A trip down the Yangtse river, China.


Beijing, China. 8/4/2001

Exchange rate 11.52 Yuen = 1

We arrive to Beijing airport after a 9 hour flight to a warn misty afternoon to be herded like sheep by the Joules Verne representative through quarantine and visa control. Outside a bus takes us to a dull airport hotel from the same mould as airport hotels the world over. Our room sported a fine view of red roofed apartment blocks and departing aircraft.

After the obligatory tour intro meeting we are whisked off in the bus to a tourist restaurant for the fastest meal ever where the only Chinese folk are the staff. The food was OK although they removed the fried frogs and sparrows for the western taste which was a pity.

The flight to Wutan had been rescheduled to the following morning so in true package tour style they offered us an optional tour to see the centre of Beijing at night for only 10 each, any currency accepted. This turned out to be a worthwhile exception because the Chinese guide (David!?) expounded greatly on the recent changes to Chinese culture and economy since the recent changes of 10-15 years. Literacy is up from 35% in his fathers generation to 85% in his and almost 100% in his sons. He seemed proud that more people were able to afford cars. just wait, I thought, you'll be sorry.

Many rural parts of Beijing were in the process of being pulled down and replaced with shiny steel and glass tower blocks for the expanding commerce. The first stop was to see a posh version of a Chinese street food market. Cooking and eating outside is popular in Asia but this seemed to be a display version of the ones we had seen before. Our guide recommended that we did not eat anything just in case but I suspect it would have been a more interesting meal than the showcase one we had just eaten. The fried scorpions and bugs looked interesting but there were more palatable skewer loads of 'things' such as quails eggs and squid. Alongside the white bean curd was a black variety with the appearance of coal briquettes and a rather pungent smell.

The next stop was Tian An Men Square, the largest square in the world apparently, capable of holding a million people until they built a new building in the middle which reduced he capacity by half. The centre is dominated by a monument to all the people who died between 1849 and 1950. They did not mention the students and their fatal demonstration a decade or so ago. On a brighter note, the monument illuminations made a fine location for some night time kite flying. One of these was just visible in the spotlight a couple of hundred meters in the air. Others that were more visible closer to the ground included fine models of eagles, butterflies and strings of small kites dancing like fireflies in the night sky. A couple had been snared by the lanterns that illuminated the square and looked like dead moths that had flown too close to the flame.

Street lighting is a comparatively new addition to the streets of Beijing and not far from the centre are darker streets with small traditional shops cafes and quite a few late hairdressers. They put a stop to the destruction of the traditional housing once they realised it was their heritage that was turning to rubble under the advancing capitalism. Well, almost. Traditional housing is of a Mongolian style which looks rather like army barracks but without windows. Long rows of single story red brick and red tiled buildings with narrow alleys between. Nice if you can get it but some folk can't so they live in a lean-to on the outside with dust and rubbish all around. In China they still don't believe in giving away their housing and money to those who can't be bothered. And all this from the comfort of our coach.

Our guide said that Beijing was going through a dry patch which could explain the sheep grazing on dry grass and dust.

StreetInBeijing1.jpg
StreetInBeijing1.jpg

Monday 9th April 2001

Up early for a continental breakfast and a very ordered rush to the airport for our 08:30 flight to Wuhun. 

The airport is in stark contrast to the surroundings and is spotlessly clean. Cleaners follow you around to wipe away your footsteps. The military have a noticeable presence with two smartly turned out chaps in karki greatcoats with shiny buttons and peaked caps cycling across the runway. I spotted three more from the window of the plane as it hurtled down the runway. They were standing stiffly on a podium by the side of the runway holding onto their rifles and staring expressionlessly ahead. They could have been plucked from outside Buckingham Palace and plonked there in that patch of dry grass and dust or perhaps they were just made of tin. 

GovernmentHousing.jpg
GovernmentHousing.jpg

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UrbanArea.jpg

So far we had not seen the sun peep through the clouds and even our jet plane did not break through. 
From plane to coach then lunch and the Lacquer works museum at ?. Here we saw lacquered and decorated wooden objects ranging from wine containers to ornaments. Also at this museum was the preserved remains of a human body buried over 2000 years ago. The wooden coffin was quite palatial with lots of room to move about in. This was then placed in a larger tomb that represented the house of the deceased with doors and widows and contained some of their possessions. The body has been preserved incredibly well by the combination of herbs that it was wrapped in, the airtight seal of the coffin lid and the depth at which it was buried. So that everyone could see just how well the skin and internal organs had been preserved they were on display in a glass coffin full of formaldehyde. The old chap seemed quite cheerful down in his coffin grinning up at us. The museum itself was quite nicely presented in the old style when architecture was a building consideration. Although made of concrete it sported a green glassed tile roof and surrounded a small expanse of water. 

JingzhouMuseum.jpg
JingzhouMuseum.jpg

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JingzhouCityWallBellTower.jpg

This same town also featured a defensive wall with gatehouses topped by bell towers. Surrounding the one we visited was the usual collection of souvenir shops with inflated prices so that bartering could take place. The attentions of the shopkeepers was enough to put off all but the most interested purchasers. 
 

JingzhouBuildingsFromBellTower1.jpg
JingzhouBuildingsFromBellTower1.jpg

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JingzhouStreetFromBellTower.jpg

On again for another 4 hour bus ride punctuated by yet another meal. In true Chinese food style these meals left us feeling very full for only a short period of time. No wonder many of the folk we saw along the wayside were often to be seen eating.
Much of our journey was across flat land covered by paddy fields and irrigation channels. Occasionally a water buffalo could be seen pulling a plough through the mud but never a tractor. A suspicion that the small huts and tents balanced on the strip of land between the ponds were houses was ratified when night fell and lights could be seen shining out of a window or through a plastic tent wall.

InsideJingzhouBellTower.jpg
InsideJingzhouBellTower.jpg

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JingzhouCityWall.jpg

We thought the temperature quite cool at night but it is nothing compared to the winter lows of -15C. Ouch! A little town had ten or so roadside stalls lit by candles that stood out well on the otherwise darkened streets. By the time we reached the boat it was pouring with rain so we saw little of our surroundings in the shiny darkness. 
Our room was as small as can be expected on a boat but we both felt that a wardrobe would have been of more use than the large television. After being introduced to the main crew members by a man who introduced himself as Peter Pan, we partook of a few beers and dozed off to sleep to the gentle sound of boat machinery.

JingzhouBuildingsFromBellTower.jpg
JingzhouBuildingsFromBellTower.jpg

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GezhoubaDamLockGates.jpg

Tuesday 10th April 2001

A fairly early start today with a wake-up call at 05:30 for complimentary drinks in the Coffee Bar on the top deck so that we could see the boat pass through the Gezhouba Dam lock. And some lock it was too at about 24m difference in the two water levels. 

Having woken so early we heard that there was a queue and we would not be passing through the lock until 08:00.

GezhoubaDamLockGatesTop.jpg
GezhoubaDamLockGatesTop.jpg

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YangtseRiverFromBoat.jpg

Breakfast was pretty much your average Chinese meal served at breakfast time except for the scenery passing by the window.
MountainStreamToTheYangtse.jpg

MountainStreamToTheYangtse.jpg
MountainStreamToTheYangtse.jpg

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MS-OrientalEmperorAtDamProjectStop.jpg

The next stop was at the Three gorges Dam Project where a rather large dam is being constructed for hydroelectric purposes.
As the largest dam project in the world it will displace about 1.3 million people although most are happy because they will be given around 80,000 Yuen (8000) to build another house on higher ground.

Main5TierLock.jpg
Main5TierLock.jpg

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HousingForDamWorkers.jpg

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TopOfLocks.jpg

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TopOfLocks.jpg

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ModeOfDamProject.jpg

ModeOfDamProject.jpg
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DownStreamViewOfDam.jpg
DownStreamViewOfDam.jpg

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DownStreamOfDam.jpg

DownStreamOfDam.jpg
Back on the boat we sail through the gap in the dam wall while lunch is being served and get a reasonable idea of just how many bags of cement are required to build the dam thing.

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BackViewOfDamFromUpstream1.jpg

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BackViewOfDamFromUpstream2.jpg

As we sail up-stream the banks of the mighty Yangtse river start to change.
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HydrofoilInStartOfXilingGorge.jpg
HydrofoilInStartOfXilingGorge.jpg

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BankOfYangtse1.jpg

BankOfYangtse1.jpg
BankOfYangtse2.jpg

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BankOfYangtse2.jpg

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aTownToDrown.jpg

aTownToDrown.jpg
MistyYangtse.jpg

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MistyYangtse.jpg

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FarmLandToDrown.jpg

FarmLandToDrown.jpg
XilingGorge1.jpg

XilingGorge1.jpg
XilingGorge1.jpg

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XilingGorge2.jpg

XilingGorge2.jpg
FishingBoatOnYangtse.jpg

FishingBoatOnYangtse.jpg
FishingBoatOnYangtse.jpg

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BoatsOnTheYangtseBank.jpg

BoatsOnTheYangtseBank.jpg
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XilingGorgeAhead.jpg
XilingGorgeAhead.jpg

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CaveInXilingGorgeWall.jpg

CaveInXilingGorgeWall.jpg
QutangGorge1.jpg

QutangGorge1.jpg
QutangGorge1.jpg

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QutangGorge2.jpg

QutangGorge2.jpg
QutangGorge3.jpg

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QutangGorge3.jpg

 

Friday 13th April 2001

Even on our last day on the boat we are woken early to the soft sounds of Chinese music emanating from the room next door. The scenery outside is getting very industrial in a 'one man, smoky operation' sort of way. After rushing to pack and rush breakfast we find that we have an extra half an hour before we dock at Chongqing. Covering the junction between the Yangtse and Jialing rivers, this little city contains 30 million people in and around it. Our guide told us that the city has been changing rapidly over the years since 1980 when China started to change its governmental policies. The architecture is a blend of tatty pre-war housing, temporary post-war housing and tower blocks, most of which look as if they ought to be pulled straight back down again.

Our first stop was at the zoo where we expected to stroll round and look at the caged animals but no, the bus drove through the crowds of children on their Friday zoo outing to take us directly to the Giant Pandas. It was hard to tell who was on display, the animals or us, as the children turned to stare and wave. Most of the Pandas were still on part of their 20 hour a day sleep cycle but the one that was visible managed to roll over onto its back once before dosing back off to sleep.

A quick visit to the red panda enclosure and then to the government run art centre and gift shop. Being government run they seem compelled to put price tags on items which is probably their starting price. Unfortunately non-haggling folk tend to think this is the fixed price of the item and are frightened off immediately, all except a few hapless Americans who can't make the currency conversion. If that is not the explanation then they must just think we are plain stupid to pay those ridiculous prices.

Then we were off again to the Holiday Inn of all places for lunch. By now we are all getting fed up with Chinese banquets which have been served to us three times a day for as long as we can remember and are only marginally different. The Chinese seem to have a passion for fat, gristle, bone, sugared things, chilies and gloup. We started to leave alone such things as sugared sausages, bean curd, cured pork fat and anything in a gelatinous puddle. The saving grace of each meal would be that each was served with beer except that it was the Chinese version of Watneys Red Barrel.

Next we were whisked up to the highest point in the city where some dictator or other had lived once. I think his house was the one that contained the obligatory overpriced gift shop. Still, the view was good even though you could only see as far as the mist would allow. The mist is a normal feature at this time of year despite suggestion of pollution although a chemical whiff could often be smelt.

In no time at all we were back on the bus and weaving our way through the crowded streets to our next destination of a silk factory. The machine contained within could cope with de-spooling the silk from hundreds of silk worms homes at a time. The hapless worms are soaked in boiling water and an end is teased off and twisted with nine other almost invisible threads before being spooled onto a large bobbin. This simple description is contrary to the complexity of the machine itself with clouds of steam at one end, water flowing all round and numerous levers and whirligigs all going clank, phut and whir all at the same time. It was not a place you would want to work for long unless you were already deaf. Our relief at finding ourselves in the relative peace outside was soon dispelled as we were lead away to the shop. They really do try to squeeze as much cash out of each tourist as possible and this place was no exception with prices surpassing the ridiculousness of those found in Bond Street. Fortunately there was some respite just outside the door on the balcony overlooking the garden. I use the term lightly for in reality it was a tip for building waste where someone had inadvertently discarded a few dead plants. Fortunately this had become a haven for some of the few wildlife that had so far escaped the dinner table. It is more difficult to spot things that are missing from a picture but I saw precious few birds, 2 cats and only one dog on our entire trip.

Out in the country we stopped at a small farm cooperative where a few families intensively utilised the land. By the road was a concrete plinth making facility right next to a bean curd manufacturing shack spewing nasty smells, which was right next to a piggery emitting a rather more toxic ammonia whiff that had me gagging for air. Those in our party that had not given up bean curd already vowed to steer clear of it in future. Further down the hill was a little oasis of permaculture with numerous crops growing nicely in the rich soil. The bottom of the little valley was filled with a couple of fish ponds to satisfy the Chinese taste for fish. Back at the top of the hill the farmhouse seemed to be made of baked mud judging by the appearance and texture.

The evening meal was held at the usual tourist oasis of cleanliness in a modern building of glass and concrete surrounding a cute little courtyard garden.

GreatWallOfChina.jpg
GreatWallOfChina.jpg

Saturday 14th April 2001

Having previously had a minimal knowledge of Chinese geography and not having read the itinerary, I was pleasantly surprised to find that we would be visiting the famous Great Wall Of China.

On the way there we stopped at a pearl factory for the daily money parting ritual. They use triangular fresh water oysters and to increase the production rate they slip about 20 chopped up bits of one oyster into another one which wants to reject it but can't so makes it into a pearl instead. Depending upon which chemicals they drop into the water (copper, iron etc.) the pearls will come out in different colours, normally white pink or black(ish).

The wall was pretty much what I expected. A wall. The impressive aspect is that it was built so long ago and extends so far. We were taken of course to the bit that is open to tourists and it did not take us long to realise that had been extensively renovated. I'm not sure how much if it was new but the top surface was definitely fresh. Everyone appreciated being let out of the bus for a walk even though most of it was more like a climb as the wall was scaling mini mountains at this point. After only three-quarters of an hour we reached the end of the wall which was a bit of a surprise as we were all sure it was supposed to be longer than that. Looking between the castling at the end I could see a line in the dirt and a few spare stones following the path I assume the wall should have taken. Looking back into the valley I could see that the wall split in two as it crossed the valley floor, joining again near the top of the opposite side. This is where any invaders were slaughtered should they manage to breach the first wall finding themselves penned in.

 

Lunch today was served at a specialist food factory for tourists. Empty tourists are pushed in at one end, fed, watered, fleeced and passed out the back. 

TerracottaArmy(replica).jpg
TerracottaArmy(replica).jpg

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ForbiddenCity1.jpg

Our afternoon was filled with a tour of the Forbidden City which is the largest palace in the world at 720,000 square meters and containing 999,999 rooms. Just walking through the main gate took about 15 minutes.

The official halls became rather monotonous after the first few which were noticeably similar. Each hall had an elaborate centerpiece containing a seat for the emperor but nothing at all for the visiting officials. A cold draft blew out of the doors in an empty sort of way. Each building was about 30m high by 100m long and 50m wide with rows of pillars to hold up the ornately decorated roof. The roof beams were painted in green, blue, black and gold. The roofs were covered in glassed yellow tiles and the doors that stretched from floor to ceiling were red with gold on the carved decoration. Visiting the city at the end of the day had the benefit of thinner crowds but the down side is that the caretakers start to shut the doors to the rooms in our faces all too soon. 

We skipped all the rooms on either side of the palace grounds taking the direct route through the centre and only just managed to see the gardens at the end before being kicked out. Outside we were immediately accosted by trinket sellers who are deaf to the word no. I tried haggling the price up for a laugh but he did not take it at all well. We also found a few beggars to hang from our sleeves before we reached the sanctuary of the coach. It sometimes seems harsh to ignore the sympathetic feelings for those worse off than ourselves but it was fun none the less. Our guide insisted that they were people who were either too lazy to work or made a better living out it than many people who did work. It is apparently a growing problem in the new China where as in the old China everyone got paid for doing nothing regardless. As with any change of that type, bad things are bound to accompany the good but he thought that most people would not want to return to the old days.

 

ForbiddenCity2.jpg
ForbiddenCity2.jpg

Dinner this evening is at a Beijing restaurant famous for introducing a emperor to baked duck in pancakes with plum sauce and spring onions. The meal was voted the best of the lot from those on our table although I'm sure the duck is roasted to a higher state of perfection at the Happy Garden round the corner from home. There was Chinese wine that tasted somewhat like sherry, a constant flow of beer and some firewater generously provided by David, our guide of the excellent commentary. After the meal Dave (the tourist not the guide) made a speech and presentation to Emma (our Tour Manager for the week) of a Chinese picture and big tip.

Sunday 15th April 2001

Just in case anyone was hoping to get away with taking some Yuen home the last obligatory tourist stop was to a Chinese medicine centre where we were given a convincing talk about the benefits of acupuncture, reflexology and herbal medicine. So convinced were we by the doctors diagnosis that many of us parted with vast quantities of cash for a few pots of plant bits. Still, it could be more useful than a handful of trinkets.

Travelogues by Malcolm Weller

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