Cruising down the Yangtze River and Three Gorges


gorgeWith a last minute look at train schedules and finding just the right night train from Chengdu to Chongqing, I took off with Foo, a 26 year old Scottish guy I had met in Xi’an, to find a cheap boat down the Yangtze River. Foo’s full name was Fioonlaugh or something like that, which he shortened, and we decided to meet up further south to do the boat trip together. The Yangtze (chang jiang) is the most important river in China, along with the Yellow River, and is renowned for its Three Gorges which rise up around the river (which starts in Tibet). It has also been the center of controversy over the Three Gorges Dam, which was where the boat trip would end. To build the dam, the largest in the world and a massive source of hydroelectric energy, the Chinese government instituted forced migrations of millions of people and aroused an expected outcry. The Chinese government unsurprising prevailed and finished the dam in 2006.

We were both wary about being trapped on a 3rd class Chinese tourist boat alone with chain-smoking, elderly Chinese tourists, so we met again in Chengdu

to sort the trip out. It was a bit expensive starting from Chengdu, so we just decided to check out a hostel in Chongqing and see what the prices for the boat were from there. It ended up only being about half the price, so we paid up, bought some food and beer provisions, and the next day took the afternoon bus to where the boat left in the evening. Upon boarding, we both realized it was a smart move to have gone together since there was no way to occupy ourselves on the decrepit, jankity “cruise” boat at night besides hanging out and having a few drinks in the small lobby or uninviting ship deck.


Everyone else on the ship seemed to just hole up in their tiny rooms for the night, and there were no other tourists to hang around with. Our four-bed dorm room on the boat was cramped, but for whatever reason the only other person (an older lady) that was supposed to be in our room bailed when she saw her room was shared with two foreign backpackers. Regardless of the reason, we didn’t complain because we had the room to ourselves. The whole boat ride was pretty uneventful, with nice scenery and the climax being the tour to see the Little Three Gorges in an offshoot from the main river. Cliffs shot up around 1000 meters high around us in some places, and my camera couldn’t even really get a good shot of it.

The boat also made stops at tourist trap “temples” and “villages”, but Foo and I were pretty jaded by those and decided to sleep through most of them. We were discussing the “cultural” sites in China and came to realize that there is really no respect for or interest in authenticity in China; essentially all temples or “ancient” districts have been gaudily restored or completely fabricated after the destruction in the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps the Chinese are more concerned about moving forward and not so much about historical sites, justifiable in a country that I can definitely say is still struggling with a vast amount of people still in utter poverty. That’s not to say there aren’t some historical areas worth seeing, but both Foo and I had been in China for about a month and politely declined the extortionate fees to see sub-par “cultural relics”. There at least wasn’t much pressure on us to buy, since the purveyors knew that the roughshod tours were purely in Chinese and that Chinese tourists FAR outnumber foreign tourists. We were a few tadpoles in a large pond and not worth their trouble.

On the afternoon of the third day the boat docked at Yichang near the Three Gorges Dam, and we joined the hordes of Chinese tourists herded through the pre-determined viewing points of the 1.3 km long/180 m high dam. My disappointment was immense when we arrived since the majority of the dam was shrouded in smog, and we could only really make out the first quarter of the dam from the viewing point. The irony that the dam was supposed to provide clean energy to the Yangtze River region was about as thick as the noxious fumes that surrounded it.

My greatest shock, though, came when I saw the popularity of photo booths that could Photoshop your picture into a picture of the dam on a clear day. It just reinforced our view that the Chinese have absolutely no interest in the authentic, since they were willing to pay a ridiculous price to fake that they had visited the Three Gorges Dam on a clear day. Not only that, but the sample photos were very poorly done and it was obvious that they were fakes. The Chinese have an idiom, 入乡随俗 - (ru xiang sui su), which roughly means “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, but I couldn’t stoop to the level of faking a photo. After the dam tour the trip was essentially over, and we were bussed to downtown Yichang and took and ill-fated trip to see Zhangjiajie Park (update soon).

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