda, which is built into the ricky hillside. All around is evidence of dismantled buildings; the new city lies on the hills behind and above the Pagoda. The lower portions of the Buddhist pagoda will be flooded, and there will no longer be the need to climb up to it; boats will dock at its lower gate. The pagoda is built of wood, and does not show evidence of being used, although it is stuffed with the typical gaudy reproductions of gods and guardians. Clearly on a strategic hillock, the pagoda commands an incredible view of the river, but, as always, the haze limits the view.

Shibaozhai Pagoda  Water shows off stones  The kid is not for sale  These sedan chairs don't look unsafe, do they?    Pomellos and Mushrooms  The market gauntlet  Dragons protect the roofs  Inside the wooden Pagoda  One side of the Pagoda is carved from the stone mountain  Buddhist Temple at the top  Yes, deer  Tile roof  If you can cross the bridge in three steps, then your wish will be granted. Mine was that I would not break my leg.    A strategic ridge  A view into the town - which is being taken apart and moved 

The descent back to the boat was when the shopping frenzy was unleashed. We pillaged, looted, and negotiated. We got deals that we were satisfied with. The vendors wrote proposal prices on note pads, and asked us to write counterproposals. We narrowed the gap, and finally agreed on prices, paid and pocketed the change, scrutinizing it for counterfeit bills. Like an invading army, we descended through the battlefield, leaving not bodies, but Yuan and Dollars in our wake. A good time was had by all. Among my booty (yes, Johnnie, I found something for you), I got pomellos, because most of our group had never tasted one. We shared these at lunch.

A traditional jade automobile  A trash can    Scarf!  You want to pay how much?    I have good mushrooms  Will we make it through?  Fiddler  Hello!  Hungry?    This woman tried to screw me out of 15 Yuan!  Last chance for pomello... 

Lotus root, green beans, bok choy, chicken, sweet sesame balls, potatoes...  ...and pomello 

In the afternoon, we heard an announcement that dinner would be delayed by 1 hours due to a problem with the stove. We quickly learned that there was actually a strike by the crew members. The boat had been sold (to the competition, Victoria Cruises, we later learned), and the crew was owed 2 months of pay. It was unclear if they would get paid, or if they'd have jobs when they landed in Chongqing. That could also explain why the boat had not moved for several hours. The tourguide of one of the other groups was in the hallway, explaining what she knew, and said that dinner would be an indicator - if it was served, we'd likely make it to Chongqing. We found our guide Lucy, and she gave her usually platitudes, "Don't worry." It turned out that they had known about this for more than a day (that they'd admit), but that it had nothing to do with China Focus or us. Given the clout that CF must have with the tour lines, that seemed like a silly statement, although typical.

Watching where the sunset would have been, waiting for dinner and the boat to move  Nice garden  Unloading bags of something 

So, the passengers went into action: we inventoried our food and beer, and sat in the lounge to talk and pass rumors. We eventually heard an announcement that dinner would be served, and queued at 8 pm. The doors to the dining room were still closed, and there was a heated discussion among the seated dining staff. Most of the passengers queued in the stairwell until the doors opened at 8:40. Dinner was served as usual.

Waiting on the stairs for the dining room to open  Hamburgers, a special treat (really special...), potstickers, and green beans 


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