Chongqing to Wuhan on the Yangzi (second time round)
Day 1: Evening departure from Chongqing.
Day 2: We wake up in Fengdu, sail past Shibaozhai and Wanzhou, and make an evening stop at the Zhang Fei temple.
Day 3: We wake up in Fengjie, sail through the Qutang Gorge, stop at Wushan for the excursion to the three Little Gorges, then go through the Wu Gorge and finally the Xiling Gorge during the night.
Day 4: Visit to the Great Dam and early afternoon arrival in Yichang.
Friday 28/8 – Day 1.
Although departure is at 9, we have been told that we can board the boat any time after 6. Driven by curiosity, we get there early. Together with a motley crew of Chinese, loaded down with boxes and plastic bags, we are transported to our boat by cable car. And there it is, our ‘cruise ship’: an ageing rust bucket, covered in nasty, stained carpets. Its sheet metal floors creak and undulate underfoot, causing the carpets to form lumps, dents and creases. Our hearts skip a beat when a member of the crew opens the door to our ‘first class cabin’: what a dive! The cabin, sparsely furnished with two narrow bunks, a small desk and one chair, is tiny and claustrophobic. We have no idea where we might put our backpacks, let alone ourselves! The bathroom is even tinier: a cupboard-sized cubicle in which we spy a brownish, squat toilet with a shower head right above it. There is one miniscule window, no terrace, balcony or anywhere nice to sit. Is this really it? Our cruise ship?
As disappointment sets in, our crafty companion suggests that he can show us a better room; the ‘suite’ at the far end of the corridor. It has the same crummy bathroom, perhaps marginally cleaner, the same insalubrious carpets, but at least it’s spacious: there is a sitting room with windows all around and a separate bedroom with a double bed. For a mere additional 900 Yuan it can be ours.
Our first reaction is one of indignant refusal, but the thought of our claustrophobic cabin soon makes us change our mind and we start haggling. By now, it has become clear to us that what we are doing here is not so much ‘upgrading’ as ‘bribing’ our way into the suite. We eventually settle on 700 Yuan and quickly move in, before anybody can change their mind. We are quite right to be worried, because in the next half hour there is a constant stream of people, knocking on our door with one excuse after another. Apparently, there is some disagreement among the staff, presumably about how much and who we have paid! ‘Our man’ comes back one final time and demands an extra 100 Yuan, claiming that he has had to sacrifice his share to keep the rest of the staff happy. We give in, just to avoid further hassle. Before leaving, he urges us to feign ignorance if our ‘daoyou’ (tour guide) should ask us how we ended up in the suite. Of course, as independent travellers, we have no ‘daoyou’, but just try and explain that to a Chinese person! Anyway, eventually we are given a chit and a key for our room, so we can relax a bit.
Adam pops out to buy a couple of beers and while he’s out and about discovers that we have to buy a card for 60 Yuan and wear it around our neck at all times, if we want to have access to the deck. Apparently, there are about 400 people on board, but only 100 deck places… What are the others supposed to do if they want to get a good view? How cheap and tacky!
Until our 9 o’clock departure, we perch slightly nervously on our fake-leather couch and sip our beers, listening for noises outside our door, still half-expecting to get kicked out of our suite. But then the ship’s horn sounds and we’re off! It looks like we got away with it.
Time to exercise our deck rights. The deck is packed already with pip munching, tea drinking Chinese tourists, perched on low plastic stools. We manage to score two stools as well, make ourselves –more or less- comfortable and watch the colourful lights of Chongqing go past. Looking around, we are able to make out four other Westerners: an immaculately clean-looking couple in their early thirties and two muscular young guys who look like students. We’re not sure what nationality they all are.
Once our ship has left Chongqing behind and entered the black river, a blissfully cool breeze hitting us now, we retreat to our suite, open all the curtains and a bottle of wine. This is more like it; it’s beginning to feel almost like a cruise now. Our double bed is quite comfy too… pity about the whiffy toilet…
Saturday 29/8 – Day 2.
We are woken up as early as 6.30 by the ship’s horn, the sound of passengers moving along the corridors and disembarking and, shortly after that, the ‘hot water and rubbish’ attendant knocking on our door. This feels much less like a cruise again…
Just after 7, we give up on sleep and have some instant coffee and chocolate in bed. When we draw our curtains, we can see that we are moored in front of a grey, modern town. After further investigation, we find out that we are in Fengdu, the Ghost Town, where passengers go up Ming Shan, to visit its many ghost-themed temples. As we haven’t got a ‘daoyou’ (yet), nobody asked us if we wanted to go on this excursion, but we aren’t really tempted anyway.
Next, we brave our little shower and make our room smell nicer by pouring shower gel down the squat; an action we will repeat frequently in the next couple of days.
After the passengers have got back and settled down, we have a little more guide hassle: several young ladies enter our cabin and study the voucher for the excursion to the three Little Gorges, which we had already bought in Chongqing. Eventually, we too are assigned a ‘daoyou’, a serious young woman in glasses who will look after us on tomorrow’s excursion. Thank God that’s settled; let’s hope they’ll leave us in peace now.
Around 10 o’clock our boat sets sail again: it’s grey outside and a drizzle sets in, which soon turns to heavy rain; temperatures have dropped and it’s rather chilly now. In fact, it’s not unlike our first Yangzi trip, though not quite as cold…
We spend the morning in our sitting room, reading, writing and looking at the scenery: we are currently sailing past green, terraced mountains, dotted with ugly, grey concrete houses, as well as some hills that have become detached from the mainland by the rising waters.
Around 15.30 we pass Shibaozhai. This time we get a better view of the wooden pagoda, which now has a concrete wall around it, to protect it from the water, and which is connected to the shore by a bridge.
By now it has stopped raining, so we go and sit on deck for a while, to get some fresh air. Undeterred by the weather, the Chinese tourists have been having a whale of a time: playing cards and mah-jong, munching and drinking non-stop and littering the boat with pips.
We (or rather Adam) get talking to a group of guys next to us, including two very nice retired men in their early sixties. One of the younger ones is really curious to know where the other couple is from, so eventually Adam asks. It turns out that they are Italian. They seem to be surviving our peculiar cruise quite well; they are looking cheerful and are still immaculate! Now that we have all broken the ice, many of the Chinese start taking pictures of us, and we do the same with them.
Around 18.00 we pass Wanzhou, a huge city of tall, grey tower blocks that perch precariously on the steep hillsides. Many Yangzi boats, including the fast hydrofoils leave from here.
Shortly after Wanzhou, we decide to give the restaurant/canteen a try, as we’re a bit tired of snack food by now. The food is actually not bad and pretty cheap. We have a couple of hot dishes, eggplant and mushrooms, a cucumber salad and rice; none of the vegetable dishes cost more than 10 Yuan. Then we retire to our cabin again for a while.
By 20.00 it’s completely dark. In spite of the dark, our boat makes another stop at 21.00; this time to visit the Zhang Fei temple. Once again, virtually everybody, except for us and a quiet family of three, abandons the boat. We watch them clamber up some steep steps and a narrow path, past snack and souvenir stalls, up to a series of brightly lit buildings, high on the hill. We suspect there is a cable car involved in all this too.
The atmosphere seems festive, almost carnivalesque, but we are happy to observe it from our vantage point on the almost deserted deck. The weather has improved enormously and it’s a nice, balmy evening, perfect for sitting outside. While we stare out over the black water and the twinkling lights of Zhang Fei, we speculate about these ‘sights’ along the route: they seem to keep rather unorthodox opening times, just to accommodate the boat passengers; the temples at Fengdu were open as early as 6 in the morning, while this one remains open late into the night. That’s Chinese entrepreneurialism for you!
Sunday 30/8 – Day 3 – The Gorges.
We wake up very early again, but this time to bright sunshine, and to the disconcerting sight of a large cruise ship mooring right next to ours; in fact, it’s so close that we could literally climb from our bedroom into one of theirs. We’re forced to draw all our curtains while we get dressed and make ourselves decent. Then, when we venture out, we find that we have been surrounded by plush, shiny boats of the type we had hoped to sail on:
we can peak into luxurious, spacious bedrooms, each with its own little balcony and deck chairs; we see large dining halls; immaculately scrubbed decks, decorated with potted plants; clean-cut sailors in spotless, white uniforms… In short, everything just as we had imagined our cruise! Never mind, mild regrets aside, we have become quite used to, perhaps even a little fond of, our rust bucket and its unsophisticated passengers and we’re probably not cut out for a ‘real’ cruise anyway.
We are at Fengjie town, close to the entrance to the first Gorge, waiting for daylight and good views. Large parts of the Old Town (or perhaps all of it) have been submerged by the rising waters and we’re probably floating above them at this very moment; a disconcerting thought.
Around 9.30 we head for the deck, in order to secure a good spot to see the Gorges from. Fortunately, most Chinese people hate sitting in the sun, so even at ‘prime time’ the deck is never that crowded. It’s hot already and the two retired gentlemen we met yesterday are protecting themselves with umbrellas. They are on the ‘bai jiu’ (potent Chinese rice wine) already. The Italians also come out to join our little group.
Finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: at 10 o’clock we enter Qutang Gorge, the first, the steepest and the shortest, at just 8 kms. Granted, the steeply rising green walls and the strange rock formations are picturesque, but no more.
At least not to me. I am certainly not as awe-struck as lonely Planet predicted I would be. Nevertheless, we’re having a good time; the sky is incredibly blue; the red flag of China is fluttering gently in the breeze…
Towards mid-day we are all rounded up by our respective tour guides for the excursion to the three Little Gorges. Our boat pulls in at Wushan, another enormous city that seems to consist entirely of concrete tower blocks. Here, we are divided into groups and herded onto smaller boats.
We’re glad ours is the one with the most, open deck space, although it will get extremely hot later. The Chinese, of course, seek shelter inside so that, at first, we have the deck all to ourselves: the two of us, the Italian couple and the two muscular boys, who are Polish students travelling third class, i.e. 6 to a cabin! Brave lads.
But then, hordes of Chinese come tumbling onto the deck, following the orders of two hyper-active photographers, and start posing for pictures. These scenes will be repeated several times on the journey there, as each posing client will have a series of photos taken at predetermined scenic spots.
Meanwhile, our boats are chugging down the Daning River, enclosed on both sides by towering rock walls. From time to time we can see almost ridiculously isolated fields and tiny farm houses, high up on the hill and presumably only accessible by boat and then on foot. There are little fishing boats and simple bamboo rafts on the river. Some people, including Adam, even see monkeys; I, of course, manage to miss them entirely. The scenery is, undoubtedly, very pretty, at least until we get close to our destination, when suddenly heaps of rubbish and debris start appearing and accumulating in the river bends.
Some of the men on bamboo rafts are trying to clean the mess up a bit.
Our boat goes as far as a side arm of the Daning River, closed off by rafts and apparently the starting point for further gorge explorations in even smaller boats. We can see many of those little boats, all lying idle, a ticket office, a place to get some snacks and drinks, but the whole place looks pretty deserted and rather sorry, due to all the garbage on the river.
We are quite happy when our boat turns around and starts heading back the same way we have come.
By now, it has become almost unbearably hot and even our sunhats and umbrellas don’t offer enough protection.
Meanwhile, from inside our boat we can hear a constant stream of talking, laughter and even singing. Closer inspection tells us that these sounds come from the group of pretty, uniformed young ladies who work on the boat. Adam works out that what we’re hearing is just one endless sales pitch: the ladies are selling herbal tea, Chinese medicine and a series of weird articles and souvenirs, entertaining their captive audience with jokes, and even songs, in between!
It reminds me of one of those cheap excursions for retired people that are really nothing but disguised shopping trips. As a teenager, I once accompanied an elderly uncle and aunt on such a trip in Germany, where we saw very little scenery, but lots of pressure cookers and wine glasses.
Adam and I spend the final part of the excursion right at the front of the boat where you can catch a bit of a breeze.
Back on our own ship, we have barely enough time for a swig of cold beer and a nice blast of air-con before the guide comes knocking on our door again: we’re about to enter the Wu Gorge, the second one. So, out we go again, onto the deck, where we find our Italian friends again. The late afternoon light is absolutely stunning as it hits the jagged peaks of the steep gorge. One of the guides- a male one who has kept a low profile so far – starts explaining to a group of fascinated Chinese what all the different peaks are called and why. Chinese people love that kind of thing.
We stay out until after sunset and until it’s almost closing time in the restaurant.
Then, after a modest meal, we return to our suite for the last night; we have some munchies to finish and a last bottle of wine to crack.
Monday 31/8 – Day 4 – The Great Dam.
We wake up early as usual, to find that we’re lying at a pretty spot near another side arm of the river. Little ‘dragon boats’ are shuttling people up that side arm. This is the penultimate excursion, which we are also going to miss: apparently people are taken, first by boat, then on foot, to a temple on a hill where a kind of song and dance performance takes place. The scenery is nice, but who wants song and dance at 7 in the morning? As it happens, we’re kept busy, just trying to pack and get ready.
We don’t really know what happened to the third gorge, the Xiling Gorge, but we assume that we must have gone through it in the dark. Doesn’t that ring a bell? Anyway, towards nightfall yesterday we were definitely ‘gorged-out’.
We spend the final leg of our journey on the little deck outside our suite, observing the river traffic and the first signs of the huge locks, looming up ahead.
It’s just as well that we have decided to splash out on tickets for the final, but expensive excursion to the Great Dam and then to Yichang, because our boat isn’t going to Yichang at all! We figure that this is probably because getting a large vessel through the locks takes hours, so passengers would get bored. These days, all cruisers stop before the locks and then bus passengers to Yichang.
We all disembark and are given bus numbers, depending on our destination and the guide we’re with. Our ‘daoyou’ says goodbye once all her charges are on board and another young lady takes over. She grabs a microphone and drones on and on; apparently it’s all about the Marvellous Dam and all the Rules we must Respect during our visit, in the course of which we have to change buses twice and are walked around three scenic spots.
Our first stop is at an exhibition hall with a scale model of the dam project and loads of souvenir stalls. More interesting is the pretty little park with its scenic viewpoints of the Dam and the locks. Next, we make a brief stop very close to the Dam, and finally we stop at a park with damn good Dam views (pardon the bad joke), as well as plenty more souvenir and snack stalls.
By now we have taken plenty of Dam photos. Besides, how photogenic can an engineering project be anyway? We are ready to be taken to Yichang. Unfortunately, our bus will first make another, entirely unnecessary stop, at yet another shop! Even some of the Chinese have had enough now and just stay on the bus, dozing.
At last, around three o’clock we drive into Yichang, where we are dropped off at one of the bus stations on the quay. We are anxious to find out if there still is some onward transport to Wudang Shan: a train, perhaps, or a bus?
From our point of view – and most travellers we have spoken to would agree – a Yangzi cruise is not so much about the landscape, as about the experience. Though the landscape at times can be impressive, even stunning, at other times it can be industrialised, polluted, or downright boring. However, being on a Chinese boat, surrounded by Chinese holidaymakers, will give you an insight into the way the Chinese enjoy themselves and let their hair down; an occasionally hilarious, but never less than fascinating, experience. And, last but not least, lazing around on a boat for a couple of days is a great way of recharging your batteries after the strains of being on the road.
Types of boats and entertainment
Most Yangzi cruises these days stick to the stretch Chongqing – Yichang (or vice versa), though it may still be possible to continue as far as Wuhan or Shanghai, and there is a bewildering range of boats on offer, in agencies all over these cities. We travelled on a standard Chinese boat where a first class cabin for two, with an en-suite bathroom only cost 800 Yuan (80 Euros) for the two-and-a-half day – three-night journey. Then again, the cabins were cramped and basic and the bathrooms tiny. The lowest category of accommodation was third class, where passengers were sharing 6 to a cabin. Facilities on board consisted of a simple and economical restaurant, a shop, a small hairdresser’s cum massage parlour, a Karaoke bar, and a small card room next to the deck. Access to this room and to the deck was limited to those passengers who had bought a pass. All excursions en route can either be purchased in advance, when booking your ticket, or acquired on the boat on an ad hoc basis. We only went on the excursions to the three Little Gorges and to the Great Dam in Yichang, giving the rest a miss. From what we gathered from our fellow-passengers’ reports, most of the sites visited are only mildly interesting.
The next step up are the (Chinese) luxury cruise boats, for which we were quoted prices of 2,000 Yuan (200 Euros) in Chongqing. However, according to the harbour staff, these boats are less frequent and tend to skip the three Little Gorges.
At the top of the ranking are the foreign cruisers, probably the only ones that conform to our occidental idea of a cruise. If you are interested in this type of trip, you’d probably do well to book in advance, through a travel agency in your country. These boats offer all kinds of entertainment from Chinese language lessons to calligraphy, Taichi, or cookery classes.