River Cruise to the Three Gorges Dam

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The gorge becomes more and more spectacular with mountains soaring up on either side.

When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills. Chinese Proverb

Chongqing is now a skyscraper city with the feel of Manhattan. In the centre of the city is People’s Liberation Monument, locally called Jiefangbei. It commemorates China’s s victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Francis says it was the highest building the city, which had been heavily bombed in the war. It was built in 1946. Now, it is only a child coming up to the knees of all the adult buildings surrounding it.

Marjorie likes central Chongqing especially the diamond jewellers, CRD, where the diamonds look so cheap, but we don’t purchase any, it is so easy to get carried away.

We board the MV Century Diamond after a quick visit to an old riverside temple-cum-house complex in painted in yellow emulsion and a rushed and disappointing Lazy Susan dinner on the eighth floor of a city centre restaurant. However, our cabin is a delight with red bedsheets and two swans made from towels. Our 42nd wedding anniversary will occur on this boat.

Sailing away from Chongqing by night is a spectacle not to be missed. Buildings like people at a football match jostle for a sight of the river and they are illuminated. Their lights make evanescent shapes or messages in changing colours. Does London look as good as this by night? I doubt it. But it’s cool on deck and the relentless chug of the engine takes us away downstream. Soon, the shapes and messages are gone. Our cruise has started.

22 October MV Century Diamond

We awake to a greyness typical of a graveyard in a scary movie. Dull dark shapes define mountains or large hills. The river is wide, flat and eerie. A large town (Fengdu?) emerges from the morning gloom and we pull into to let a tour group depart somewhere.

We stay on board and enjoy a pleasant breakfast at one of the four Titan tables with eight other of Francis’ family.

A young Chinese ‘boy’ in a uniform of a golden sleeveless jacket over a white shirt and brown trousers cleans our room. It’s noticeable how friendly all the crew are.

The cruising resumes and, up a valley hemmed in by triangular brooding mountains, fire crackers like rifle shots sparkle in the air. A funeral, Marjorie suggests. Francis corrects her: A wedding. ‘Same thing, ‘ I say.

The riverside is interesting, small white houses dot the left bank – holiday homes? Next comes a cement factory and all the while boats laden with ores or coal or timber ply their trade along the river.

After lunch, we take an afternoon trip to Shibaozhai Pagoda. The whole town, with the exception of the pagoda which was built on a hill, has been submerged under the waters of the Yangzi following the construction of the downstream Three Gorges Dam. In all, around one and a half million people were relocated when construction on the controversial dam started twenty four years ago.

Ioan and I climbed the 99 steps to the top of the red-painted Shibaozhai Pagoda. Marjorie and Anita stayed behind and watched as at each of the nine storeys we poked our heads out and gave them a wave. Nine is a lucky number in Chinese.

The three-hundred-year old building survived the Cultural Revolution but all the Buddhist idols were smashed. I manage to cross a small humped bridge in an odd number of steps (five). It is a good omen for a happy marriage! I am taught the Chinese for I love you – Wǒ ài nǐ. The guide says it easy to remember pointing at a wall, then her eye, then her knee – Wǒ ài nǐ. From the top of the pagoda, the grandeur of the Yangzi stretches out before me. Life is good.

After dinner, we sit with Jeremy and Noleen and ex-guardsman Mike and Linda his pretty wife – short blond hair and impeccably dressed in a blue dress with a Chinese pattern, crossed across her breast – to watch the crew show.

The opening is a synchronised waltz-like dance, the boys in black the girls in white. Following, comes a series of entertaining and athletic dances interspersed by “Captain” Jack the compère who speaks a barely comprehensible version of Chinglish. We have balletic dances, face changing dances and my favourite a dance to the river god when boys dressed in green with a brown shell on their backs leapt to the most powerful drumming music, evocative of the ancient spirits of the Yangzi. Then came a request for a male volunteer from the audience. One hundred and thirty men sat for a while looking at each other before Mike encouraged by the five of us volunteered. He did a great job fitting in the dancers and was loudly applauded.

Captain Jack now asked for three volunteers. I accepted the challenge, but to my horror backstage, I am fitted into a chicken outfit. Meanwhile Captain Jack, to the amusement of the audience, thanked the three volunteers for their constipation instead of participation. Chinglish in action.

The three of us have to shake ping pong balls out of a pouch on our backside which we show to the audience. It’s a bit of fun and we all get a non alcoholic drink in compensation afterwards.

It was a good evening.

23 October MV Century Diamond

I give Marjorie a pearl necklace to mark our forty-two years and say, as taught, ‘Wǒ ài nǐ.’

After breakfast, we sit in the lounge at the front of the boat, ahead and on either side are boats moored alongside. A red Chinese flag with a large yellow star (the Party) surrounded by four smaller yellow stars (Students, Peasants, Workers and Small Business Owners) flutters in the breeze. The sloping hills change from dark green to pale grey in the distance. It is rumoured that the Yangzi valley is always clouded and grey.

At Wushan, the river is busy, stubby passenger ferries and skittish one-man sampans criss cross between large boats laden with raw materials. Fourteen large Chinese letters on a hillside announce: Welcome to Fengjie County. We are about to enter the first, Qutang, gorge.

On the left bank, a high mountain dramatically threatens to fall into the river. The gorge becomes more and more spectacular with mountains soaring up on either side. On deck, I converse with Mike and his wife from Chesterfield, another nice couple. Mike tells me of his family – including a grandfather he never knew. Like me, I say. Jackie, from Southend, has not lost her Essex accent and her voice reminds me of a distant, now dead, aunt.

At lunch, the French on our ship of nations linger at their tables with bottles of wine. Meanwhile we prepare for the Wu Gorge, the Germans bag the prow and the Chinese mingle everywhere. Once again the brief section of the river is dramatic. The captain should play Wagner’s Rhine maidens’ song from Das Rheingold full blast as we sail through the gorge, it would improve the effect!

On returning to our room, we find that Francis, our guide, has placed an anniversary card and the model of the kneeling archer I studied with Pauline in Xi’an. It is a lovely and thoughtful gesture, I am lucky.

At the Goddess river, we board small boats. A score of us dressed in luminous orange life jackets motor up the narrowest and highest gorge threatened on either side by sheer, towering mountains. In a small boat, it is even more dramatic.

On the return, Olivia, our guide entertains with her stories and singing, She has a fine voice. Perhaps she should learn the song of the Rhine maidens.

I wear my best linen jacket for the Captain’s Dinner.

Dressed in a white uniform liberally lined with gold braid, the captain toasted each diner with his champagne glass full of orange juice. Everyone has made an effort. Anita wears a blazing red dress while Ioan sports a white shirt which had been through by a black dot matrix printer. We sit with John and Pauline, a fellow diarist, who wears a blue dress and make up for the first time, to my knowledge. Their unannounced wedding anniversary is in two days. This was their fifth Titan tour and they raved about South Africa.

We ordered a very palatable bottle of white wine in large goblets, more like bowls than glasses. After dinner, we sat with Jeremy and Noleen. He’s awaiting a knee replacement and struggles on everywhere. Noleen, a pretty, short lady with black hair, had in her fifties before retirement retrained as a maths teacher in a comprehensive school where some teenagers couldn’t do simple multiplication like 5 x 3.

She enjoyed the job but gave up on account of the workload.

24 October MV Century Diamond

Alarm at 6.30, another poor night’s sleep.

At 8.00, we leave on a caoch for the Three Gorges Dam. The sun is shining Yangzi-fashion hazy in a sky of light clouds.

Lucy, our guide, says everything about the dam is huge. It’s the biggest, greatest, highest, etc. At the entry point there is another scrum of Chinese coming and going through the same narrow entryway. The tourist centre ought to operate like a dam sluicing batches of customers from the crowded up stream through turnstiles to the free and unencumbered down stream. It doesn’t; it is Bedlam.

We have the familiar and perfunctory security check and then remount the coach to go to the dam itself. We start at a paper mâché model of the complex alongside kiosks selling souvenirs.

I mount to the top of the viewing station and have a fine view of the enormous dam. To one side boats traverse the five locks to ascend or descend the 150 m height difference. It takes four hours to pass through the locks. There’s no charge.

The fine weather gives good views and the chattering Chinese take countless photos. A giant poster in Chinese proclaims (according to Francis): ‘In order to achieve the success of socialism with Chinese characteristics we must be united and stay close to the central party led by Xi Jin Ping.’

A final look at the dam and we return to the coach park full of identical coaches, our is #585.

We have lunch back on the boat. Unfortunately, I drop tomato sauce onto my trousers. After lunch, we have half an hour to kill. We sit waiting for the trip through the Xiling gorge with deaf Ian- I wish I could sign- and Colin from Redcar. He has persistently worn T-shirts on this trip, this one features the Ohio Bob Cats.

We drive to Xiling through a long tunnel, getting only a fleeting glimpse of the longest gorge. In Xiling we are given an hour to wander around the Wanda shopping mall. It’s an ideal opportunity to buy some new trousers. We buy three pairs (300 Yuan) and throw the stained pair away.

It’s a two hour wait for our flight to Shanghai from Yichang airport; our Yangzi cruise is over.

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