If we thought the journey to Xian was long, then the journey to meet our river boat at the Three Gorges Dam was an epic.
We flew to Wutan (by the way, the airports were all fantastic, and all the flights – including catering – excellent) and then had a six-hour minibus ride to the dam. This was really our first run through open countryside, and it felt a bit more ‘Chinese’. We stopped at the standard kind of service stations for toilets and snacks – including cucumber crips, a new favourite. These really were no different to the service stations at home. Just cleaner and safer. Most had chargers for electric vehicles.
We rendezvoused with someone on a street corner who supplied us with a ‘box meal’. This was sandwiches and crips. Amy handed out instant coffee.
We were tired when we reached the ship and boarded, and found ourselved almost on a standard cruise-ship scenario, with our cruise director – an American – trying to give us a briefing that we couldn’t hear, then breaking off as another group arrived, then starting again with a microphone while a group of Chinese competed very successfully with their own loud conversation.
We also got hit with the ‘upgrade your cabin’ sell. This was two-fold: upgrade your cabin to a slightly bigger one, and upgrade to the upstairs dining, WiFi and beverage package. We took the dining/WiFi/beverage package, but said we were happy with our cabin – which we hadn’t seen yet, but had been assured had a balcony, which was all we needed.
Belatedly, we got to bed, but not before noting that the toilet did not allow for flushing anything (except the obvious): used toilet paper had to go in the bin – which did not have a lid. Luckily, this was emptied regularly.
Today was spent roaming around the Three Gorges Dam, along with the inevitable hundreds of other people.
We’d heard about it before: the ecological damage, and the displacement of an entire city. With a ‘strong government’, of course, you don’t need any public enquiry. The dam is 2.3km long, 185m high, 18m wide at the top and 130m wide at the bottom. The reservoir it has created is 600km long. Mainly it’s a hydroelectric project, but also controls flooding downstream on the Yangtze.
It was spectacular, right enough, with huge ships coming through the locks and smaller ones getting lifted up (though they could have learned a trick from the Falkirk Wheel, I thought).
Back to the ship and into ‘cruise mode’, starting with happy hour and sitting on the top deck watching the walls of the gorges slide buy, as we realised we were upstream from the dam.
This was probably the first occasion we had time to really bond as a group. The Aussies from Brisbane, who gave me my first taste of Bundaberg Rum on the cruise, will be remembered for ever, and I’ll find a place in a novel for them.
We were decanted onto a smaller boat for a cruise along a tributary of the Yangtze, past villages and through narrow gorges. This got us closer to everything.
We saw a boat picking up groups of children – obviously a ‘school bus’. Above us, in a very narrow deep part of the gorge, ran a motorway. Other huge concrete pillars were being built – we asked what for, and were told it was the rail line for the bullet train, part of the ongoing connectivity across China.
In some of the holes the rocky gorge walls, there were coffins. Apparently this was a thing in the local area, though the logistics of the whole funeral arrangements must have been horrendous – not to mention any risk assessment.
The next day we sailed into the city of Chongqing, with the usual vista of high-rise after high rise, all grey concrete here. By the shore, women were washing clothes in the river. Chongqing was home to 34 million people, one of the largest cities in the world. We’d never heard of it. One of our Aussies commented that this was the entire population of Australia, all in the one city. Because of the Dam, large container ships could get here, easing tarde.
This day was perhaps a ‘filler’. We were taken round a market, and then to a kindergarten: thirty three 3-year olds in one room, singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in Chinese, then taken out to a yard overlooked by high-rises for PE. After that we went to see an old man in the house he had been relocated to following the construction of the dam – demonstrating how happy he was with the whole issue. Finally we went to a big temple high on a hill about the city. Apart from a few tourists, the place was empty. And the huge statue of the Jade Emperor didn’t look anything like him!
On the ship we saw the snuff bottle artist at work, and of course we bought some: we’d known about this in advance, and had decided that these would be good presents for the family. We also had a bit of a history talk. Basically, they were giving all the typical ‘cruise ship’ experiences.
The evening on board ship was relaxing – this was our fourth night in the one place, after all. We had pre-dinner drinks, wine with the meal, a dancing show, and then relaxing outside with more drink and a Bundaberg, watching the world – and the big ships – go by.
It was an early start, with the normal cruise ship business of paying the bills. Check-in luggage had gone outside the cabins the night before, and we just had our carry-on bags.
Wiry old men carried our carry-on bags balanced on bamboo poles slung across their shoulders along the pontoon and up the wide flight of steps to where our bus would be. We tipped them £1 for their efforts, the recommended rate.
We drove through typical Chinese city madness to the zoo. The congestion seemed worse because we’d had those days out on deck with the countryside flowing past.
In the zoo, there were hundreds of people just shooting the breeze. The odd Tai Chi event was taking place. Young children gazed in wonder at us. We said ‘ni hao’ and mummies prompted them to say ‘hello’ and wave at us. Not for the first time, people took our pictures: sometimes they asked for selfies with the ‘big noses’, and me, arguably the biggest big nose of them all.
We were here for the pandas, of course, and we saw them. They really are idiotic animals, climbing along logs, pushing each other, falling off. But mainly they just sat eating bamboo, looking for all the world like bored actors dressed up. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a beer glass in one paw. But it was great to see them in person, so to speak.
From Chongqing we were catching the bullet train to Guilin, in south China. It took longer than the flight would have, but in theory we wouldn’t have that long check-in time. Except that we did, so a huge chunk of the day was taken up.
The railway station was like an airport, but with more seating. Finally we queued at the gate, and Amy chased away a Chinese man who, in the traditional style, cruised up to the head of the queue.
Needless to say, the train was comfortable – all the seats facing the one way – and smooth. A display gave the speed: top speed was 350km/h. The journey of around 1000km took under five hours. (A one-way second class ticket costs around £28.) We had a box meal on the trip. The train was full, and everyone on board was well behaved and quiet.
Embarking at Guilin, in southern China, and the heat and humidity hit us like a hot, damp pillow. I’ve been in steam rooms which were cooler and dryer.
On the drive to the hotel, we noted the landscape: sandstone sculpted into pillars by rain and wind, and covered with vegetation. This looked like China!
Our hotel was built round a vast open area, and was quite luxurious. We ate there, in a separate room away from other guests.