I’ve uploaded my photos of our Yangtze River cruise to my Picasa website. I hope you enjoy them. The next photos to be posted will be of Suzhou, China before I move on to the photos from Vietnam and Cambodia. However, we leave in two days for Sri Lanka, so I am not sure when I will get time to edit and post more photos.
I have not described the Yangtze portion of our China tour before now. In a previous posting, I described a harrowing tour of Chongqing that ended with Kris and I in a deluxe stateroom on board a cruise ship on the Yangtze River. In a way, shortening our whirlwind tour of Chongqing worked in our favor. We were among the first to board the ship and the ship was only half-booked. So we were among the first to be given the opportunity for a bargain upgrade. We had a choice of either of the two most luxurious cabins that had their own outdoor foredeck viewing platforms and floor to ceiling picture windows to the front and to one side of the boat. We could not bring ourselves to fork over the money they were asking for this opulence, but we did decide to spring for the next class of service. This was a room that was the size of two regular cabins and had a queen bed and a floor-to-ceiling picture window view out one side of the boat. Like the regular cabins, it also had a small balcony that one could step out on to feel the wind in your face. Otherwise, it had all the amenities and space of a nice hotel room; minibar, shower, closets, LCD TV.
After the sun set, we were treated to something of a light show as Chongqing lights up its buildings in colorful and dynamic ways. One building looked like the entire building was the display for some gigantic video game. Multicolored searchlights played over the harbor. We were exhausted when we moved into our cabin, but I wanted to stay awake long enough to watch us get underway. I was told that the time when we would get underway was entirely up to the people who manage the river and so was unpredictable. So, I surrendered to sleep. As It was, I was awakened at 5AM by a sense of movement and so I stepped out onto the balcony to watch us leave Chongqing. The light show had ceased by that time, but the skyline was still impressive as we left the dock and then we left the lights behind as we glided downstream between the dark shores.
The next day we went on the first of our two shore excursions for the cruise. On top of Mingshan Hill is Fengdu, or Ghost City. Note the “on top” and “hill” parts of the last sentence. This was the second day I thought I might die. Fortunately, most of the uphill climb is taken care of by a chair lift, but just getting from the level of the river to the chair lift was punishing. It was very hot. We were climbing on stone steps. We were hounded by beggars, all attempting to sell us the same worthless stuff. (To be fair, if one had not brought along some water or a sun shade of some kind, not all of the items being sold would be worthless.) If one paused to take a breather, the beggars would descend on one like harpies. Sweat poured down my face and into my eyes. By the time I got to the road level, I thought my lungs might explode. But they did not and we made it to the chairlift for the ride to the top. Fengdu is the site of a lovely Buddhist pagoda and temple overlooking the Yangtze. What makes it a top tourist site is that it is one of the temples that depicts what happens to sinners when they die and go to Buddhist hell. The depictions are detailed and increase in horror with the magnitude of the sin. (It was a photographers delight, of course.) I have not quite come to understand “hell” in the context of a religion that believes in continual reincarnation. It is not considered enough punishment for your sins that you come back as a cockroach, first your human form has to be tortured? For how long?
The Yangtze has three famous gorges that, historically, made the Yangtze unnavigable in the region of the three gorges and, presently, is the site of the controversial Three Gorges Dam project, by some measures the largest dam in the world. The site of the dam is at the gorge that is furthest downstream. So that gorge is not particularly scenic. The upper two gorges are less scenic than they have been in the past as the water level has risen as part of the project. This summer is the last tourist season before the water level is raised to 175 meters above sea level, so we were among those with the last look at the gorges in their current state. My photographs do not do the scenery justice. There was a heavy mist in the air that sucked all the color out of anything at a distance, which generally overwhelmed any pleasing effect the mist created. I would say the Three Gorges are as scenically interesting as, say, Yellowstone National Park, but not as dramatic as the Grand Canyon.
After seeing the first gorge, we went on our second excursion, a boat ride up a tributary to the Yangtze, Shennong Stream. Our guides along Shennong Stream were from a minority people called the Tujia. First we were loaded into a medium size tour boat for the first part of our journey upstream. The scenery is like that of the Yangtze, but everything was much closer to the boat. The stream had perfectly placid sections that created mirror images of the surrounding scenery and dramatically visualized the wake of our boat. When the stream became too shallow for the tour boat, we landed at a dock, were split into groups of about twelve each, and loaded onto very shallow draft boats. We were then rowed further upstream until the stream became too shallow for the oarsmen. Then, the oarsmen got out, broke out ropes, hitched themselves to the ropes and began pulling the boats even further upstream. At this juncture, whatever scenery we were supposed to be seeing to make this trip meaningful had taken a back seat to the sight of these men hauling the boats along with pure muscle power. There seemed to be a bit of sport and a bit of pride to the boatmen. Our “captain” lost some serious face when, first, he lost a rowing race to the boat behind us, much to the delight of the Chinese passengers in said boat. (Passengers were divided into groups by the language used by their Tujia guides; Chinese or English.) Then, just as we were making the transition to being pulled, our captain ran us aground. It turned out to be remarkably difficult to refloat us and our captain became the object of ridicule by the crewmen on other boats. A more experienced man practically shoved our captain aside to set things right and (thankfully) preventing us from overturning as they got the boat turned back downstream for the return trip. We then returned the way we had come and re-boarded our cruise boat.
The last “excursion” turned out to be mandatory. One could not get out of a bus tour of the Three Gorges Dam project. Actually there are many of us who wanted to and some complained quite bitterly. This mandatory excursion included a full airport-style security check and every passenger on the bus was asked to put all of their prescription medicines into a common bag. This latter was nonsense. The outside of the bus was swept with an explosives sniffer and the guide claimed that prescription medicines had set off the alarm in the past. Given the distance of the sniffer from the passengers, it would have surprise me greatly if an entire stick of dynamite would have been detected from outside the bus. Given the expectations of privacy of foreign visitors, even if I were wrong, they should do the research to determine what classes of medicines might give false positives. As it was, I simply opted not to respond to their request for my medicines. Though I would have been happier to have passed up the experience, it is an impressive dam.
From the dam site, we were bussed to Yichang for lunch and then taken to the Yichang airport for a flight to Shanghai. This was perhaps the second worst day of our China experience. After the heat and indignity of the visit to the dam, a flight to Shanghai with the attendent annoyances, we were then driven to a hotel in Shanghai in one of the worst traffic jams I have ever been in. And it was not clear why we were booked into a Shanghai hotel in the first place. Our next objective was Suzhou, an hour’s drive in the other direction from the Shanghai airport. We just had to retrace our route the next day, also in heavy traffic, when we were finally on our way to Suzhou.
On that grumpy note, I end this description of our cruise on the Yangtze and get back to editing more photos.