You're gorge-ous

Trip Start Nov 28, 2005
Trip End Aug 12, 2006

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, March 27, 2006

So, the first of many early starts, as we got a bus to the city of Chongquing to start our Yangzi River cruise. Its another huge Chinese city, with soaring tower blocks built on steep hillsides and flyovers under construction that are unbelievably high. Walking around this metropolis, which in some ways isn't dissimilar to New York, its hard not to be struck by the fact that most of the world has never even heard of this place!

We boarded the cruiser early - a 5-storey vessel, carrying several hundred Chinese tourists and about 20 foreigners. We found our comfortable cabin and sat there watching the neon lights of the city light up, just before we set sail. The cruise was for 2 days and 3 nights. Its main selling point is the chance to see the famous Three Gorges carved out by the Yangzi River (the third longest river in the world). The trip arrived at the gorges on the second day. Early on we passed through the first gorge, which dwarfed our cruiser with its near vertical cliff walls. They were so tall, that there was almost constantly mist near the top, so it was pretty hard to photo in the grayish light.

The cruiser then docked and we had to transfer to smaller ships (still taking about 80 people) to see The Lesser Three Gorges on a river that flows into the Yangzi. This was the highlight of the whole cruise, as we got to spend a sunny 6 hours going along this winding, relatively narrow river, very close up to the cliff faces. The water was wonderfully blue and hopefully some great photos captured. There was a stop to get on even smaller boats to visit the Three Mini Gorges (why do gorges always come in threes?), which is pretty much a narrow stream running at the bottom of deep chasms.

It seemed the Chinese tourists are quite demanding about how many activities they get to do on a tour and so, there were several other extra excursions from the boat (costing extra money) that the guides were keen to sell during our stay on the boat. Consequently, we spent a lot of our time on the boat being bombarded with tannoy announcements in Mandarin about these excursions and guides knocking on our door to sell them - sometimes letting themselves into our room! We found this a bit intrusive, but it seemed completely acceptable to a society where privacy isn't that important (see our descriptions of toilets in our Dali blog).

We went on one of these tours and whilst the tour itself around some temples wasn't that interesting, it was an experience being part of a mass of Chinese tourists pushing past each other to get off the boat first and following the tour guide with a yellow flag everywhere. There's no English translations and we were starting to appreciate how lucky we were with our foreigner-oriented tours in other countries! The cruise also provided us with other interesting insights into the culture of the Chinese in their leisure time:

- All the men seem to wear suits or trousers/jackets all the time, regardless of activity or weather. They haven't yet discovered the jeans and t-shirt look!
- Again, in line with the 'who cares about privacy attitude', many people just left their bedroom doors open all the time, treating the whole boat as one big dormitory!
- The majority of men smoke heavily whenever possible - its definitely seen as a very socially acceptable thing and even a sign of wealth here. Strangely, we've seen no women smoke though.

On the final night, we approached the huge Three Gorges Great Dam. When completely finished in 2009, this will be the biggest dam and biggest concrete structure in the world (2km length). Its also one of the most controversial projects in the world - it will create a huge amount of electricity for the ever-growing economy, but will cause 1.5million people to be made homeless due to the related rise in the Yangzi River. For more detailed info on pros and cons, take a look at a CNN article on the project . Our cruiser has to go through locks at the side of the dam to get downstream. Approaching these lit-up mammoth lock entrances in the pitch-black of night at the delicate speed of 20metres per minute is much like docking with some kind of space station. Amazingly, they loaded 6 huge cruisers into a lock before shutting vast metal gates 2-3 times the height of our ship and dropping the water level by the height of the ship. This all takes about 1 hour and its only then someone said to us that this was just the first of four locks that the boat had to go through to drop to the river the other side of the dam!!!

When we finally reach Yichang, we hopped on to a bus. We wanted to go directly to Xi'an, but there were no direct trains that day, so we had to go 150 miles out of our way, to Wuhan, to catch a train later that day to Xi'an. We had to take the seats at the back of the bus, which were hard wooden seats with just a little bit of foam padding as a cushion. By the end of the trip, it was a case of sore bums and backs all-round. We grabbed a re-energising meal in Wuhan and then set off on our overnight train to Xi'an.
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