It had been our intention to catch a train from XiAn to Chongqing, a 650km trip south to pick up a Yangtze River Cruise. However, it seems as though all the trains are timed to cater for the business people, either leaving around 6pm and arriving around sunup the next day, with a couple hitting Chongqing around midnight. Arriving in an unknown city at either time is a very bad idea so we decided to fly instead, a flight of only just over an hour. However, add to that the formalities of getting through all the security and screenings and it still works out to be a big thing. We left the hotel at 10am and arrived in Chongqing at 3pm, with just an hour spent in the air.
We caught a taxi to our lodgings, an apartment sharing service. Taxis in Chongqing are a set price and union controlled so it means the usual touts and thieves don’t thrive. Taxis are also one of the main forms of transport owing to the mountainous nature of the city, ruling out bicycles and e-bike travel that is now so dominant in the plains cities like Beijing and XiAn. The taxi ride was absolutely terrifying. On the one hand, the driver was good to us, and rang ahead to the lodgings to ensure that someone could meet us on arrival, there being no formal reception area. On the other hand, he shouted in deafening tones into the phone while driving at breakneck speed on a crowded freeway. He was a frustrated rally driver, pushing his battered old Hyundai Excel to its limits and reached 125km/hr down a huge hill. When any car got close to him, he would either cut it off or come up behind it and “give it the horn”. All was forgiven in the end because we survived the ordeal and he was successful in making sure there was a charming young girl to meet us when he deposited us outside our apartment block.
Chongqing is a very beautiful city, at least the parts you can see through the thick pall of pollution. At around 30million, it is China’s largest inland city, both in area and population. It surrounds both the Yangtze and the Jialing Rivers, which means there are a lot of very impressive bridges. It seems they have explored most bridge building methods and each one is on a massive scale. The towering buildings of the CBD complete the picture, especially at night when the light displays are spectacular.
Our accomodation, named the Injoy Hotel, Nambin Branch, is actually a set of managed apartments. We got a spacious apartment with a kitchen, bathroom and washing machine for around $35 a night on the 15h floor of a 26 floor tower. However, the kitchen lacked a fridge and any form of cooking equipment beyond a gas stove and there were no pans or even cutlery, making the facility rather useless.
Outside was a ritzy strip of hotels, the Hilton, Sheraton and Marriot up the hill behind, so it wasn’t the place to find cheap street eats. Food was restricted to a strip of restaurants that were well beyond our travelling budget. We walked several kilometres to find affordable food that we could identify. The street behind the apartments, up the hill, was full of “Hot Pot” restaurants, all selling the cook your own experience with a local spicy broth bubbling away in a cut-out in the centre of the table. This form of dining is a Chongqing specialty but is better suited to a group and we probably couldn’t handle the heat either, pepper and chiili being thrown into the pot in equally large proportions.
Finally, after several kilometres up and down, we came across a little place with plastic stools out the front, a sure sign of good food, and a family of smiling faces. We sat down and looked at the menu, no pictures, just characters. The family appointed their daughter as interpreter and her English was about as good as my high school French. We played with Google Translate, which fascinated the watching crowd before finally settling on one dish because the girl said “potato” and another because it had “chicken”. We hit the jackpot on both counts. The potato thing was fried in slices with ultra tender pork belly strips and spring onions with great spices while the chicken thing was chicken diced fine with veges and lots of whole peanuts. There was no way we could finish all the food. There was much smiling and laughing as we joined in watching a soapy on TV before the family sat down to their meal. All this with two cold beers thrown in and the bill came to $12. The girl was rewarded with an “Australian Koala Keyring” which was actually made in China anyway but at least bought in Perth. A few nights later, we went back for more delicious food and were welcomed like royalty, the girl proudly displaying her koala hanging from her smartphone. We watched a movie with them, a Chinese version of “Inspector Rex” and managed to enjoy it, even though we couldn’t understand a word. That’s the sign of a good movie.
Moving around Chongqing was a problem for us. Our accommodation is poorly located Metro wise and walking is difficult due to the hills. We used more taxis here than in the whole of the rest of the trip but at least they are cheap and honest. We do our homework before getting in and always have some Chinese text on our smartphones to show the driver. He stares at it, mutters a few words, grunts and goes. Only once have we ended up in the wrong place and that wasn’t a bad mistake.
We took a taxi to the cruise wharf area to scope out what we would have to do to catch our boat on the Yangtze and found a jumbled disorganised collection of ticket sellers, floating pontoons and workers. Nowhere was there any English signage but after getting help from an English speaking woman and making a phone call to the Internet based travel agency that sold us the ticket we managed to feel confident enough about the boarding process. The wharf facilities speak volumes about the flood levels of the Yangtze River. It is a long climb down from the walkway to the river itself, via steep steps that line the river bank. At walkway level, a massive concrete embankment reaches upwards and flood level indicators, marked in metres, record possible water levels. They go over the 200m mark. Since the building of the Three Gorges Dam, the river levels are measured as a height above sea level, peaking at around 175m in Winter and dropping down to around 100m at the height of Summer. By any stretch, this is a huge water rise and fall.
The area in front of our apartment is a large open space opposite the river and it fills with families each night. The evenings are hot, around the 30 degree mark and crowds of tiny children play in the large water fountain area, similar to the one at Elizabeth Quay. Others ride bikes around and a little electric train does the rounds carrying the kiddies. It is great to see.
In the three days we spent wandering around various parts of Chongqing, we did not see another European, even at the cruise boat port. This is very unusual and we are actually hopeful that there will be a few English speaking people on our cruise. Conversing with others through a smartphone interpreter is getting tiresome. Obviously, the locals do not see a lot of Europeans because they aren’t shy about openly staring. I have been stared at while eating a meal, while Christine tends to attract pointed stares from men. Once, on a subway, I played a game by suddenly looking at a young girl seated opposite. I knew she was watching me so I kept catching her out until she finally relented and smiled back.
Now that we have been here for a while, other aspects of life are also becoming tiresome. The pollution is terrible. Although the negative health effects are not immediately felt, it must take its toll. High rise living behind many layers of security access is also not my style. Everywhere we go we have to take our card and swipe it to move around the complex of apartments and facilities. The Internet is blocked to many sites, most annoyingly all Google sites, which means we have to handle not only WiFi log-ons but also connecting to VPNs (servers located outside of China that route our Internet for us). It seems that most people in China also use VPN services so I’m not sure why the Government bothers to monitor and censor in the first place.
The day of our cruise on the Yangtze arrived. Unfortunately, boarding time was advertised as between 6pm and 8pm, leaving us a whole afternoon to kill with the burden of our bags. We caught a taxi to Chaomienten Port around 11:30 and, after a bit of searching, found the Yangtze 1. All the boats advertise as having extraordinary levels of comfort and service and ours proved to meet this claim but the service only seems to start once you have made it to the boat. Access is down a steep road towards the river, followed by many series of steep concrete steps. In 36 degree heat with full packs on our backs, this proved to be a bit of an ordeal and we reached the ship with a full sweat up. Our hope was that they would store our baggage until boarding time but to our delight they booked us in and gave us the electronic pass to our cabin. We were free to come and go as we wished. The seductive power of the air-conditioning won out and we abandoned plans to go to the zoo and chose to laze around instead. Zoos tend to disturb me at the best of times anyway and the oppressive conditions outside were almost too much.
The boat is beautiful. The Yangtze 1 is not as flash or as big as some others on the river but at $US329 each for four days it is considerably cheaper than most. Our cabin was bigger than some of the hotels we have stayed in with excellent facilities. The dining areas and bars are beautifully appointed and with 103 staff for 250 passengers the service is excellent. By this time, we had gone three days without seeing an other European so we were hopeful.
The boat sailed at 9:30pm, giving us an incredible view of the lights of Chongqing as we headed downstream. We watched the banks slide by, fascinated at one point by the huge container loading facility that was bigger than the one in Fremantle Harbour yet a thousand kilometres inland. Cars were pouring off an enormous multi-storey car ferry, having arrived from some point down river. Eventually, we left the sights behind and headed for bed.
We awoke to glassy conditions anchored off the city of Feng Du. We opened up the curtains to the balcony to admire the view and started our preparations for the day in various states of undress when a huge ship suddenly slid alongside and made ready to raft up with ours. This put our balcony cabin directly opposite another, and the occupants were on their balcony so it was a hasty retreat to close the curtains and find some clothing.
When we got to breakfast, we found there was another similar ship on the other side of us. All the dining rooms were on the same level so it looked like one enormous space. The English guide on the boat introduced himself and filled us in on the various features of the trip and optional tours. The only other westerners aboard, were two British girls, and a German girl but they didn’t get to breakfast, a common thing with young people everywhere. Later, we met the British girls at the pool area. All three are on a tour of China, Charlotte having just finished Uni and Hannah a teacher on summer vacation while the German girl, Sofia is having a “gap year”. Over the course of the four days, we enjoyed the girls’ company although they often went separate ways as they are part of a package tour.
We lazed around while some other passengers went off on an optional tour. These tend to be quite expensive and we have decided that the packaged tours will suit the budget more. We have one packaged shore excursion each day and once a day in the extreme heat is enough. We toured the Shibaozhai Pagoda, an amazing structure perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the river.
The surrounding town is small by Chinese standards and lacks the collection of concrete apartment towers that most sport. The whole town dates from between 1998 and 2006, having been built by the Government to house the inhabitants of the river bank villages that were flooded when the Three Gorges Dam was built. The highest flood waters also threatened the pagoda with the building of the dam so a huge concrete caison was constructed around the base of the pagoda to protect it. It was a 1km walk in 40 degree heat to the pagoda but we spurned the offers of a car or motorbike ride and walked with our guide, a nice young man who called himself Travis. There were also a couple of brown and wrinkled old men who shouted forcefully at people to encourage them to climb into the wood and canvas chairs that they carried on their backs. I can’t think of a worse experience. Our walk took us past the inevitable line of stalls selling all manner of goods. It is the only real work in the town, with no industry around these parts. Many of the house remain empty because most young people have left to find work.
The access to the pagoda itself was via a long suspension bridge, and Christine struggled to control her language on the crossing, failing on a few occassions when treading on a loose plank or two. Travis did warn her that the bridge was known as the drunk’s bridge. Then we began the climb into the structure. The Shibaozhai Pagoda is the tallest wooden pagoda in China and is built entirely of interlocking timber pieces without the use of nails or other fixings. It leans up against the rock cliff for support, a remarkable feat given that it is nine storeys high. The wooden steps inside are more like ladders and I was surprised when Christine ascended to level 7, a level that gets you to Heaven. I pushed on to level 9, assuring me of a place in Super Heaven. Travis explained all the history and the meaning of the various relics and icons along the way. Fortunately, a series of steps lead down, alleviating the need to carry Christine back down the ladders and we made our way back down through the village, pausing to make a couple of small purchases (our first in China). By the time we reached the boat, we were completely soaked through with sweat.
The evening entertainment on the boat promised a “Talent Show”, which we took to be a Talent Quest. Sofia, the young German girl, signed up to perform a belly dance, something she has practised and performed for ten years or so while the rest of us begged off, although we did make sure we got front row seats to help support Sofia. The “Quest “ part proved wrong and the show consisted of the boat crew performing various traditional dances and a few other acts, most of which was entertaining. Sofia was definitely the hit of the night, with an amazing and mesmerizing performance. The Chinese crowd seemed appreciative as well, with the cameras out in force.
Later, when the host called for three male volunteers, I knew I was doomed, being the only non-Chinese male in the room. Along with two other unfortunates, I was made to sit front and centre in a chair, while a “volunteer” female tied a bib around my neck and hand fed me beer from a baby’s bottle and teat. Naturally, I beat the other two guys hands down. I’ll do anything for a free beer. The prize for participating was an ultra sweet green cocktail. The evening culminated with us being forced to get up and dance the Macarena, Birdy Dance and YMCA with the boat crew and the three girls. It was bizarre!
There are many towns spread along the 700kms or so of the Yangtze that we traversed. All of these are new towns, the original ones having being demolished and rebuilt at Government expense. In all 130 million people were relocated to cater for the rising waters, all in the space of a 7 year period. The flooding has also brought more consistency to river traffic and an increase in fishing output. There were some losses however, with two species of animal becoming extinct, the Yangtze Dolphin and a type of crocodile. Silting of the river and erosion of banks is also a major issue, and everywherre on the river we could see dredges at work and barges carrying silt away. A lot of work is going on upstream in the catchment areas and the problem is rapidly being brought under control. The Chinese have a lot of very serious environmental problems but I saw a lot of evidence that they are working hard on finding solutions.
The entry into the Qutang Gorge, the first of the three actual gorges was beautiful, the river narrowing to at least a third of its former width and being bordered by towering sandstone hills and cliffs. Houses and tiny hamlets still cling to any piece of land that isn’t vertical and it is amazing to see the extent to which the Government has gone to provide electricity to even the most isolated of properties. Before the dam was built, the gorges created dangerous conditions for navigation, with low water levels, numerous rapids and uncharted hazards. On our trip, we passed through the Qutang Gorge, the Wushan Gorge and half of the Xiling Gorge. The last, was disappointing due to the poor visibility, with the smog from the industrialised areas between Yichang and Shanghai being out of control. Other areas were good, especially around the famed Shennong Stream. This is a side river gorge and we were offloaded into small craft to cruise up into the gorge. Having walked, swum and boated through many gorges in the north of WA, we thought we knew gorges but this was something else again, with the cliffs rising 800m or so from the stream. The sides of the gorges were covered in lush green vegetation with large landslide scars exposing big areas of bare sandstone to create some stunning vistas. This is the stuff of many a Chinese tapestry. A visual splendour.
Yichang is a city in the middle of the Xiling Gorge and marked the end of our cruise. Yichang’s main claim to fame is as the site of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest dam project ever undertaken anywhere in the World. The main dam face is over 2km in length. The dam is also the World’s largest power station. At the time of its construction, between 1996 and 2006, it was widely criticised by the rest of the World as an environmental disaster but many benefits have arisen, the most significant being flood control and improved river navigation. We took a short tour of the dam, probably the only tour on the whole of our trip we hated. It was hot, crowded and boring. A good video would have been better. On the other hand, the access to Yichang was via the dam’s ship locks, an amazing 5 lock system finished in 2015. We entered the first lock at 10:30pm, watching in amazement as the ship fell about 35m in only 10 minutes or so, before moving into the next lock. We watched a couple of locks operate before heading to bed. There is a double lock system, allowing for both upstream and downstream traffic, truly a piece of modern engineering genius. An enormous volume of shipping now passes through these lock, most carrying container freight of fully laden trucks to the upper reaches of the Yangtze far inland.
We left the ship at Yichang and spent a couple of days in the Guomao Hotel doing very little. Yichang itself is unremarkable but the relatively small population of 1.3 million meant that moving around the city centre was easy. We slept, ate, walked and watched the Olympics (with Chinese commentary of course). From here, it is an 8 hour train trip to Shanghai.