Between December 1990 and January 1991, Adam and I travelled the Yangztse River from Shanghai to Chongqing; a journey that took us 9 days then. At that time, tourism along the Yangtse was in its infancy and we, as poor backpackers, couldn’t have afforded a cruise ship anyway. So we travelled on Chinese passenger boats that made very few concessions to either comfort or tourists. There were no sightseeing stops or side excursions; we even managed to miss one Gorge altogether, as the boat went through it at night.
In those days, foreign visitors were charged much higher prices for transport, hotels, sights, etc., than Chinese people and had to pay in Foreign Exchange Certificates (a special currency only for foreigners or foreign transactions), rather than Renminbi (the People’s money), which is why many backpackers resorted to black- marketeers. To get his hands on a couple of discounted, Chinese-price tickets for the first leg of the journey, Adam had to follow a Chinese man into the toilets of the Seaman’s Club at the Pujiang Hotel (known as Astor House Hotel after recent makeovers) in an action reminiscent of an old spy movie.
It was winter and the weather was cold and wet; the river often shrouded in impenetrable mist. The journey was uncomfortable, at times tedious, boring and slow, at times bizarre, mysterious and even otherworldly. To while away the long, uneventful hours on the river, food became a major obsession, as the numerous entries detailing our weird concoctions and slap-dash meals illustrate.
We were accompanied on our journey by Mike, an aspiring young writer from Oxford, Ohio, who we first met in a dorm in Suzhou, where he was Adam’s room mate. After that, he became part of our little group of old China hands, travelling together off and on, and celebrated Christmas with us in Shanghai at the Peace Hotel. Mike, if you recognise yourself in this story, do get in touch (via the comments box on the blog)!
Day 1: Evening departure from Shanghai.
Day 2: Jiangsu province; stops in Zhenjiang and Nanjing.
Day 3: Anhui province; stops include Wuhu. Jiangxi province; stops include Jiujiang.
Day 4: Hubei province; early arrival in Wuhan where we stop for the day to change boats.
Day 5: Towards evening we cut through Hunan province; stops include Yueyang, to the east of Dongting Lake.
Day 6: Back in Hubei province; stops include Shashi, Zhicheng and Yichang, site of the Gezhou Dam.
Day 7: At night we traverse the Xiling Gorge; the longest of the three; morning stop in Badong; next, we sail down the Wu Gorge and by afternoon we reach Wushan in Sichuan province. Finally, we pass through the Qutang Gorge and stop in Fengjie and Yunyang.
Day 8: Morning stop in Wanxian; other stops in Zhongzhou, Fengdu and Fuling.
Day 9: Between 10 and 11 arrival in Chongqing.
Thursday 27/12 – Day 1.
After breakfast (included in the dorm price) and a visit to the communal (single-sex) showers, we go out to pick up some supplies for our boat trip. We come back with the usual staples of instant noodles, pots of chilli and peanut butter, sliced white bread, bananas and other fruit.
We say goodbye to some of our travelling companions, Cosi and Louise, over a final cup of tea in the Yunnan Gardens and then drag our backpacks over to the boat.
Nobody comments on our Chinese tickets – looks like we’re getting away with it – and we are assigned beds in a 12-person cabin with bunk beds. The cabin is not too bad: it is reasonably clean, has windows and even a washbasin with hot running water. Apparently, there are showers on board as well.
Once we’re settled in, we go on deck to watch the skyline of Shanghai as it fades away in the night. Our boat glides past the Bund: the government building that looks like the American Congress, the building with the illuminated clock-tower, the Peace Hotel, the huge Shanghai Mansions… There are lots of lights everywhere; all the boats are lit up as well and look much better for it. All in all it’s an incredibly romantic sight, like one of those American cities we know from the movies. Mike says it reminds him of Chicago.
Friday 28/12 – Day 2.
I slept quite well, with the aid of a sleeping bag and two additional blankets, as it’s quite draughty. Pity that the lights stay on all night and that our room is invaded by piped music from 7 onwards!
We laze around, eat peanut butter sandwiches and write. At some point I venture out to have a shower in the overflowing (due to blocked drains) women’s shower room. There, I find a group of sturdy Chinese women, up to their calves in dirty, soapy water, scrubbing themselves vigorously underneath a series of miserable, but piping hot, trickles of water. I am particularly struck by one old lady who is completely flat – both when seen from the front and from the back – and who’s having her shower dressed in a huge pair of polka-dotted knickers.
Outside, there is nothing much to see. When our boat stops at Zhenjiang we take advantage and get off to buy beer and some more junk food. Later that day we get to Nanjing, where we admire the huge Yangtse River Bridge.
Our dinner consists of tinned fish (fairly disgusting), peanut butter and chilli sandwiches and we sit up reading back editions of British newspapers – lots of stories about the build-up to the Gulf War – until 22.30.
Saturday 29/12 – Day 3.
We have hard-boiled eggs, obviously with chilli and peanut butter, for breakfast; read more newspapers; write.
For a bit of light relief, we decide to have lunch in the dining hall, where 17 Yuan for 3 people buy us a dish of bamboo and mushrooms, cabbage and mushrooms, squid with green peppers and rice. Not bad at all.
Meanwhile, outside it hasn’t stopped raining. The highlight of our day is when we pass a lonely, almost completely bald, mountain that sticks out of the river, with a couple of small temples crowning its peak and a few rickety houses precariously clinging to its sides.
The river at this point is wide, fast-flowing and brown; the shores mostly flat and empty. Apart from a stop at a city called Wuhu, there is absolutely nothing worth mentioning out there. And the rain continues…
More interesting things can be observed on board our boat, where we have discovered the existence of the so-called deck-class (which is even below fifth class): these are the people who camp out in the corridors and occupy basically every available inch of deck space. We have to squeeze past them every time we need to go to the loo. They sleep on straw mats, slump over wicker baskets; hide beneath shivering umbrella’s … One little man keeps himself occupied by knitting non-stop. We rather cruelly start referring to them as the ‘proletarians’ or the ‘peasants’ though, really, we feel sorry for them. Poor sods, it’s so cold out there!
To make up for our ‘debauchery’ at lunch time, we limit ourselves to pureed tomato and chilli sandwiches for dinner.
Sunday 30/12 – Day 4.
We finish off the peanut butter from breakfast: that makes it a whole pot in two days!
Around 9.30 we arrive in Wuhan where our boat docks alongside a modernist building in the shape of a ship, or perhaps waves? After a very long walk through crowded, bustling streets, we arrive at the Aiguo hotel 爱国宾馆, where the three-person dorms are mixed, but very cold: our breath comes out in clouds. We wash our clothes, hang them up inside the room and aim a fan at them; all to no avail, as we will soon find out.
Then we go out and snack on cakes and something called doupi’s (?): bean curd stuffed with rice and deep-fried. We find them a bit greasy, but they apparently were Mao’s favourite snack, so who are we to complain?
We spend the hours between 13.00 and 17.00 marching up and down Wuhan’s main street: from our hotel to the boats, to the Bank of China, back to the boats, etc., desperately searching for a Chinese person who A. can speak English, and B. is willing to buy Chinese-price boat tickets for us. None of the money changers are interested, none of the other, boarding passengers seem to understand what we want and the two American teachers we bump into claim they have no time … They do urge, almost beg us, to come to their flat in the evening for a little party, as they haven’t spoken to any other Westerners for ages; they seem pretty desperate but, our minds on more important matters, we won’t commit ourselves.
Alas, just before closing time we are forced to give up and buy foreigners’ tickets for over 200 Yuan. We take a deep breath and hand over the cash. Done.
Now we just need to get some new supplies: instant noodles, instant coffee, chilli, biscuits and fruit; the usual. Of course, this is when we come across the only English speaking Chinese person in Wuhan, who knows exactly what we were after… What a bummer!
To make up for our financial set-back, we have an exceedingly cheap dinner – greasy fried rice and mapu dofu (spicy bean curd) for Y 2,50 each – washed down with even cheaper beer at Y 0, 80.
When we get back to our freezing hotel room, it turns out that all the floor attendants have just washed their hair in our adjacent bathroom and used up all the hot water. Fuming, Adam storms downstairs, armed with a dictionary and shouting the magical words: “hot water! Now!” The flustered staff decide to open up two other rooms for us, so that Adam and I can squeeze ourselves into a tiny bath tub together, while Mike is forced to take his shower right next to a foul-smelling, blocked toilet.
And that was our Wuhan experience. In spite of the day’s difficulties, it didn’t seem an unpleasant city; we saw some stately, European-style buildings, many tree-lined streets and avenues, lots of well-stocked shops and excellent food markets with a wide variety of vegetables on display. Pity we didn’t have the time to explore a bit more.
Monday 31/12 – Day 5.
We have to get up at 6.30, just when I’m starting to feel warm inside my bed, and drag all our luggage and food supplies over to our new boat.
When I go and ask whether I can change my upper for a lower berth, as the 8- person cabin is virtually empty anyway, the three of us are taken over to a 4- person cabin and made to understand that we can have it all to ourselves; the staff even give us a key; the sum mum of privacy in communal/communist China! It’s one of those acts of unexpected kindness the Chinese sometimes bowl you over with.
We settle in and make ourselves at home: out comes the clothesline with our still-wet laundry, we use a couple of towels as make-shift curtains, shove match-sticks in the draughty gaps along the window-frames, unfold the table and unpack our supplies. Now our private cabin has got just one drawback: it’s freezing cold; but so is the rest of the boat.
On our first exploration we discover the second-class lounge into which we – though not second-class passengers, but Foreigners – are admitted: it’s a cross between a meeting room and a living room, with a long table and straight-backed chairs in the centre, decorated only with plastic flower arrangements. However, the broken window and icy temperature don’t really tempt us to linger.
We decide to try out the restaurant as well: first we have to buy vouchers, and then exchange them for dishes. Y10, 00 for 3 people buy us: 2 bowls of rice, 1 dish of fried potatoes, 1 fish (very bony), 1 cabbage-meat dish and 1 watery cabbage soup. All dishes need to be spiced up with the chilli and pickles we have had the foresight to bring along.
Having exhausted our boat’s entertainment facilities, and given that there is absolutely nothing to see outside, we retreat to our cosy cabin, where we hole up for the rest of the day, reading, writing and snacking. The only memorable thing about our stop at Yueyang is that we manage to pick up a couple of drinkable beers and some wine.
Just before midnight, we venture out onto the deck, open a bottle of cider (the closest to champagne we could get), try and fail to sing Aulde Lang Syne and throw the bottle overboard. Happy 1991!!
Tuesday 1/1 – Day 6.
It’s definitely warmer today; we don’t even need to wear our coats indoors, and from time to time the sun comes out.
At a stop in Shashi we pick up some hard-boiled eggs, nuts and new supplies of pickles and beer, for a tasty picnic- lunch of noodles and egg-sandwiches. We also try out the showers, which are surprisingly clean and empty; looks like the ‘peasants’ on this boat don’t wash.
In the late afternoon, the surrounding land is suddenly transformed into a landscape; all of a sudden there are things to see. Verdant hills appear, covered in trees and dotted with rather European-looking farmhouses made of soft-brown brick and covered with black tiled roofs. At the foot of these hills there are mud banks where many small fishing boats have been moored.
Around six o’clock we get to Zhicheng, where there is a lot of water traffic of dredgers and other types of vessels and where we pass underneath the 1700m long Chanjiang Bridge.
In the evening we sit romantically in our cabin by candlelight and look out over the black water. Then, around 9 o’clock our boat docks at Yichang where we will stay until nearly 2am. Adam and Mike disembark and go exploring; I’m simply too lazy and can’t be bothered. They come back with descriptions of a friendly town where most shops remain open and many little restaurants and stalls are waiting for customers coming from the boats.
Just after leaving Yichang, our boat has to go through the locks of the massive Gezhou Dam. Adam and Mike get out of bed for this event while I, once again, am just too tired to stir. In the morning the men report that the whole manoeuvre was rather impressive: there were metres and metres of massive wall towering over the boat in front and behind, and then it was pushed up steadily, to adjust to a rise in water levels of at least 30 metres. Now, of course, I regret my inertia.
Wednesday 2/1 – Day 7.
We wake up at eight; during the night, we have missed the third and longest Gorge, the 80km Xiling Gorge, but our boat has just entered the second one, the 40km Wu Gorge. We are sailing past medium-sized hills covered in pine trees, interspersed here and there with houses. We go on like this until we get to the hideous city of Badong where we make a brief stop: it’s a cross between an abandoned, semi-derelict mining town and a bombed-out site from a recent war. In short, a festering concrete blot on the landscape!
However, after Badong the scenery becomes truly spectacular, so much so that we are loath to leave the deck until, numb and frozen, we are forced to seek shelter in the, slightly less gelid, second class lobby.
The initially medium-sized mountains rise higher and higher. From time to time we pass steep, barren rock walls, some of which seem to have been carved out of the mountainside by a giant knife. At other times the mountain slopes are covered in grass, bushes and trees, strewn with rocks and boulders, or pockmarked by holes and caves. Narrow canyons separate one individual mountain from its neighbour.
Behind these mountains we are sailing past, there is row upon bluish-grey row of ever more distant mountains, until finally, your eye reaches the furthest peaks, which are covered in snow. It’s a landscape that is hard to describe, other than with the words: inhospitable, dark and mysterious.
And yet, there are signs of human life: pretty brown-stone villages with low, sloping roofs and fields that are so steep that you wonder how they could ever be cultivated without the farmers or animals simply rolling off…
Meanwhile on the river, large passenger boats and coal barges sail past tiny wooden boats, bamboo rafts and even the occasional sampan. After 12 o’clock, the river widens and an ugly town of concrete apartment blocks appears: this is Wushan, in Sichuan province.
We take advantage of the stop to go back to our cabin and warm our weary bones with some hot, chilli noodles and a dessert of sweet, white bread with jam from a tin. Then we head back to the lobby, so as not to miss anything.
The scenery is softer now, less dramatic. The river is wider, the mountains lower and the overriding colour is a soft brown, interspersed with the bright green of small fields and rice terraces.
At the third and smallest Gorge, the 8km Qutang Gorge, this softer landscape abruptly makes way for tall, steep and forbidding rock walls, made of reddish-brown stone with stalactite-like growths hanging down. The river flows much faster here, while the frequent rapids and whirlpools churn the murky brown waters even more. This is pretty impressive stuff!
The Qutang Gorge ends just as suddenly as it started and we can now observe some strange scenes, almost straight from the Industrial Revolution. We spy several huge mounds of coal that have apparently been dumped here and atop one of them there are scores of people scrambling about, carrying sacks in their hands. We have no idea how all that coal got there, or where those people want to take it. As we are sailing past, a large lump of coal comes flying down and buries several people. This mishap is followed by more frenetic activity of people trying to dig their fellow workers out with their bare hands… Above these mounds of coal there is a small settlement of grim, filthy, smoking houses, clustered around a factory that belches out a lugubrious, milky-white smoke.
Immediately after this settlement, we come to a town we are convinced is a worthy rival for Badong. But no, our travelling companion Mike is adamant: this town, which incidentally is called Fenjie, is nowhere near as hideous as Badong. In fact, Mike was so horrified by Badong that he has dedicated several pages of his diary to condemning the place: “… if you’d get stuck anywhere because your boat broke down, you’d make the most of it, if you got stuck in Badong, you’d build your own boat and get the hell out of there!…”.
Just like at the previous place we passed, there are mounds of coal here; except this time the mounds are flat-topped and there are trucks parked on top. Again, we haven’t got the foggiest how those trucks got onto the mounds, or how the hell they’re going to get down, with their hind-wheels sunk deep into the coal.
As at every stop, there are hordes of blue and grey, Mao-suited peasants, weighed down with sacks and bundles, pushing and shoving, eager to get on board.
Our boat has been converted into a kind of refugee boat. Nearly all the second class and many of the third and even fourth class cabins are empty, but the deck, the corridors, aisles, in fact, every nook and cranny is jam-packed with human cargo. From underneath the coats, blankets and assorted items of luggage that cover them emanate the sounds of constant throat clearing, gobbing, spitting and nose blowing. Among those sleeping rough, there are several young lads of around 10, but all of them, without exception, smoke; all of them also have bad teeth and weather-beaten hands and faces.
Though we feel sorry for their hardship, we are frequently put off by their utter lack of manners, in particular with regard to bodily functions and the noises they involve. What’s more, they have absolutely no idea of the concept of ‘privacy’ and if it weren’t for our improvised towel-curtains, they would all gather outside our window and just stare in.
After our exciting day of sightseeing, we have unanimously decided to ‘eat in’. So we prepare another delicious gourmet dinner, consisting of a crunchy mixture of anchovies, pureed tomatoes, chilli, garlic and peanuts (in appearance and substance not unlike dog food) on bread, washed down with chicken-chilli-tomato instant noodles. For desert, there is a Chinese rice pudding, i.e. a tinned brick, not something we are likely to repeat.
At 9 o’clock we stop at Yunyang, a town which in broad daylight probably resembles Badong, but at night almost looks like a Christmas tableau: lots of twinkling fairy lights on the mountain and among the shepherds, camping near the waterfront. Or, at least, that’s what my deluded eyes think they are seeing. In reality, of course, Yunyang is a river town of the familiar pattern: concrete high-rises that climb the hillside, tumble-down shacks all the way to the waterfront and masses of heaving peasants, held back behind the gates, straining to reach the boats.
Before going to bed, we have launched a ‘message in a bottle’ in the river; who knows what replies we might get!
Thursday 3/1 – Day 8.
We wake up in Wanxian, where our boat remains docked until 10.30. It’s the usual river town, but very busy: plenty of river traffic, lots of stalls, women doing their laundry in the river and myriads of little streams and falls running down the hillside, from underneath bridges, buildings and factories.
Adam goes out exploring and on his return enthuses about how he found the ‘real’ China, right behind the concrete flats. For him, this means little old houses, people throwing garbage out of the window and food stalls that even he found too scary to try; and that’s saying something!
After Wanxian we enter a landscape that reminds us of Tenerife, or even better, the island of La Gomera: steep and rocky mountainsides, fertile reddish-brown earth, palm trees and other types of leafy trees, lots of tiny fields and emerald-green terraces running down the slopes. Unfortunately, this rural idyll is regularly marred by polluting factories; something you won’t find on La Gomera.
We pass a river bank, covered in pebbles and grit, where dozens of people – children as well as adults – are digging holes and carefully sorting through the mud/sand they’ve dug up, with the aid of large wood and bamboo sieves mounted on tripods. The bank, with its almost lunar pockmarked surface of holes, dips and hillocks, the tripod frames and the ramshackle little tents that seem to constitute the workers’ only shelter, could have come straight out of one of those disaster movies in which a small group of survivors battle on after some cataclysm. In reality, we are told, these people are gold diggers.
The pleasant, Gomera-like scenery continues, as do the ugly, industrial settlements and belching factories. After a while, we pass Shibaozhai (Stone Treasure Stockade), a 12-storey, 56-metre wooden pagoda that originally dates back as far as 1662. The reddish-brown structure is built against and on top of a tall, square, flat-topped rock, giving the impression that the pagoda is leaning backwards.
After a stop at industrial Fengdu, we start noticing some changes on board our ship; people seem to be preparing for arrival. Suddenly, in the corridors, we come across skinned rabbit carcasses, drying in the wind. In the crew living quarters we spy two live chickens and three ducks, as well as a pile of pigs’ trotters. A bit of last minute shopping for the folks back home, perhaps?
For our own ‘last supper’, we really splash out and have two tins of fish, lots of mini-bread rolls, instant chilli-noodles and a desert of canned apricots. Delicious, of course.
Friday 4/1 – Day 9 – Arrival.
Somewhere between 10 and 11 o’clock we arrive in Chongqing, where our epic river cruise comes to an end. Long before then, an energetic and ruthless young lady has whisked our sheets from underneath us, wrestled the blankets out of our hands and folded them. The message is clear: time to get up!
It’s raining in Chongqing. Our boat has docked far from the shore and we have to run a real gauntlet of platforms, rickety planks and boards, to reach the muddy river bank. Everything around us is wet, grey and dispiriting.
The mini-bus driver tries to rip us off, so we end up getting off way too early. We have to walk for ages before we find a cheap hotel in the centre: our dorm is on the ninth floor, it’s so cold we can see our breath and the floor is covered in rat poison… However, they do have hot water.
Impressions of Chongqing.
After a thorough clean-up, we go out to explore Chongqing, which turns out to be a pleasant surprise. Although a sprawling city of 6 million inhabitants and plenty of concrete high-rises, Chongqing has lost none of its country airs and manners. In the tiny, brick-and-wood houses built against the hillsides, people carry on with their lives as if they were still in their village: they keep potted plants outside the open doors; there are bird cages, wicker baskets, laundry and pieces of meat hanging off the rafters; chickens and ducks running around free.
There are people cooking in the street and scores of improvised street kitchens, food stalls and vendors. Fresh-produce markets spill down the steep, stepped streets, alternating with hairdressers’.
And this reminds us of another curious thing we have heard about Chongqing: the city is supposed to be famous for its beautiful women. Adam and Mike, in fact, spot quite a few pretty ladies. However, it seems that the Chongqing ladies are not only beautiful, but also fashion-conscious; hence the proliferation of hairdressers’ cum beauty parlours. The in-style of the moment seems to be a huge fringe, back-combed and sprayed into a king of rising wave, while the rest of the hair is tightly permed, or arranged in fussy plaits, held in place by sparkling pins, colourful bows and ribbons. As for the colour, an orangey-brown (a failed attempt at blonde perhaps) is in vogue.
The trendiest of Chongqing women are dressed in skin-tight trousers, either jeans, or shiny Lycra leggings. These can be worn with long, fairly discreet, sweaters and cardigans, or combined with short, tight jackets, covered in slogans. High-heeled shoes complete these outfits.
The slightly less fashionable may wear woolly leggings, combined with heavy black boots; while only the most old-fashionable ones still wear those elasticated half-sleeves, meant to protect their clothing. These are also the women most likely to be kitting while they are walking.
A final Chongqing characteristic that draws our attention is the presence of hundreds of coolies: skinny and shabbily-dressed little men, often bare-foot, who are constantly running up and down those steep, often stepped, Chongqing streets, with their long bamboo poles bending under the heavy loads they are being paid a pittance to carry.
When unemployed, they stand around on street corners with their yokes, waiting to be hired.