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Published: August 23rd 2017
Little Three Gorges
Off a branch of the Yangtze, the scenery here was arguably better than it was on the Yangtze itself.
Never backpack China in summer. As well as crowds of domestic Chinese tourists - the most annoying of all tourists - all taking their holidays, it is bloody hot. With no point-to-point transport available to foreign tourists like there is in Vietnam, transfers have to be made between stations and accommodations, and travelling alone with my budget starting to spread thin, taxis are not an option. Therefore, after a workout just to get to the train, onto the train and to get my bag up into the overhead shelf, I along with everyone else on the train had to wait an eternity for the air-conditioning to come on. It was so hot in there, I feared I might pass out. I seemed to be the only guy sweating through all my clothes though, as if I was the only white guy on board.
Once the train ride from Xian to Chongqing began, things didn't get much better although I did thankfully manage to cool down. People smoke fucking everywhere in this country and soon the fumes from the smoking area were tickling my nostrils and choking my lungs. This scourge that has been eradicated in most countries is still prevalent
Three Gorges Dam
The world's biggest dam.
here in China.
The overriding emotion that I was experiencing on the train was worry. I was worried about the cruise I was about to do down the Yangtze from Chongqing to Yichang. I was worried about my budget. Even after cutting out the Philippines and two weeks off of my itinerary, it still doesn't really give me much more leeway financially.
You're always disoriented getting off overnight transport and the area around Chongqing's train station - full of highway overpasses and underground tunnels - didn't help. The directions provided by the hostel weren't exactly specific so I ended up taking the bus in the wrong direction for a little while, having to buy something to get change for the bus fare back, before finally getting to the hostel.
While I had at least heard of Chengdu, I had no idea Chongqing existed until I arrived in China. So imagine my surprise to discover - after the initial rough and tumble of the train station - a booming, gleaming metropolis claimed by some to be the world's most populous city. There 30m people in the municipality, although only 13m reside in the city itself. The city doesn't seem too
We sailed through most of the third of the Three Gorges, but I did manage to catch the most scenic part of it on the bus to the Three Gorges Dam.
big though and is a little hilly, built upon the steep-ish banks of the Yangtze. This is because the city has expanded upwards, with an entire skyline of glass skyscrapers along the riverside greeting you at Daxigou monorail station, where my hostel was.
Though I really just wanted to sleep after the inevitable patchy sleep I got on the train, I knew I had to organise a cruise along Yangtze, which was what had brought me to Chongqing in the first place.
Shopping around took me into the city centre where I was once again open-jawed by the bling in front of me; yet more glass skyscrapers including a Chrysler Building-like
monstrosity and massive screens to rival those in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. The place was teeming with people too and was rather nicely, fully pedestrianised.
Thus it seemed fitting that I had to enter a five star hotel - all stinky and dirty from the last 24+ hours - to visit a travel agent. Her English was minimal but my Mandarin was slightly better, so that was what we struggled ahead in. It took about an hour for me to confirm that the tour she was proposing included everything
This performer started a few chants outside the Huangling Temple.
that I wanted to see, as well as the price and so on and she was very patient and diligent. I couldn't really walk out of her office after all that effort, so thankfully the price she offered was the cheapest, even if I had to take a supposedly lower quality tour for the date I wanted to go. We will see if all her kind-hearted diligence has paid off!
The language struggle that I went through however was far from the first time this has happened to me in China. There is a real lack of English in the tourism industry because frankly, they don't need it. 99% of tourists are domestic and local tourists have just as much money - if not more - than foreign ones. Therefore travel agencies mainly just go after their core market because there is more than enough of it and thus English services are somewhat neglected. It is economically justifiable to do so. An advantage of this situation however is the fact that hawkers seem to leave you alone - it is much easier to go after another local who understands the language than to try and get anywhere with a
Pedestrianised, flashy and impressive.
foreigner using atrocious English.
The lack of foreign tourists around and the swarms of local tourists has meant travelling through China has probably been the loneliest place I have travelled. The highest concentration of foreigners I see are at hostels but then there is a swarm of locals too and my lack of Mandarin means communicating with them is hard work if not impossible. And I just haven't managed to make any friends with foreigners at the hostels either; the type of people travelling through China are the types that keep to themselves apparently.
More than anywhere else I have been - and I mean everywhere - I have not seen weirder food consumed as normal food, than I have seen here in China. Walking down "Food Street" to try some local treats for dinner, took me past loads of stalls selling sticks of pork, squid, lotus rings and intestine. The Chinese really do have a unique palate. Like my dinner (I went for pork skewers and a bowl of noodles in the end), almost everything has been spicy in Central China and I have only eaten rice once; the rest of the time the only affordable and sometimes
Taken from the platform at Daxigou monorail station.
only available carb has been noodles.
As for the Chinese themselves, it has been intriguing to see just how different they are to Westerners; the things they eat, the things they say, their etiquette. To discover these things is one of the joys of travelling. As a Western-bred person of Chinese descent, it is fascinating to see how I can and can't understand or relate to the locals at the same time; that theme mentioned in previous blogs on China about feeling simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar with the country. To contrast, in India I often saw their culture and way of doing things just completely alien to me, while in Latin America, things really weren't that different to what I am used to. Many of the locals here have been rude and generally unfriendly but I've met some nice and kind ones too - like every population, you get some good ones and bad ones. But certainly like Eastern Europeans
, the default mood for the Chinese seems to be one of permanent annoyance and it is also common for them to be very blunt. But you have to remember that they probably don't even know that they have no manners
Cruising The Yangtze
Our boat sails out of the Wu Gorge. Notice the bare rock at the base of the cliffs; this was where the water once rose to, in places a good 20m higher than the current water level.
and are rude, pushy, impolite, inconsiderate and impatient; they just have a different culture where such Western etiquette just doesn't exist.
Maybe the spicy food I had wasn't a good idea as I had to go to the toilet three times during the night before my cruise. My dorm had no air con either and it was so hot that I couldn't sleep. Also playing on my mind was the fact I had a lot of things to sort out. Looking and planning ahead, Hong Kong and Macau are looking ridiculously expensive!
Taking the metro the next day to my tour departure point I was suddenly put right in it when I realised that the metro service had stopped one stop before my stop because my destination station was closed. I now suddenly had fifteen minutes to make it via the streets. Just like how the area outside Chongqing's train station was confusingly chaotic, so was trying to get to the river. I had to get down a steep slope to the river but there was no obvious way to get there and maps.me wasn't providing any enlightenment. Heading down steps through markets, dirty alleyways and underpasses, I made
Ancient Town Of Changshou
Restored "ancient town" which was the first stop of the tour.
it to the river but then had a sprint along it to make to get to the right pier. Showing some locals a slip of paper with my destination, I'm then pointed to an office across the road where a lady is waving me in. Made it. But I was completely saturated in sweat. I'm getting a bit sick of getting saturated in sweat. I don't remember it being quite like this in South East Asia apart from one day in Hue
. It is at moments like this that again, that I wonder why the hell I am doing this.
The tour started off with a three hour bus ride to Wanzhou with a stop in the Ancient Town Of Changshou. It may have been ancient before but now it appears to be a grey brick and tile reconstructed 'old' town with old-style Chinese buildings, canals and pagodas, all filled with shops and restaurants. It is admittedly still a little charming, even if it gives off the air of a fabricated gimmick.
As for the cruise, I wanted to be on the boat for as little time as possible, which is why I plumped for the three-day, two-night tour
The relatively crusty vessel that took us down the Yangtze.
rather than the four-day, three-night one. It was cheaper too. Now I've been on cheap cruises before - like this one
and this one
- but this was a cheap Chinese cruise (which at £80, isn't even that cheap!).
Based on my experiences of both budget cruise ships and China, I was expecting to be in a cramped, lower-deck cabin with five other locals, the smell of the squat toilet over which we all showered and the stench of the toe-jam socks of a guy who hasn't showered for two days sleeping a metre away from me, wafting up my nostrils. All this while smoking hoiking men, loud angry women and screaming hyperactive kids are making rackets all over the boat. No-one will speak any English, meaning that I won't have clue what is going on. Sounds fun, huh? So er, why the hell am I doing this again?
Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, all my expectations were bang on. I started counting down the hours as soon as I boarded, which again, really does beg the question as to why I was doing this. I was the only foreigner on the entire boat, but I was expecting that too. But rather than sulk
Zhang Fei Temple
Temple dedicated to the legendary General Zhang Fei where we made an 11pm stop.
in my loneliness, I remembered that this is supposed to be fun, right? Look at the people around you Derek, they're excited to be on holiday and to see some amazing scenery and so should you. I suddenly felt energised and excited about what lay ahead. Accept and embrace, Derek; they may all be Chinese tourists but so are you!
As expected, I hadn't a clue what was going on and had only a printed itinerary in Chinese that I could vaguely follow. So having had my shower and brushed my teeth, I was suddenly surprised when we made an 11pm stop at the Zhang Fei Temple. Like Changshou, the temple is ancient but much-restored. It was kinda cool, all lit up and lording it over the hillside and the river. We got going again at midnight; with a 6.30am start the next morning, this didn't leave much time for sleeping.
The name of the cruise I was doing was called the The Three Gorges Cruise, precisely because the section of river between Chongqing and Yichang is the most scenic part of the Yangtze River and passes through three gorges. The first one, the Qutang (Clan) Gorge, is
Sunrise Over The Yangtze
One benefit of an early start is to catch this.
considered by many as "the most awe-inspiring" of the three according to Lonely Planet, with its tall, dramatic and jagged cliffs plunging into the water. I wouldn't know unfortunately because I missed the damn thing. Call it a combination of being too lazy to get up at 6am for it, not being able to understand the itinerary, Mandarin announcements and not properly reading up on what to expect. Fuck. Gutted.
By chance I happened to pass the front desk when people were buying tickets for an excursion off the boat to explore the Little Three Gorges, something that Lonely Planet recommended and something I definitely wanted to do. Having decided to go full backpacker the previous night and eschew the boat buffet in favour of loads of instant noodles to save money - my diet in China thus far has been terrible - I now found those savings wiped out by the excursion ticket costing ¥60 (£7.50) more than expected. Fuck. I can sell some more of the shares I have in my old company to shore up my budget a bit and enjoy myself a little more, especially with Hong Kong and Japan coming up, but I was really
The second of the Little Three Gorges.
hoping not to have to dig even deeper into my reserves if I could avoid it. But trying to stick to a near-impossible budget has not been fun at all so maybe it'll be worth selling them off?
It was perhaps worth overpaying for the separate cruise through the Little Three Gorges. The scenery was gorge-ous
and since the rivers that pass through the Little Three Gorges are narrower, you end up much closer to the cliffs that loom large above you. The excursion to the Little Three Gorges also included a trip on a small fishing boat that took you down even narrower rivers. The fishing boat guide seemed a bit of a showman and the crowd on my boat seemed to like him although I didn't have a clue about what he was on about.
I normally like to take in my surroundings on excursions like this and I generally only put my headphones in on long buses, planes or trains. But I just had to put them in on this cruise to keep out the loud, incessant chatter and the whiny screaming of children. As I thought it would, it was always gonna be like this. It
The third of the Little Three Gorges.
worked perfectly though. Though I was a little bored, I was able to admire the amazing scenery around me with a sense of peace I've not really had in China apart from visits to the odd temple. With the likes of Kings Of Convenience, Kodaline, The Whitest Boy Alive and Beck in my ears, it was a serene combination that got me to enjoy the cruise far more than I would've.
After getting back on the main boat, we sailed through Wu Gorge, the second of the three main Gorges, which was pretty cool with its twelve peaks. It reminded me a little of the fjords I saw in Norway
. Unlike the very short Qutang Gorge, the Wu Gorge is five times longer at 40km of Yangtze river.
This gave me enough time to notice some oddities on the boat.
Such as people washing and drying their clothes on board. WTF? Why? Why wouldn't you just do it at home like normal people? You're only on here for three days. Do you really have so few clothes?
The upper decks of the boat were much nicer; carpeted, with proper beds and a sleek wood finish, they looked like the Titanic compared to cargo class
Known as the 'misty gorge', the "Gorge Of Witches" has twelve peaks on either side of it, providing some dramatic scenery.
And the locals were eating the most impractical things on-board, things like noodles that require hot water - there are hot water points on each floor and also on all Chinese train carriages - meals that require heating up and fruit that requires peeling, cutting and washing (the Chinese are really into their fruit; there seems to be a grocer on every street corner in every city). Stuff with loads of packaging, oil and bones, like vacuum-packed cooked chicken thighs. Would sandwiches, packet of crisps and chocolate bars be easier to carry, eat and dispose of?
Also, being the only foreigner on the boat meant that I was starved of meaningful interaction; which led to a pleasant surprise when I discovered that a lady in my dorm could speak a little English.
Determined not to miss the last Gorge, I got up at 6am on the last day which was still after everyone else in my room; only to discover I had missed the Xiling Gorge too! FFS. I paid all this money and was going through all this shit only to miss half of the things I wanted to see. There was a little consolation when I
Bridge & Tourists
The smaller boat I took through the Little Three Gorges passes underneath a bright red bridge. The boat was packed with domestic tourists on their holidays.
discovered that I wasn't the only one to miss it; the whole boat had missed it because we sailed through it in the middle of the night! WTF? I then realised why my travel agent had said that this was an inferior cruise; it was a second-rate cruise with shit timings, only able to berth at stops at second-rate, awkward, leftover time slots.
Having not got much sleep the night before I got on the boat in Chongqing, these early starts were killing me. Nevertheless at six hours, I had got more sleep on the final night on board than the previous two combined.
Just an hour after getting up, we were all disembarking the boat for the final time. Phew.
The last part of our tour involved a bus trip to the most controversial part of the river; the Three Gorges Dam, which is the biggest dam in the world. As we pulled up to the ceremonial gate and paid an extra ¥10 for a golf cart down to the main complex, our guide for the day realised I didn't speak Chinese and thankfully, was able to speak excellent English. It was a little awkward though; he would do
Ancient temple right opposite the Three Gorges Dam.
the main explanations in Mandarin and then follow up with an English translation just for me. The entire tour group would then stare at me while he spoke. I then became an object of fascination among the group. One woman comments about how lucky I am the guide speaks English! The guide was really nice though and was interested in where I was from.
"I really want to go to New Zealand!" he said, like so many others I have met on my journey, when he found out I was from "Xinxilan". He took special care to make sure I knew what was going on from that point.
Outside the main complex was a massive wall and gate and the guide tells me that there is going to be a show. Eh? A lady in full traditional regalia then comes out and says a few words to a dramatic soundtrack before a man similarly dressed, comes out and bellows a few chants while four people bang ceremonial drums outside the gate.
"This is a bit corny and OTT for a dam," I thought to myself.
Which is when I realised it wasn't the dam but the Huangling Temple.
The Huangling Temple is dedicated to Qu Yuan, the "Shakespeare of China".
set upon several terraces, was very impressive, having been first built 2,500 years ago. Inside, the temple is dedicated to Qu Yuan, a legendary 4th century poet and royal advisor known as the "Shakespeare of China". He was exiled to the Three Gorges area from the ancient state of Chu after his advice to the king was misinterpreted as a bid for power. Inconsolable, Qu jumped into the Yangtze but was rescued by local fisherman who beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles to ward off water dragons and fish from eating Qu. This event is commemorated by a quite-famous Chinese tradition; the dragon boat race.
We then made our way to the dam proper. Opened in 2003, fully functional in 2012 and with the five step ship lock completed in 2015, the Three Gorges Dam is the highest capacity hydroelectric power station in the world.
Despite this, it can only supply 45% of Shanghai's electricity and 1.7% of China's total electricity needs. The dam also helps as a flood-preventing mechanism for towns and cities downstream. It also reduces China's coal consumption by 31 million tons a year which in turns reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 100
Five Step Ship Lock
This is the five step ship lock that lifts or lowers ships from the from the one level of the dam to the other. What you see are just three of the five locks. I had not previously seen a five step ship lock before.
It has its cons however too, which makes the project controversial. The dam reduces silt from being carried downstream threatening more floods and a less stable sedimentary base of the silt plain upon which Shanghai has been built; erosion from rising water upstream has led to more landslides; the construction of the dam and its consequent flooding of some riverside towns has forced the relocation of 1.24m people.
All these facts were explained as we were ferried to two different viewpoints; one overlooking the entire area including the unique five step ship lock, which is used to lift ships from the river's lower level at the bottom of the dam to the upper level some 181m up. It takes four hours for a ship to get lifted up and put on its way. The second platform is right next to the dam itself, which is 2.3km long. To be honest, it isn't much to look at, much like the Panama Canal
, but it is a monumental feat of engineering. And with that, the tour was over and the bus dropped us all off in Yichang at the massive tourist centre, which was conveniently located a block away from my hostel.
Spicy Duck Head
Nice, but a bit of work for not much reward. It was also a little weird having to look at this head and then proceed to eat it.
Yichang itself is fairly unremarkable but it did of course have its fair share of really tall apartment towers, flash shopping malls and big bright LCD screens. And like every Chinese city, it has plenty of public toilets which is a backpacker win!
While my adventure down the Yangtze was over, my adventures weren't quite over yet. I said earlier that the Chinese eat the weirdest things and at my hostel, the workers were tucking into some spicy whole duck heads! Like the rabbit's head I had in Chengdu, there isn't too much meat on it but it was rather tasty. It did feel a bit weird seeing and then eating the entire head of an animal.
And my irritating encounters with locals wasn't over yet either. I had some rather inconsiderate Chinese dorm mates who acted as if they owned the place, smoking in the ensuite, watching videos on their phones out loud and having phone calls on speaker. The only other people I have seen do this are the little shits you see on London buses. These guys were pretty laddish and outgoing and they didn't really have any respect for any rules. You don't really come
Fishing Boat Excursion
Our trip through the Little Three Gorges included this trip in a small fishing boat that took you down one of the smaller rivers.
across too many Chinese who are loutish like this, the sort who are usually Aussies on holiday in Bali or Brits on holiday in Magaluf. It was kind of amusing to see in a way.
They were quite sociable too, making an effort to chat to me and my German dorm mate Fred. I couldn't really understand them though; the local Mandarin (if it is indeed Mandarin) in Chongqing and Yichang has been accented and harder to understand. It's to be expected though, in such a big country with hundreds of dialects!
And then my adventure along the Yangtze truly was over. I wasn't expecting it to be and nor was it the most pleasant experience I've had but I don't regret doing it. I watched a BBC documentary called Sacred Rivers just before I left London which subsequently inspired me to visit the Ganges
and now cruise down the Yangtze (I had already sailed down the Nile
before watching the documentary) and I have now 'done' all the rivers featured on the documentary. Now I feel I only need to go down the Amazon and the Mississippi and I would have covered the world's five most famous rivers.
But as well as fulfilling a box-ticking
The pointy jagged peak slightly to the left of the middle of this mountain range in the Wu Gorge is Goddess Peak, I believe.
exercise, there is also beauty to be seen and the Little Three Gorges in particular was stunning. But most of all - despite my reservations about them - I was up close and personal with the locals and got to experience how real China spends it holidays.
再見 (zài jian),
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