This week months of planning culminated in a trip down the 3 Gorges. After being told for the last five weeks that there were only two tickets left for any day I mentioned as a possible departure date, I was absolutely amazed to find that there were still tickets available just three days in advance. Having paid up last Monday so that I couldn’t have a last minute change of plans, the rest of the week was spent building up to Thursday evening departure. A large supply of pot noodles ensured that I wasn’t going to starve, with a few apples for health and lots of sweets for energy. Because China is always warm there was no need to take any cold weather clothing (a kind of logic that’s not infallible, as I found out later). This minimalist approach allowed me to carry just one small rucksack, as well as two plastic bags for the things that wouldn’t fit in the rucksack.
Having skipped work a couple of hours early, I arrived at the appointed time to be told that earlier promises that I would be able to sleep on the boat in Yichang (the city I had to stay in on the Saturday night) had fallen through. The boats schedule had changed at the last minute, and now instead of staying there for 10 hours it would stop for only 20 minutes. My suspicion that this may not have been that last minute a plan was pretty much confirmed when the sales guy started his little spiel. ‘Yichang is dangerous, and with so many people getting off the boat you will never find a hotel, and it will be late and there are no taxis etc. etc.’ These tour places really must think that people are stupid, as he seemed a little surprised when I turned down his kind offer. After a while he showed me to the boat and a pretty cushy second class cabin. This meant I only had to share with three others, and even included a proper toilet and shower. Shortly after he left, with assurances that my English speaking tour guide (Miss Li, a name which didn’t exactly narrow down the number of people who she could be) would turn up shortly, and that she would arrange my return ticket (I was travelling to Yichang on the slow tourist boat, and back up the river on the fast hydrofoil). I wasn’t best pleased about this, but didn’t have much choice but to go along with them. Over the course of the evening my cabinmates arrived (3 Chinese guys who didn’t speak English), chatted with some friendly lawyers (who did speak English) and also little kids who did speak some English, but as ever they were fairly tolerant of communication difficulties (although I’m not sure how impressed their parents will be that they now know how to make farting noises with their armpits). Eventually, having enlisted the help of some friendly Chinese people, I even found my guide (who turned out not to speak English).
An early start Saturday saw us arrive at a rain sodden Ghost City (see photos). It was basically a big temple, although it did have a fairly graphic set of statues depicting hell. They were quite exciting with people being eviscerated, boiled, tortured and lots of other things unsuitable for kids, the mind of the sculptor who created them must have been an interesting place. To be fair to the temple I wasn’t in the best mood for it. First our guide sent us off in the wrong direction, then she told me that I had to pay for the cable car (the tour place had said everything was included), and it was raining, and I had got up at 5:00 in the morning, and I didn’t understand the significance of everything as nobody spoke English. I think in different circumstances it would have been more enjoyable. Sharing the experience was a French lady I had met called Monique. She was interesting, if a fair bit older than me at 57, and it was nice to have someone to talk English with (I didn’t take the opportunity to practice my French).
In the evening we went to another temple, Zhang Fei, which was unsurprisingly much the same as all the other temples I had been to. It’s main point of importance is it’s collection of ancient calligraphy, which unfortunately isn’t the most accessible sight for a westerner. I think the thing this temple really bought home to me was the amount of damage that the dam is going to cause. It’s quite remarkable, and a little worrying, to think that a temple that has stood there for 1200 years, will be covered by water next year (as will the Ghost City mentioned earlier).
Friday evening saw the boat arrive at a town called Baidicheng, also known as the town of poems because Liu Bei, a famous Chinese poet, died here while trying to avenge the death of his brother. While this trip wasn’t included on the official tour, I decided to pay up anyway as it sounded quite interesting, and the guys from my cabin had made enthusiastic beckoning motions. We got on a small boat that took us from our ferry to the town, imposing on top of cliffs hundreds of feet high, with a stone staircase lading up from the dock to the town. Unfortunately about halfway through the boat journey I found out that the town wasn’t open to foreigners. This was a tad irritating as I was shattered and now had to spend 3 hours sat on a boat, instead of in my bed. I don’t really understand why I wasn’t allowed to visit, as internet tour companies offer it as a destination to westerners, maybe there was a special event going on. Anyway this left me sat on a boat dreaming of strange communist indoctrination ceremonies that westerners must be shielded from. This was seemingly confirmed by the people returning in a strange, subdued state. However as they drew closer the smell of alcohol made me realise that they actually looked like people who had just spent 20 hours awake and then gone to the pub (this seemed to extend to the children which was a bit worrying). Sitting here now I sort of wish that I had donned a disguise and taken my chances with the local police, as the worst that would have happened would have been a fine and getting kicked out the town.
After 3 hours sleep we woke up to cruise through Qutang, the first of the Gorges. Watching the sky turn orange, and the mountains turn from dark silhouettes to terraced fields and dense woodland as the sun rose above the river was unforgettable, and worth doing the trip for on it’s own. About an hour on from this Gorge is the city of Wushan , and the 3 Little Gorges. The shallow water and rocks of the frequent rapids required us to change to a smaller boat, which was actually a lot more fun as it brought the scenery much closer. The rain of the previous day had cleared to leave the first blue skies Monique had seen in the three weeks she had spent in China . The unpolluted, crystal clear, water of this smaller river contrasted sharply with the muddied and rubbish strewn water of the Yangtze. The scenery was stunning, with yellow monkeys playing in the trees hanging from the cliffs that towered above us on either side and an eagle sat in a cave watching the water ready to catch any fish unlucky enough to swim below (I may be using a bit of artistic license there. The cave did have an eagle in but it didn’t look that hungry). Square holes cut into the cliff bore witness to the funeral ceremonies of ancient people, who would bury their dead in hanging coffins, some of which are still visible high up on the cliffs. The belief was that this would bring them closer to the Gods, although looking at the remains of the staircases you can’t help feeling that getting the coffins up there must have led to a few funerals in itself.
This was the first real countryside I had seen in China , with most of the banks too steep for cultivation, while small villages flourished in the fertile flatland that punctuated the banks of the river. Tourism is rapidly changing the face of the land, with the head of the river (or at least, the furthest point the boat could reach) crowded with food stalls selling potatoes fried with chilli as well as the usual range of noodles and rice snacks. Souvenir sellers had a wide range of tacky and inappropriate wares which they seemed genuinely surprised that I didn’t want to buy. A rickety suspension bridge over the river provided some slight excitement, but to spend six months exploring this area by canoe would be unforgettable.
Having returned to Wushan, the boat set off through Wuxia Gorge, the second of the main three. Goddess peak towered above us, the highest point along the three Gorges, and the place where legend has it that local women would stand to watch for their husbands returning home from war. Frequent landslides scarred the sides of this section of the gorges, with the remains of one village that had been destroyed a couple of years ago still visible, the large area of missing woodland behind it showing the power of the falling earth that killed so many people.
The destruction, both historical and modern was probably, and unfortunately, one of the most memorable parts of the journey. It’s quite surreal looking at the banks and seeing how cities have been torn in half by the building of the dam. Buildings below the proposed waterline have been reduced to rubble as they are stripped of every material that can be sold on or reused, while those above it remain untouched. The scale of the flooding is pretty hard to explain, but we saw points where bowls of woodland will become lakes 3 or 4 miles wide. Coming to watch this happen would be amazing, like watching a dam on a beach stream breach, but on a mammoth scale. All the tour companies who have been selling this year as the last year to travel through the 3 Gorges have been exaggerating hugely. The cliffs are huge, and the increased waterlevel will make very little difference to their appearance, but hundreds of new regions will become accessible, their seclusion gone forever (at least, it’s hoped it will be forever. If the dam ever gives way the resulting flood will destroy Shanghai 1000 miles downstream).
We sailed past the dam itself at dusk on Saturday evening. The only way to describe it’s size is flipping moosive. The huge blue trucks that are used for earth shifting were dwarfed by it’s walls, although apparently it’s only when you go up on the hills around it that you can fully appreciate what the are building. When finished it will generate one-ninth of China ‘s electrical requirements from the eighteen 200MW turbines built into it’s walls (for the non-engineers that’s a lot of big waterwheels producing even more electricity). The water level behind the dam will rise by 175m, and even here in Chongqing , nearly two days boat trip away, it is going to come up 5m. The amount of water stored is going to cause summer temperatures to drop by 5 degrees, while in winter they will rise by 2 degrees. Absolutely incredible.
We passed through the third and final gorge, Xiling, after dark, but the silhouettes against the night sky gave the general idea, and to be honest after 5 Gorges in 14 hours the sixth was always going to have rather less effect. The journey from here got pretty dull, with not much to see and our arrival time at Yichang constantly getting put back. I was kept entertained by the kids who I’d met earlier in the journey, although we did get some funny looks when we started singing ‘Old MacDonald’ in the middle of the top deck. After talking to them and their families for about 4 hours I now have 4 separate invitations to stay in Beijing , although I only have two nights there and as the families all know each other I think I’ll have to stick to a hotel if I want to avoid causing offence. Much of the final leg was spent waiting for our turn in Gezhouba, which while sounding alarmingly like a Chinese name for purgatory is in fact one of the biggest locks in the world. It was quite exciting once we got into it, although our 12:30 arrival in Yichang wasn’t great when I had to be up at 6:00 the next morning for my return trip.
The trip back up the river was uneventful, although as a first journey on a hydrofoil it was exciting. Having had about 13 hours sleep in 4 days I spent most of it passed out, which was probably just as well as there was nothing to do apart from watch the bizarre Chinese soaps on TV (strangely they had English subtitles). In Chongqing I met a Canadian girl called Ailihn who had been on the same boat as me, although in a different cabin. She was looking for a hotel, but in the end the spare room in my flat seemed like a better option.
It was really good having someone new to chat to. Her family are of Vietnamese origin, and she said that people can’t understand why she doesn’t speak Chinese, as she looks like a local. In Canada she teaches English to immigrants, which sounds like a really interesting job, especially when you consider that her students vary from Chinese doctors to Ethiopian shepherds (apparently every month he uses his wage packet to buy a new pair of trainers, and doesn’t really understand the money so always throws away any coins he’s given).
It’s been pretty good fun playing tour guide for the last couple of days, even meaning that I visited some new areas of Chongqing . Unfortunately the weather has gone pretty nasty, with lots of rain and temperatures 15 degrees below average for the time of year. People travelling at the moment really don’t seem to be seeing the best of China , as it sounds like the whole country is constantly covered by a haze of mist and rain. Hopefully it will clear by September. I nearly headed off travelling this week when I found out there was a kind of Chinese Glastonbury going on up in the mountains. Unfortunately it was too far to travel, so instead I’ll have to search out one of the raves that take place on the Great Wall every now and again.