After the adorable pandas of Chengdu it was a fairly short, two hours, bullet train ride to the sprawling commercial city of Chongqing on the banks of the great Yangtse river. Not a luxury hotel this time but three nights aboard the very smart Sanctuary Yangtse Explorer as we traversed the Three Gorges. All the travel and transfer arrangements went very smoothly and I was hugely impressed when, at the dockside, the baggage porter slung our two suitcases at each end of a long pole, hoisted it over his shoulder and trotted off in front of us – only about 40 kilos!
Perhaps not the prettiest of waterfronts but it looked much better late in the evening when we set off downriver towards the Great Yangtse Dam.
The still photograph does not show how the lights were moving in patterns and colours or the laser lightshow on some buildings, notably the ultra modern opera house.
We have never taken a ‘cruise’ as such before because it does not really appeal, and this mini venture confirmed our suspicions – excellent in parts and cringe worthy in others. This was summed up at dinner on the first night – a delightful English couple on one side (who became good companions for the trip) and on the other a large group of screeching, raucous Americans.
Our first shore excursion was to the ‘re-located’ town of Fengdu where we were herded around the streets in large groups to visit a food market and a children’s nursery.
The market was very clean and well organised but I still don’t fancy chicken feet. Nor did I relish the thought of a visit to the dentist.
Most of the food in the market was recognisable with the exception of some vegetables – it was all very colourful and beautifully displayed.
The narrow streets we wandered through were crowded with people – mainly older people and a few babies and toddlers clearly being minded by grandparents. It was the middle of the working / school day but the guide did admit that most people had to go away to the cities (sometimes considerable distances) to find work.
Next we made a slightly odd visit to a children’s nursery. The 15 western tourists in our group (there were 120 on the cruise) were marched into a narrow classroom of about thirty of the cutest wee Chinese you could imagine. These were ‘tourist wise’ kids – they stayed in their seats but bounced about, smiling, laughing, high fives, waves, and the ubiquitous Instagram posing of two wide fingers on each side of their faces.
The children and staff all seemed very happy but I was slightly uncomfortable that we were ‘viewing’ these kids.
I have often taken photographs in back streets in various countries showing a more ‘relaxed’ attitude to health and safety, particularly obvious with macrame style tangles of electricity cables dangling from overladen telegraph poles. The photograph above raised my horror to new heights when we realised that these are not electricity or telephone cables but are in fact gas pipes.
Normally we always ask permission if we want to take photographs of people but this next shot was a ‘snatch’ as the ladies gambling at mahjong were not overjoyed at the prospect.
After a short coach ride we were next taken to a home visit with a ‘happy farmer relocated to the new perfect town of Fengdu’. Another surreal experience. What I was seeing with my eyes and my pre China research into the story of the building of the Great Dam, the flooding of the Gorges, and the relocation of 1.4 million people just didn’t tie up with the ‘facts’ being spouted by the guides.
The above photograph is a corner of the shop where we visited the owner. The stock looked very ancient and dusty, there were no customers about, indeed there was no-one to be seen in the surrounding streets. All fifteen of us in the group sat upstairs in this 65 year old ‘ex-farmer’s’ sitting room to ask him questions. There were discrepancies between the guide’s and the farmer’s stories even although the former was translating – he was a farmer but had travelled widely over China in the building trade, he lived there with his wife and two sons but one son was very wealthy from running a restaurant in the city, when asked what he missed from his life as a farmer he, predictably, said he ‘missed nothing, everything here was far, far superior’.
In a quieter setting later we challenged the guide about all the protests, riots and forcible evictions we had read about in the western press and she totally denied these stories – all relocated people were deliriously happy.
It had been a slightly confusing although totally fascinating few hours ashore. Over all I found the constant diktat of our various Chinese guides to be quite disturbing – they skated over any references to the recent past, leaving a void in the story. They were happy to talk of the history up to the end of the Imperial Dynasties (c 1920) and then nothing until the CCP beat Chang Kai Shek in the 1970s, with only grudging references to Mao Tse Tung. Earlier, the guide here referred to the severe bombing some places got from the Japanese in WWII and the fact that Chongqin’s underground is presently being built by joining up the bomb shelters excavated during the war.
Our little ship with its charming and ever helpful staff could not be a bigger contrast. The food on board was delicious – mostly Chinese with a slightly Western slant at times.
As you can see above the weather was often quite grey but fortunately not too cold. We spent time every day outside on deck just watching the scenery go by and particularly the myriad of other river users. I have chosen just four examples from the hundred or so boats we photographed.
Most of the commercial shipping was these low, wide barges transporting building materials. They all had accommodation at the back – washing hanging out to dry and a few vegetables growing.
The river was clearly polluted, with a noticeable scum of plastic and polystyrene floating on the surface. The boat above was fighting a losing battle in scooping this up.
The pretty scenery was to follow over the next two days when we entered the Three Gorges.