Saturday, 29 August 2009

Up a Smoggy River

Fourteen weary Jules Verne tourists climbed off the coach that had taken them from the city of Shanghai to the River Port of Zhenjang on the Yangtze to board their cruise ship the MV Victoria Rose and their eight night journey upstream along the Yangtze River in China ending at the river city of Chongqing. We shouldn’t have been that weary. Six intriguing days and nights spent in Beijing and finally Shanghai had been fascinating. Our minds were full of the exciting images we'd seen. Our bodies were weary with the walking and climbing wed done, but our weariness was more to do with a coach journey that should have taken three hours from Shanghai to the River Port. The fact that China is under construction meant that the motorway from Shanghai to the River Port was still being built as we drove on it, resulting in the journey taking nine hours. The road was so rough that we spent the entire time either hitting the roof of the coach with our heads or jarring our spines on the seats. All of us were dreaming of a relaxing cruise with the highlights being our visit to the new Three Gorges Dam site and to see the magnificence of The Three Gorges before the completion of the Dam in 2009 submerges The Three Gorges leaving just the peaks as islets above water. But how relaxing was this cruise going to be?

The Yangtze River in China is the third longest river in the world after the Amazon and the Nile. The River Yangtze is over three and a half thousand miles long with more than seven hundred tributaries. We were to sail one thousand, three hundred and twenty miles of the Yangtze River over eight nights with frequent shore excursions. Ten percent of Chinas population live and work along its banks. Almost half the crops eaten by the Chinese are grown along the fertile banks of the River Yangtze including rice, wheat, cotton and maize. But the first impression of the River Yangtze at Zhenjang as we boarded the MV Victoria Rose at 10.30pm is industry, factories, rusting freight and cargo ships, ferries, cruise ships and the lasting memory of smog.

The MV Victoria Rose was comfortable and spotlessly clean and a very welcoming sight after our long coach journey. The cabins were a reasonable size with very sleep inducing beds and adequate bathrooms, complete with a wet-room which I loathe, television, telephone and efficient air conditioning. I stress the importance of air conditioning in China in general and on the River Yangtze in particular. The temperature during these eight days at the end of September remained in the 80 degrees Fahrenheit range but the humidity soared from 50% to a suffocating 90%. Bottled water was supplied daily free of charge in our cabins and is essential to prevent dehydration. The MV Victoria Rose had a relaxing one-sitting only restaurant, another important factor for happy cruising, and a good bar that hosted gentle entertainment, lectures and demonstrations of kite flying, calligraphy, language lessons, Mah Jongg instruction, traditional painting and early morning Tai Chi shadow boxing with Dr Wu, all fronted by an onboard Cruise Director and his staff. It became apparent after only one day that the fourteen passengers from the UK, ranging in age from thirty two to seventy eight years old, were the only ones from the seventy others, exclusively Americans, which actually drank at the bar. After our time together in Beijing and Shanghai we became even more bonded as we met every evening in the bar for a pre dinner drink and most certainly after dinner for our nightcaps. Travelling in an organised tour group is bit pot luck as there is no escape from the others, but we all got along very well for the entire sixteen days.

So much for the anticipated rest though. The MV Victoria Rose set sail from Zhenjang some time during the night and docked at Nanjing, o few miles upstream. But we didn't sleep for long as the buffet breakfast was being served at 6.45 am and we were to disembark on a shore excursion to visit a Mausoleum in Nanjing. The German Cruise Director was already getting on our nerves as he gleefully told us there were over four hundred steps up to the Mausoleum of Dr Sun Yat Sen, the Father of Modern China who led the 1911 revolution and founded the Republic of China. After lunch we were to make a further visit to a Bazaar and then a Confucian Temple. The Cruise Director had a rather unfortunate manner. He didn't seem entirely suitable in his role as what was in essence in charge of Entertainments. On our arrival the night before after the fraught coach journey we had all wanted a drink at the bar and he'd refused to serve us after because we had a busy day ahead. We were on holiday, not an army assault training course! After out post lunchtime visit to the Bazaar and the Confucian temple we set sail at 3.00pm to travel one hundred and thirty miles to the port of Gui Chi. Now and again the smog cleared on the River Yangtze- a few gaps appeared on the river banks, lessening the effect of industrial smoke belching out of the factories and coal mines that line so much of the sometimes obliterated river banks.

The next day was even more threatening. By this time we were calling our Cruise Director Herr Flick! With great joy he told us that breakfast was at 5.15am as we had a full day shore excursion to the Yellow Mountain from Gui Chi and were scheduled to leave the boat at 6.00am. With even greater joy he told us there are many stairs and steep pathways to climb at the Yellow Mountain but walking sticks were available to buy at the bottom of the mountain. However, even Herr Flick couldn't spoil what was to be a wondrous day out. Yellow Mountain, or Mt. Huangshan, has been named by UNESCO as a world historical and cultural protection area. The day was clear and sunny with no fog. This made us especially fortunate as the seventy two peaks of the Yellow Mountain are enveloped by fog and clouds for three quarters of the year. The majestic peaks, crags and granite rock formations with pine tress growing from every crevice are the inspiration for much of the traditional Chinese landscape paintings with just wisps of mist feathering the summits and the Yellow Mountain is a place of pilgrimage for poets, writers and philosophers.

To reach the top of the Yellow Mountain we boarded a cable car that held one hundred people and took almost fifteen minutes to ascend on what looked to me like a bit of string. We were all more confident when told it was Austrian technology and engineering that had designed and built the whole system. Looking down as the cable car smoothly soared upwards we passed over peaks and gorges and deep ravines, which was a breathtaking and scary experience but stunningly beautiful. We then followed a pathway downwards past the Cloud Gathering Pavilion and then to a mountain restaurant for lunch. This pathway was narrow and steep with nothing but an iron railing on the edge to prevent anybody falling through and into the terrifyingly sheer drop to the valleys and ravines below. At stages along these pathways there were thousands of padlocks on chains on the iron railings. Lovers declare their undying love for each other by locking the padlock onto the rail and throwing the key into the gorge, so expressively romantic? After a delicious Lazy Susan lunch in a restaurant perched high on the mountain we had to climb back up the very steep paths and steps to the cable car station for our descent. The afternoon sun was very hot and immediately after a large lunch we were uncomfortably out of breath but all considered ourselves very lucky to have seen the Yellow Mountain in these weather conditions, as visiting groups only a few days previously experienced high winds and rain and could see nothing of the intoxicating scenery.

It was some relief to discover we had two days sailing upstream with no shore excursions but for one brief evening tour of the city and river port of Wuhan, and thankfully no early morning starts. This gave us the opportunity to discover more about our ship the MV Victoria Rose, perhaps read a book and learn a little more about Chinese culture and traditions from the Cruise Team. The ship had a large lobby and reception area complete with a shop selling jewellery such as Chinese jade and Chinese fresh water pearls, kites, silk clothes and accessories. Reception was manned twenty four hours a day and each of the three passenger decks had an attendant house keeping member of staff ready to meet any requirements. The ratios of staff to passenger appeared to be two to one and they were all attentive, charming and eager to improve their English at every opportunity by engaging in conversation with the guests.

The Dynasty Restaurant served excellent hot and cold buffet style breakfasts at the respectable time of 8.00am with selections of food from traditional Western taste to Chinese style. Lunch was a hot buffet, again with choices to suit everyone. Dinner was waiter service as dish after dish of Chinese style foods arrived and was placed on the Lazy Susan so let the spinning begin! Early bird tea and coffee was served from 6.00am in the Yangtze Club and tea and cookies at 3.30pm every afternoon. I never made the early bird coffee and somehow I never made, or needed, the afternoon tea. Fortunately there is no dressing up on board. People were wearing the same casual clothes to dinner as they had worn to breakfast. The onboard laundry service was so reasonably priced that if I did this trip again I would only pack one set of clothes, wear the other set, and have each laundered on alternate days.

I was disappointed that we couldnt walk right round the MV Victoria Rose outside decks as they were both too narrow and sealed off for access. Although all the cabins had large picture windows overlooking the outside of the ship the cabin doors opened into internal corridors. This made any length of time spent on board feel restrictive. There were two sundecks fore and aft and an observatory top deck. Two online computers, a hairdresser and beautician, a masseur, a library and a doctor were on board. The MV Victoria was non smoking apart from the bar, in the lobby and the outside areas.

The weather was warm enough to sit on the decks in spite of the persistent mist and fog. The Yangtze River was a deep yellowy, muddy colour, probably because of the tons of sewage and industrial waste that is dumped in it all the time as well as the enormous amounts of silt that are deposited in the flood season. Only three weeks prior to our visit unseasonably heavy torrential rainfalls had caused extensive flooding with the loss of many lives from people who lived in the villages along the banks of the river. As we sailed along some pleasure was gained from the intermittent breaks from riverside industrial plants and their smoking chimneys allowing us to see more clearly and enjoy the landscapes. Rice fields worked by manual labour with the help of water buffalo were scenes that I'd expected along this part of the Yangtze.

The upstream current was very strong so it took us twenty seven hours to travel just 295 miles up the river to Wuhan for a brief two hour visit where we saw yet another Buddhist Temple and led into yet another shop selling yet more Chinese arts, silks, jade, pearls, kites, Mah Jongg sets and calligraphy tools. Although this was just day four on the River Yangtze it was day nine of our visit to China and we were simply jaded out by then and I didn't care if I never saw another artefact or indeed another Mausoleum or Buddha statue. I desperately needed to see nature and not manmade things. But this wasn't yet to be!

The distance from Wuhan to our next stop, Yichang, was 440 miles. Yichang is most famous for the Gezhouba Dam. A massive civil engineering feat completed in 1988 which at the moment is Chinas largest hydroelectric power generator, until the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam, 25 miles further upstream is completed in 2009. Now, most all of the Yangtze cruises begin at Yichang to sail upstream and visit the Three Gorges and the construction site of the new Dam ending at Chongqing or, vice versa, begin at Chongqing and sail downstream via the Three Gorges and finish at Yichang. These trips last three or four days, half the length of our cruise. Considering we had been on board since Shanghai for five days and apart from the magic of the Yellow Mountain I did wonder about the value of these extra days on the MV Victoria Rose. We'd seen no birds, no fish, and no wild life at all, unlike all the other rivers we've sailed on, including the Volga and the Nile, and my lasting impression is of a polluted river, industrial waste, rusty boats and junks and everlasting smog. The MV Victoria Rose crew tried to excite us by telling us to keep a keen eye out for Finless Porpoises and Yangtze Dolphins but once we were told that our Captain had been sailing the River Yangtze for over thirty years and never seen any himself we gave up the search and put our binoculars away!

When you're on a river boat it is very exciting going through the ship-locks on a river and the Gezhouba Dam was no exception. From the moment the back gates closed behind us it took about twenty minutes for the water to pump into the lock to reach the same level as the outside and for the front gates to open, but this was small fry compared to the Three Gorges Dam. The Three Gorges Dam has five ship locks. Each lock can hold from five to nine ships. Our passage through each of these locks took a total of four hours. As well as flood prevention the new Dam will create a reservoir over 350 miles long. At the same time displacing almost two million people from their homes and their land but also providing electricity for 80% of the country! Many people are leaving the rural farming areas altogether and taking jobs in the fast expanding industrial areas in the cities.

So how much of the Gorges would we see now that the drowning has begun? The Three Gorges Dam is built in the forty seven mile long Xiling Gorge which was once a dangerous part of the river to navigate because of the currents and the rapids, but not any longer because the water levels have risen as the Three Gorges Dam nears completion. We entered the twenty five mile long Wu Gorge, often described as the most sombre of the gorges because of the steep cliff walls bordering the winding river and the sunlight sometimes breaking in shafts through the splits in the rocks. Then onwards to Wushan where we were to board a small ferry and sail along the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze, and see the lesser gorges. I liked these lesser gorges best of all. The River Daning was clear and blue. We saw monkeys climbing trees, goats clambering up the rocks, plenty of green foliage and wildlife but were sad to realise that these lesser gorges will be submerged once the Three Gorges Dam creates the huge reservoir.

Finally, the five mile long Qutang Gorge where the river narrowed to a matter of a few hundred feet with sheer precipices either side and then onwards to Fengdu The City of Ghosts. It looked like it too as it was shrouded in mist but we had a pleasant on shore visit to the Snowy Jade Caves which were in fact an alternative Wookey Hole. Then our final day on the MV Victoria Rose; we were sailing the last one hundred and fifty miles to Chongqing and our ultimate destination on the Yangtze. As we approached the sub-tropical city of Chongqing I read that it is nicknamed the Furnace or Fog City and I could see why! We couldnt actually see it! Chongqing is one of the few Chinese cities that dont have millions of bicycle riders as it is so hilly, and humid and hot and industrial with towering skyscrapers and flyovers.

Along the cliffs and the precipices that bank the Yangtze through all the Gorges as well as on large stretches of the Yangtze are huge signs in metres showing where the water will stand in 2009. This had a huge impact as we saw the houses, villages and even cities which will be underwater or demolished when the dam is finished. They say that the deep waters will allow ocean liners to sail all the way to the huge city of Chongqing from Shanghai making vital trade links to the western regions of China. They say that instead of reducing the beauty of the Gorges, tourists will be offered submarine trips down into their underwater depths thus increasing the revenue from visitors. They say that thousands of archeologically important sites will be drowned when the Dam is finished. Others argue that many cultural and historical relics are being moved to higher ground.

Our two part visit to China has given us more insight into modern China and where it's going in the world. It is undergoing an industrial revolution. Be prepared to feel tired as there is so much to see and it is a vast country. It will be foggy on the Yangtze. September and October appear to be the driest seasons. During our holiday in China we saw no rain or winds at all. Thank goodness, imagine that combined with the fog? Drink plenty of the freely provided bottled water because the humidity is generally high. Consider the four day Yangtze cruise from Yichang to Chongqing as an alternative to the full Yangtze cruise of eight nights. But try to get to the Yellow Mountain for spiritual refreshment. And although the river boats are luxurious and very comfortable with excellent service and delicious food with plenty of on board culture to stimulate the mind, the continual fog can get to you.

But this wasnt the end of our China adventure with Voyagers Jules Verne and our intrepid little band of travellers. We were to see the threatened species, the Giant Pandas, eating four tons of bamboo a day in Chongqing Zoo but even better than that. We were to take an internal air plane flight on Air China to the beautiful city of Xian to visit the Terracotta Warriors. But that's another story.

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1 comment:

Millennium Housewife said...

Ah, that took me back to my travelling days (and mis spent youth), lovely. Just over to say a massive thankyou for following my blog, it really made my day (already) to wake up this morning and see you there - cheers!