Cruising for Pandas

Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End ??? ??, 2006

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Monday, April 11, 2005

11th - 17th April
The train journey from Xian to Chengdu in the western province of Sichuan passes through some very rugged terrain, so rugged in fact that the rail link was only completed in 1954. Deep river valleys and small mountain villages passed by with every possible peice of fertile land terraced by the local farmers. The train snaked it's way through the countryside hugging the near vertical valley sides and disappearing into numerous tunnels bored through the mountains themselves. A great change from the previous and predominantly flat landscape we have travelled through.

During this journey one of the more disturbing aspects of China today made itself apparent. In the middle of this natural beauty we saw towns and villages with huge rubbish shutes which spewed the entire towns waste down the valley side where it is left for all to see. This apparent disregard for the environment is literally a recurring 'blot on the landscape' of China. This general attitude towards waste disposal was further demonstrated when having accumulated a bag of rubbish of our own we were looking for a suitable bin on the train...the man in the next compartment gestured for us to pass it to him. Great we thought he knows where the bin is...Wrong....he took it from us and launched it out of the window into the river below! and no one even batted an eyelid. The trackside on many of the journeys we have made is often strewn with all manner of rubbish.

The only contradiction to this behaviour is the voracious way in which empty plastic bottles are collected for recycling by the 'less well off' in all the cities we have visited so far. In fact no sooner have you finished drinking a bottle than someone appears to take it from you, we have even been followed until we finished our drink so the bottle could be collected. We think this is because they receive a small payment for every bottle!

This environmental mess is repeated on an industrial level (4 of the worlds most polluted cities are in China) and most cities we've seen usually have poor air quality with a haze of 'smog' hanging in the air which distrupts any kind of elevated view.

But enough of this.....
We arrived in Chengdu at 6am and our prearranged pick-up didn't show, so we opted for a taxi..after 4 refusals we began to despair. We walked away from the station until we could hail a driver that would take us (we later found out that the hostel was too close to the station for the drivers to make a decent fare). At last a hot shower and a comfy bed! ('Mix & Backpackers'...a great hostel, newly opened, 70RMB per night for a clean double room with shared facilities).

Chengdu is where we hope to see Pandas at the local breeding and research centre based in a designated reserve set up to preserve them and their environment. We booked our trip through the hostel and set off early in the morning (after 10am the pandas having eaten, do little else but sleep).

Well we certainly saw Pandas..lots of them, from young cubs upto adults. For a donation to the reserve (about 25GBP, negotiable)you can sit with a jouvenile Panda. Jane couldn't resisit the opportunity, so we were ushered into their compound and Jane sat on a bench seat dressed in plastic apron and gloves. The panda ambled out of its enclosure and climbed onto the seat next to her. It snuggled against her and leant it's head on her shoulder and placed one of it's front paws on her leg while she put her arm around it.. (I knealt a few feet away taking photos) Then all too soon the encounter was over as the panda was coaxed back to it's enclosure by the staff. FANTASTIC! I've never seen Jane with a smile so big.

The really young Pandas were great to watch as they clumsily tumbled around playing with one another whilst the older ones lay on their backs lazily munching on Bamboo. They are all so cute it is difficult to think of them as 'wild' bears. They really do look just like big cuddly stuffed toys. Jane is still trying to work out how we can smuggle one home!

Having 'got the bug' for handling wildlife Jane then decided she wanted to hold a Red Panda (about the size of a large domestic cat) another 'donation' was required but this time a much smaller one only 50RMB, and Jane got to have it lay in her lap whilst she fed it some fruit.

The next day we spent just relaxing, washing clothes, and planning our next move. We had wanted to take a cruise down the Yangtse through the three gorges and see the massive dam under construction before it's completion. But we were now over 300KM away from our planned starting point thanks to our (or as Jane insists) "MY" navigational cock-up!

We decided to leave most of our kit at the hostel in Chengdu (we have to come back here to fly to Tibet) and go ahead with our original plan by booking a river trip but from here.

The chinese tour we managed to book ourselves on would pick us up from chengdu by bus and then on to cruise down the Yangtse, ending just short of Yichang (the site of the Dam), from where we would need to find our own way back to Chengdu. This trip cost 850RMB each including a first class cabin for 3 nights, not bad considering the advertised price was over 1200RMB each.

The bus arrived to pick us up and was a 40 seat coach full of Chinese (more on their antics later...) The driver was...well in simple terms "a nutter" he drove the bus like a rally car, (a kind of Chinese Colin McCrae) swerving in and out of the heavy traffic, refusing to slow down, let alone stop for anything (at one point I thought Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock must be on board!) He continually sounded the horn at every opportunity, when either overtaking or undertaking, on seeing people he knew, or thought he knew, and whenever the traffic lights changed against him (which he ignored anyway!). To top the journey off we were treated to a chinese Kung Fu movie on the video with the sound turned up just loud enough to make your ears bleed. This lasted for a full 3 1/2 hours until we arrived in Chongqing with our knuckles well and truly white and the sound of unarmed combat ringing in our ears!.

In Chongqing we fought our way off the bus into a marshalling area with about 7 other bus loads of Chinese tourists all kitted out with fluoresent baseball caps gathering around tour leaders furiously waving matching flags and carrying megaphones through which they simultaneously shouted instructions to their particular party. Needless to say in the ensuing chaos we got left behind!

Thankfully the only guide who spoke any english noticed us and rang the tour operator who sent someone to rescue us in a taxi. So we dumped our bags in their head office and wandered around the centre of Chongqing (not unlike a mini Hong Kong with highrise blocks set in the hills surrounding the river). At 6pm we boarded the boat for our trip down the Yangtse.

We were pleased with our cabin on the top deck of the boat. It was well appointed with twin beds, a sofa, a seperate bathroom and large window through which we could watch the passing scenery. The only problem was the Chinese Karaoke bar at the end of the corridor which was well attended by would be Chinese crooners. They take their Karaoke very matter how bad the singing they earnestly applauded everyone. The glass shattering power of Chinese folk songs rendered at full amplified volume is not to be underestimated! It was excruciatingly BAD to the point of being painful. (Some of the men we heard sounded as if they where singing whilst being driven over a ploughed field with weights tied to their scrotum).

Eventually the music died down and we slept until being woken by a knock on the door at 5:30am! "You get up..boat stop!" were the only instructions we received. Part of the 'joy' of being on a Chinese boat is that you never know what exactly is happening or when! Nobody organising things could tell us, I don't think even they were sure.

Our first stop was the so called 'ghost city' of Fengdu which has been deserted and now mostly demolished in preperation for the rising waters that will eventually submerge it. The town is overlooked by ming Shan the mountain home of Tianzi the king of the dead (hence the towns name)The whole place has an eerie feel to it with deserted streets, tower blocks, empty shops and banks. The only people remaining are those making a living from the cruise boats that stop here. After wandering around the Buddhist temple set on the hillside (for around an hour) we had breakfast on the quay and then reboarded the boat.

The dam project has displaced over a million people and will effect millions more when it is completed (estimated date around 2009). It is difficult to defend the dam in light of the cost both in human and environmental terms. It has been estimated that within 70 years of it being completed the effluent pumped into it from cities around it's perimeter will make it unusable, the Chinese admit this and claim to be trying to solve the problem. Unknown amounts of archealogical treasures will be lost not to mention the obvious loss of the incredible scenery and countryside including most of the 'three Gorges' themselves. For this reason we wanted to see them before they disappear forever!

Along the banks of the river are large white markers showing how high the water will rise once the dam is completed (upto 115 metres). Our next stop later that afternoon was Shibaozhai a massive rock buttress with the 'Orchid Pagoda' reaching some 30 metres up the side of it. We didn't have the energy to climb to the top so we had a quick snack on the dockside.
The scenery at this part of the river is not particularly attractive it is obvious that the goverment own all the land in China and have built industrial plants in purely convenient locations with little regard for asthetics. We saw many industrial plants in prime positions along the river belching out smoke with houses built directly around them or massive coal shutes clinging to the river bank where lorries standing on the road above would tip their contents into waiting barges. However there are stretches of the river with nothing but small farm buildings and areas of terraced land that fitted with our expectations of the yangtse.

We didn't eat onboard but preffered to buy food and snacks from the places we docked, as there was plenty of cheap and tasty fare on offer (the dining room onboard was always crowded and only seemed to be open for short spells, known only by the Chinese). That evening we were again treated to the virtuoso efforts of the Karaoke bar before falling asleep.

Today we would pass through the three main Gorges which start at Baidicheng and cover some 200 KM in total. They consist of sheer limestone cliffs, hairpin bends, which have claimed many lives over the years and were still concidered very dangerous to navigate until around 100 years ago. The sheer scale of the cliffs is difficult to take in from the vantage point of a boat on the river, they tower over you to seemingly impossible heights. Surprisingly they are covered with vegetation and trees with only sections of bare rock. The water has now changed from a dark green to a more emerald colour and with the sun shining the passage through the gorges was awe inspiring! (I'm starting to run out of adjectives to do justice to all the sights we have seen).

We then boarded smaller boats to pass through the so called mini gorges these where spectacular with colonies of monkeys swinging through the trees clinging to the cliff sides and small islands with farm houses perched on them at the 'entrance'. Again we stopped to get into smaller wooden boats (holding about 20 people) for a trip down one of the narrower gorges (around 30 feet wide) this gave us a really close up view of the gorge side peppered with small caves, and tree roots overhanging the water which was a bright emerald colour. Brightly coloured Birds and dragonfly flitted over the surface of the water from side to side with the occasional Goat stood watching us from rocky outcrops.

The lunch stop was at a cliffside 'stronghold' created to safeguard the narrow channel through one of the small gorges. The tented area set aside for people to eat in the shade contained all manner of food from noodles in soup, numerous strange vegetables to live fish held in small rock pools for diners to choose from. After lunch we retraced our steps to the big boat and continued our journey towards Yichang. The Gorges had been fantastic and it is easy to see why their navigation posed so many problems for so long(the only alternative was to travel over the bandit ridden mountain paths). It does seem to be a genuine crime that all will soon be lost under the waters of the new dam!

The general scenery has now improved with far more small farm houses (most no more than shacks), terraced plots with tiny boats moored close by dotted along the banks, creating a tranquil air to this stretch of river (some of the inclines and patches of land on which we saw farmers working have to be seen to be beleived).

The chinese tourists with which we were afloat tended to control the boats schedule:if we were told to return to the boat by a certain time we duly obliged but they stuck together in massive groups and simply returned when they saw fit, safe in the knowledge that the boat would'nt leave without them...and it worked, much to the consternation of the crew and the captain who would blast the ships horn continually trying to urge them back on board (to little effect)towards the end of the trip we were running over 4 hours late (this was explained to us by a chinese tourist who spoke some English.)

Our final night of the trip was supposed to be spent touring the site of the dam but this turned into a farse. We had boooked this optional tour rather than spend time on the boat going through the large number of massive locks leading to Yichang which were described as nothing more than concrete boxes (supposedly during daylight hours). Those who had booked the trip all boarded 3 buses at around 9pm (because we were running late)and we were driven to a jousting tournament (no I didn't beleive it either)at this point the Chinese revolted and refused to enter, scuffles broke out with the tour staff and after 40 mins and much shouting we got back on the coach and were driven to the site of the dam where we spent all of 10 MINUTES, just enough time to take a few photos. Then we were driven to a scale model of the dam for a lengthy lecture on its construction (in Chinese). To finish off this magnificent waste of time we were left on the quayside to wait for the boat to arrive from the locks, this meant waiting till 2:30am OVER 3HOURS! on a pitch black concrete quayside...not my idea of fun. (The only 'entertainment' was a nearby temple which housed two bodies discovered whilst excavating the dam. These where kept in rather undignified 'fishtank' coffins so visitors could view their well preserved remains.
The strange thing was the Chinese accepted this enforced wait without complaint and yet they had nearly rioted at the thought of spending an hour at a jousting tournament. We should have just stayed on the boat and got a good nights sleep! If you do the Yangtse trip DONT BOOK TO SEE THE DAM!!!

After a few hours of fitful sleep we eventually got on a bus at 8am for the 4 hour (non stop)journey to Wuhan. On arrival we tried to buy train tickets back to Chengdu but the earliest train available was the following day at 5:30pm and we could only get tickets for seats , no sleeper tickets! This would lead to our TRAIN RIDE FROM HELL!(see our next entry).

bye for now....meandher.
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