Up 3 Gorges Without A Paddle

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September 11th 2019
Published: September 11th 2019
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Day 44 to 47 of 80

As we said in the last blog, day 44, Sunday 8 September, was a day spent travelling, from just after 08.00 to 21.30 on the train, then 90 minute bus transfer to our boat.

A somewhat tedious day. Strangely enough, though advantageously as it turned out, we had all been booked into sleeper berths rather than seats, even though we weren't overnighting on the train. As the party had been allocated 2 lower and 2 middle bunks in each set of 6 that meant that we could each, if we wished to, lay down and kip for some of the journey.

Nothing over exciting to see en route. Cities, rivers, lots of tunnels, various crops including rice paddies. As rail is the the main mode of long distance travel for Chinese the rest of the carriage - in fact most of the train - was travelling Chinese. We had the misfortune this time to have a top bunk youth who was clearly never taught to cough and splutter into a handkerchief, tissue or at least his hand. He spent the majority of the trip exploding into the air. Gawd knows what either of us may have picked during the day.

There was a travelling provisions cart lady on the train who passed by at regular intervals. She did a roaring trade in the enormous pot noodle boxes that seem to be the refreshment mainstay of travelling Chinese.

Fair to say we had a good deep sleep on the boat that night. Mind you it didn't go anywhere overnight Sunday into Monday. In fact it didn't move away from its moorings until around 21.45 Monday evening. Fair also to say, even though we had been forewarned, the 06.30 'hi-de-hi' wake up muzak and tannoy announcement was most unwelcome.

We get fed reasonably well whilst on board, in that it is effectively a river cruise, so breakfast, lunch and dinner. Once again rather too much Chinese food for breakfast - tell us, when did YOU last order a Chinese takeaway for breakfast? - but at least they have the cereal/cold milk, yoghurt/fruit, toast, options that we prefer.

Not sure, especially after our Mekong trip last year on a boat that held around 20 passengers, that we were expecting anything quite as large as we are on. OK, we are not talking ocean-going liner holding thousands, but it still takes nearly 300, but is clearly not full. Room is OK - we haven't done much/any of this cruising lark. We have our own balcony, but can't control the light above it.

The Mighty Yangtze - and yes, following our Facebook posting someone (thank you Simon Happs) did send us the YouTube link for Monty Python's 'The Mighty Yangtze' sketch, which Paul knew of but Pip didn't - or Great River as it is known in China, is Asia's longest and the world's 3rd longest river at 3,900 miles. It is the longest river entirely within a single country (though, Schhh! there are probably people in Tibet, through which it passes, who may dispute that 'fact'.)

It essentially travels from west to east and discharges into the East China Sea near Shanghai, the eventual end point of the Explore part of our trip in around 10 days time. Historically it was navigatable by substantial cargo boats for around the final 1000 miles of its length. The building of the Three Gorges Dam has extended that by over a further 100 miles. Its drainage basin is home to around 1/3 of China's population.

Before moving off on Monday, in the afternoon, most of our group, along with most of the Chinese took a visit to the 3 Gorges Dam. First impressions of our first off-boat excursion were all our worst nightmares for a cruise excursion, and we are not even a very big, or very full boat, though the numbers heading for the fleet of waiting buses was magnified by 2 or 3 other ships moored alongside also discharging dam visitors at the same time. Herding cattle barely describes it.

Our guide, Cici, complete with Peppa Pig on an extending pole, was bubbly enough with good English, though we have no idea why or what she was saying to the Chinese that seemed to take 3 times as long as our narrative!

The 3 Gorges Dam is the world's largest power station measured in capacity - 32 turbines at 700 MW per turbine, plus a couple of smaller station power turbines gives a capacity of 22,500 MW since 2012. Opened in 2003, it has 3 purposes - power, flood control and navigation. Regarding the second of those, at some stage over the last 3 days or so a guide has said that the reservoir level behind the dam can rise 20 to 30 metres in around 2 weeks in rainy seasons. That's a lot of water not flooding downstream.

On the downside around 1.3 million people were compulsory displaced and rehoused. Amongst their greatest concerns was the drowning of their ancestral burial grounds.

To some extent the dam visit was frustrating in that you can only view it from a distance. You can't walk on it, and certainly can't see any of the inner workings. In fact it is guarded as a military installation, with soldier guards at rapt attention, barriers and barbed wired walls. There is a tourist infrastructure on the banks for viewing, and some info but not much.

At first sight it maybe doesn't impress like, say, the Hoover Dam, in that it doesn't have the sheer height. But it is the biggest concrete structure on earth by some distance. Quick fact - in the last/recent 2 years China has used as much concrete as the USA has in 100 years!

With regards to navigation it has two boat transfer systems. A 5-lift lock system that can handle 10,000 tonne freighters, and a boat lift for up to 3000 tonnes. Passenger ships used to use these, but rarely now. 3 Gorges cruises leave from above the dam. Passage through for freight ships is free of charge.

In the evening there was a Captain's bubbly reception and introduction followed by a small crew stage show. The opening Officer Line-up looked like it was a 'spot the Martin Clunes looky-likey' competition. And the crew show looked like they were embarrassed to be on stage. We left early!

The boat sailed overnight Monday and we woke, early, to wonderful gorge views. The overnight sail was supposedly through the Xiling Gorge, the longest and supposedly least spectacular. Just before breakfast we were at Wu Gorge, or Gorge of the Witches. Very ethereal in the morning light. Here the cliffs were topped by sharp, jagged peaks including Goddess Peak and Peak of the Immortals. Some formations were supposedly named after what they were meant to look like eg a sitting Buddha but a lot of imagination was required for those.

We moored up at Wushan, a resettlement city of 100k, high above the new river level. Here we transferred to a smaller vessel for a delightful morning trip along the Little Three Gorges on the Daning River. We guess this is a bit like the original 3 Gorges trips would have been like but smaller scale. Here the cliffs rise almost vertically from the water, though still with the current bleached base showing where maximum water levels rise to.

Part way along we were shown, high high up in the cliff face wooden coffins that were placed around 2000 years ago. How did they get up there? Probably by plank staircases - holes chiseled into the rock face and planks hammered into each ?.

At the turnaround point most of the Chinese transferred to even smaller boats for a Mini 3 Gorges tour, but none of our group did that. We amused ourselves instead by watching the Rhesus Monkeys playing on the bank.

Several very impressive construction works seen on route, especially new high speed rail line, expected to be complete 2021, on time and budget!

The boat continued upstream in the afternoon passing through Qutang Gorge, the shortest and narrowest of the 3. Its tightness seemed to exaggerate the huge vertiginous slabs of rock, its cliffs jutting out in jagged and triangular chunks. What must the passage through have looked like pre-dam with 60 metres or more less depth of water/extra height of cliff and on a much more narrow waterchannel?

We managed to avoid the Crew Cabaret on Tuesday evening, though the steward told us that the group were invited to participate in Wednesday evening's Talent Show. Paul has agreed to do his best magic act - by completely disappearing!

Sometime that evening the boat approached and passed beneath the Yunyang Yangtze River Bridge, an asymmetrical cable-stay bridge where lights on the cables had been programmed to give a changing light show simulating fireworks, balloons, waving flowers and chinese messages.

Today, Wednesday, none of the group have signed up for any of the optional tours so just a lazy day watching the Chinese scenery drift passed, with some mooring for the day's trips.

This morning we finally took the decision not to proceed with the Hong Kong /Macau leg of our trip. It kicked off again in HK at the weekend for the n-th weekend in a row, and is expected to build to a greater crescendo at our either side of the October 1st holiday. We are due to arrive shortly after. The airline have finally agreed to let us, at no additional cost/no refund, use just the Singapore to Manchester portion of our 2 leg flight home. So we will, instead, get off the final train to Hong Kong at Guangzhou - formerly Canton - and spend 6 days there, before a cheap flight to Singapore and 3 nights/days there to finish.

A chance to get to Raffles Hotel for a gin sling which we couldn't do last year as it was closed for refurbishment. Can't stay either as it's all booked up (that's a 'phew' then as it's way out of our hotel price bracket).

This afternoon one of the crew attempted to teach us the rudiments of Mahjong, a tile based game where you have to get runs or sets of 'numbered' tiles. So a bit like gin/rummey, apparently, though we have never played that either.

Tomorrow, after breakfast and disembarkation we travel by bullet train to Chengdu to visit, on Friday, the Panda Conservation Centre.

We are just after birthing season. Expecting little ones!

Afterwards our next 2 - 3 days/nights are spent on village guesthouse accommodation where we do not expect any internet connection, and aren't over sure of the following 2 nights/days either.

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