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Our world Travel On 10th May 2007 I fled the UK on a journey around the world with a long list of places to go. Got as far as the Philippines where I met my wife. We got married on 11th May 2010 and are now sharing the experiences of travelling the world together

Xi'an to Wuhan

CHINA | Wednesday, 30 July 2008 | Views [1786]

Fri 25th Jul - As I mentioned in my last blog, I am booked on to a train to Chongqing this evening, leaving at 19:22 (K544 Hard sleeper 166 Yuan).

Have most of the day to relax and managed to get lots of bits sorted, such as getting my photos backed up onto DVD (free of charge at this hostel) and some posted on to the web. Went for a walk around the local park, which has a fairground section and a nice pagoda. Surrounding the park are a couple of roads where the massage shops are. The calls from the girls as you pass make it pretty obvious that they are offering more than just a 'massage'. Totally unexpected to see it here.

Anyway, carried on with the walk and picked up some fruit. A great choice and high quality available..in fact more and better than I found where I stayed in Beijing.

The usual chaos at the train station and seem to be the only foreigner again, but all went ok and the train left on time, due to arrive at 09:29...a long journey. This train is an older one than the previous ones I used. Fully open births...probably reflects the price I paid!

A reasonable night's sleep even though the activity started at 6am with the first stop. Being the only english speaking person on the train so it seems, no help from anyone as to what is going on, but you get used to that. I had a rough idea that the train should arrive in Chongqing at 09:29 and expect there to be a flurry of activity when we get there, so you know you're in the right place.

All I knew is that a guy called John will meet me there to take me to the ferry and get my ticket sorted. How wrong could I be! Well, not totally wrong. The train stopped at a remote station called Shapingba for what semed like 20 minutes and nobody getting on or off. A bit puzzled, but anyhow, it moved eventually and pulled into Chongqing station at exactly 09:29. They were actually early and had to lose time. Very good! And right in front of the exit was John, with my name on a card. Wow...impressed! John as it turned out, is the proprietor of the John's Cozy Nest hostel. This is on the 8th floor of the semi-posh river view building. Marble floor entrance, but no signposts for his place at all, so guessed it was new. A really nice place with free internet, kitchen and super view of the incredibly brown Yangtse river....looking like a river of milk chocolate. It was then that I was told the arrangements for the day and the itinerary options, which you could book with him. Would be collected by a guide sometime after 6pm and taken to the boat, which sets sail at 9pm. The rest of the day I could use the facilities and leave my stuff if I wanted to around town. He was also very knowledgable and could sort any travel out, so very useful arrangement. Just wished I had known what was going on beforehand.

Went walkabout for a few hours and thought that Chongqing had a good atmosphere. You do hear mixed comments about it and I can understand why. I took a route which went through the old town and thought it was wonderful. A rabbit warren of quaint little alleyways that looks like it hasn't changed in over a hundred years. Old guys playing Mahjongg or card games....old ladies sitting in wicker chairs watching the world go by. So full of character and seen so much in their lives. Of course, as a westerner I drew a lot of attention and they just stare as you pass...but smile at them and they radiate...lovely! The kids will run out and touch you and the scurry away giggling....really funny.

Carryin on upwards and the city is built on a hill, and off to the markets. Some of the strangest foods i've seen in a long time on offer. Had no idea what some of it was...animal...vegetable...who knows? times like you wish you had a guide to ask questions. Carrying further on upwards and...bam...a modern skyward city centre with lots of big names present...plus the omnipresent McDonalds and KFC, which are a part of chinese life they would die without! It was such an amazing contrast between the old and new, I was surprised. Thought I would try to find a book to take on the ferry. Problem was that the only english speaking person I could find directed me to a bookshop that didn't sell any english books, so gave up and went back to the hostel for a shower and freshen up.

Got picked up as planned and walked to Dock No.3, where I was given my ticket (530 Yuan for 2nd class, 415 Yuan for 3rd class). A baggage scanner as usual and then a furnicular cable car down to the ferry, which you have to pay 2 Yuan for. No choice. On the ferry, which looked nothing like the picture I had seen, the ticket was exchanged for a room key. Sharing with a swedish guy, and subsequently two chinese also. A tiny en-suite if you can call it that...squat toilet with shower directly over it and all in the tiniest space. Then the fun starts....

Off for a look around the boat that will be home for the next three nights. Con/ rip-off number 1....to go out on the viewing deck you have to pay 100 Yuan extra for a pass! The area of the viewing deck was slightly bigger than the cabin ( well a bit bigger really), and in no way could accommodate all of the passengers on the boat. The bar is outside, so to use the bar you need to pay for the pass! Got you by the whatsits!

The boat set sail on time and it was only when you are away from the dockside that you see Chongqing in all its glory. Wow...a bit like Shanghai with all of its massive buildings in technicolour and flashing displays plus tourist boats alight with colour. Dazzling and unexpected. Grabbed my camera and shot out to take photos. The boat really picks up some speed, so you don't get much time. Flew upstairs to deck 3 and of course, can't go outside without a pass. The cheeky sod of a barman tried to stop me taking photos from the doorway...he got a bit more than he bargained for, so left me alone!

Next up, I asked when the restaurant was open for dinner. Not open tonight...will open tomorrow night. So where was I when this vital piece of information was given out? Probably the same place as everyone else who was similarly flumoxed. I was directed to the boat's shop, where you can buy pot noodles and snacks. So where is the hot water then I asked....no english speaking of course, so pointed back to reception. Now, when someone chinese speaks to you in alien tongue (after giving you a pen and paper to write your question down....ironic as it makes no difference to them), then there is only one thing you can do...grab her by the hand and march her to the shop, point to the pot noodle...make like you want to eat it and march her out of the shop and motion her to show you to the water. Happened to be in a dark corner in an alley down the side of the boat. How the heck are you supposed to work this out? They do this every day and they must be asked the same thing every day...but do they learn and make it easy...no way! It does explain why so many vendors were outside selling snacks...only the chinese knew why!

So i'm on a ferry eating a 6 Yuan flamethrower pot noodle (put the whole sachet of chilli in, thinking it would be ok....lips burning for some time afterwards) for dinner outside the shop, with total anarchy going on around me....kids running around like lunatics...tannoy splurting out something that sounds like a cross beween Hal (2001 Space Odyssey fame) and an escapee from a mental asylum on acid...can only happen like this in China! And yet you may as well sit back and take it all in by osmosis as you cannot change it... Just be amused by it. It is going to be a long trip...a very long trip!

Regular announcements from the escapee on the echoing tannoy...lettuce fung yung chop suey....who knows...could be something important like...we're sinking...all chinese people run for the lifeboats before the foreigners find out that there aren't enough boats! Or...now that the foreigners have eaten all of the pot noodles, the restaurant is now open serving proper food for the chinese people.

Sat 26th Jul - The two chinese guys who were sharing our cabin were replaced during the evening by two chinese tour guides, one of whom could speak a little english, a lovely chinese girl, Yang You, so that improved things. Slept well although the aircon must rate as one of the noisiest, so needed earplugs.

Not sure what happened, but a day or so ago and for no apparent reason, I woke up with this terrible pain in my right elbow that seems to be getting worse. Had to take pain killers last night as I was in agony with it. If it doesn't ease off, will have to get to a doctor soon, even though I don't think there is much they could do.

Sun 27th Jul - The boat pulled in early this morning by a place called Fengdu, or as it is more commonly known 'Ghost city'. Sharing with two guides who were up at 6am, which was not a good start. Had been told that it wasn't worth seeing, so stayed on the boat and had a lay in whilst most of the boat went ashore. At 8am went to get some breakfast to find that it finished at 7:30. Would have been nice to know. Of course the chinese would have known with the announcements over the tannoy. An extra treat this morning at about 7:30 was the ship's whistle...in fact it was a guy whistling into the tannoy system. He occasionally ran out of breath so coughed into the microphone instead! So, no breakfast then, and the shop was closed. Off the boat to find something..yep, pot noodles again! Good for weight loss so far!

As we had some time to kill, thought it would be worth going ashore. In daylight this boat looks like a prison ship, and the walkway to the land could easily be imagined with a chain of convicts trudging across it. Now know the name of this boat...the fuku all. A long climb up some concrete steps to find an area selling disgusting looking noodly things and prehistoric meat stuff with dodo eggs. Glad I had the pot noodle! They actually had some great fruit, so bought nectarines and chinese pears for later, when i'm sure the restaurant will be closed for another reason. There isn't anywhere else to go from here in the time allowed, as the pagoda and village are too far on foot, so returned to the boat.

A bit about the Yangtse (Chang Jiang in chinese).... At 6,300km it is the third longest river in the world. It starts life in Tibet in the Tanggula Shan and winds its way to the east China sea north of Shanghai. Once you get away from the industrialized areas east of Chongqing, the scenery opens up into beautiful hills flanking either side. The water colour doesn't change much from liquid chocolate, with lots of flotsam afloat. Large tankers ply the route, but it broadens out a lot so not congested. The Yangtse carries around 70% of China's shipping. The cabins have large windows, so it's nice to sit up in bed with an attractive panoramic view.

The Three Gorges Dam which is coming up later in the journey, is classed as China's biggest engineering project since building the Great Wall! It will be the world's largest dam...very symbolic for China. It was completed in May 2006 and will be flooded in 2009 to create an area the size of Singapore and wash away the homes of upto 2 million people. It is being done to transform an area into a major heartland and 185m high and 2km wide, will have a hydro-electric production capacity equivalent to 18 nuclear power stations. When complete it will have cost an estimated $75billion!

It does have many issues surrounding it....

  • Vast numbers of historical sites will vanish when I gets flooded. Some have been saved o relocated

  • The dam will slow down the flow of the Yangtse and some claim it will lead to reduction in the natural process that dispels waste from the area, making it one big sceptic tank

  • Numerous species of wildlfe are being threatened

  • Most of all, in 1999 over 100 cracks were found that are claimed to have been repaired. A couple of major dam collapses elsewhere in China, taking upto 230,000 lives, has lead to concern that if the same were to happen with this dam, over half a million people would be killed within an hour.

Lunch was an interesting event. Started at 11:45 with an announcement in chinese of course. Within seconds it was crammed with chinese and we were old to wait 30 minutes, but that it was closed in 45 minutes. You don't get long. I decided that there was no way I was waiting for the leftovers and definitely not having pot noodles again, so stayed and jumped on a space as soon as it appeared. A tray full for 20 Yuan and a beer went down well. There wasn't much choice. Pork balls, tofu, spinach, what looked and tastes liked boiled fat and rice. Joined by a few other foreigners and another coincidence. Remember the guy I met on the ferry from Japan that I subsequently bumped into at the Forbidden palace in Beijing. I sat next to a guy who knew him also. Small world innit? A nice bunch, so spent a while swapping stories, making for a pleasant lunch. Out on deck for a bit, but it was too hot to stay out, so back to the cabin.

Dinner was another fun experience. Told the wrong time so got there when most of it was gone. Had to then order something and fortunately there was one person on hand with a little english. Of course they didn't deliver what we thought we had ordered. Getting used to that. It was a nice cool evening for a change so ideal to catch the breeze out on deck.

Got a break from the boat later when it pulled in for an hour or so to visit the Zhangfei temple (40 Yuan entry). They have covered it in red rope lights to add attraction and there was a priest doing a sermon over the tannoy. A majority of people didn't go in, but instead stocked up with food from the very conveniently located shop. Plenty of souvenir stalls which I thought had a rather amusing sales technique. In the middle of their stuff, a photo of a naked chinese girl. I suppose they have to draw attention to their stall somehow! It obviously works!

It looks as though the area is having a makeover as trucks were working in the dark creating what looks to be a tourist area. Masses of buildings have been knocked down and the area is presently a bit of a mess.

Mon 28th Jul - Another early call this morning for an optional visit to a place called the 'White King Town', chinese name Baidicheng. Didn't bother with this visit as had been told it wasn't worth it, so had a lazy start. Missed breakfast but went on land later to get something to eat at a street stall. You always get the feeling that you are being charged at least double what the locals would pay and that's after haggling it down.

After the boat set off again, we soon passed through the first of the three gorges, the Qutang gorge. At 8km long, it is the shortest and the narrowest as it goes down to 100m in parts. A superb journey through this dynamic landscape until we reached Wushan, where we transfered to smaller boat (boat no.10) for the 'Three Little Gorges' trip on the Daning river (230 Yuan).

This boat was excellent and had a guide who didn't stop talking over her microphone for the entire trip (in chinese only of course). The Daning passes under a massive new suspension bridge under construction, which was interesting to see it from this perspective. It was nice during this part to be able to talk to a number of chinese students who spoke good english. They like to adopt english sounding names as their chinese names can be hard for us to pronounce. If it wasn't for them we would have had no idea as to what was going on, as our own guide was sadly useless at telling us anything. The three little gorges are Misty gorge, Emerald gorge and Dragon gate gorge. At the latter stages we transferred to an even smaller rocky thatched boat with a captain who entertained and sang in chinese. There had to be a scam along the way....he came around handing out nice keyrings, which everyone thought was a nice gift as part of the price. He came around a second time wanting 10 Yuan each...Almost everyone gave them back. One thing this area is known for is monkeys and you have to look closely to see them as there aren't many. We saw two high up on the rockface, and there was a mad scramble for photographs, so you know where they are.

Another more unusual sight are 'hanging coffins'. Located in the most improbable positions in openings high in the rocks. Many have been relocated but there are still some to be seen if you look close enough.

As from next year this entire area will be flooded, there are regular markers on the hills at the 175metre level, which is supposedly the maximum level. Anything of significance has been moved above that level and it is amazing the cost of that exercise, and to be seeing large farming areas and communities that will be under water next year.

We were given tickets (30 Yuan normally) for a visit to Dachang village, which we didn't know about as it wasn't on the itinerary (as I said, our guide tells us nothing). This is one of those old villages that used to be lower down, but has been relocated higher up as part of dam project and its people given new livelihoods so we hear. Shuttle carts to village collect and return passengers from ferry. Good job as it was extremely hot and no shade. Always plenty of drink and food sellers to take advantage of it. First time I had ever had a red date & Green bean ice cream. Unusual but nice.

The village was interesting in a number of ways. Firstly, it is adjacent to a new town complex for the relocated people and it isn't fully occupied yet. The old village is divided up into separate units, most of which are empty. Those that are occupied are souvenir shops and food shops, which were offering totally different food to what I had seen elsewhere. There was a nice temple which we were shown around.

Another surprise came later when we were given tickets to a Cultural show in Wushan in the evening (normally 30 Yuan entry) but included in ferry price.

It was a bit cheesy in parts, but entertaining with a storyline relating to the community and how it is affcted by the dam project. The funny bit was when two veiled 'brides' came on stage and two chinese volunteers from the audience had to pretend to be grooms and sell themselves as potential husbands. Very cheesy but funny.

The most funny part though was the end. In normal theatre the cast comes on for the curtain call and then leaves the stage after the applause. Not here... As soon as the last part of the show had finished, a very brief applause from the audience and then the cast applauded as the audience got up and ran for the door as fast as they could (wanting to be first on the return bus of course). The flumoxed looking cast seemed to look disappointed as the hall emptied in seconds and they were waving to peoples backs!

Tue 29th Jul - Woke up at 5:45am for early sailing and entery into Wu Gorge (Gorge of witches) under a bright red suspension bridge that could be seen from town last night. 40km in length with cliffs that rise 900m.

At 10am the boat stopped at Quyuan Temple, which is another one those that I had been told wasn't too exciting. As the boat pulled in you could hear fire crackers and drums, so went to see what was going on. In typical tradition it was so brief that by the time we got out it had stopped and they threw a cover over their drums and ran before I could even get my camera out. Everything is fast pace...blink and you miss it. So enjoyed a look around instead. On the platform alongside the boat they were making a local sweet called Ingberlach. Made from ginger and a crunchy texture that sticks in your teeth. Plenty of free samples to try, and a bit sweet.

Another thing which I had seen many times, was a clear sloppy jelly that is spooned into a tub and you can add nuts and even chilli to it. Tried some (3 Yuan a cup) and it was boring so threw it away. Cannot see the attraction as it is tasteless, but you have to try these things. Also had some 'Milk Coffee tea'. A rather strange combination with a flavour like Baileys liquer wihout the alcohol...nice.

Further along the same platform is something else I heard about, the 'dragon boats'. Long rowing boats with dragon heads on the front used as part of a Quyuan memorial celebration.

After setting off for the last time, the journey goes through Xiling Gorge, which is 80km in length and fairly dramatic in the sheer faces of the cliffs.

Throughout this journey there have been numerous announcements that we have had no idea the meaning of. One regular phrase that lept out at me sounded exactly like 'Be careful young man', to the point that iit made me chuckle every time I heard it. And it wasn't just me, the other foreigners agreed on what it sounded like. It turns out that it is the chinese for 'Dear Passengers'. Amusing innit?

At 1:30pm we arrived in Maoping and got off the boat, complete with luggage and loaded on to buses for a sightseeing tour of main Dam which I had paid for in Chongqing (135 Yuan). That bus takes about 40 minutes to get to the Three Gorges Dam Passenger Centre, where we had to go through tight security with baggage and body scans. Then loaded on to special ourist buses, that do a circuit of sightseeing spots which are shown on the ticket. No sooner had we left the bus centre than another military police stop ran a scanner over the entire bus (a cross between a car speeding gun and a water divining rod sweeping back and forth), and wouldn't let us pass because of a problem. Back to the tourist centre and all of us through the scanner again and on to a new bus, which passed through security this time. This lost us some time as we only had a set amount of time to get around the tour.

The first stop is the highest vantage point over the dam at a specially built centre, which has a model of the whole dam, as well as souvenirs of course. There is a high point at this location with a superb panoramic view. The stairs up to it have a rather funny chinglish sign to one side that reads...No climbing altar, no crowdingin thunder stormy day. Any ideas? It sort of alludes to not squashing up the steps when its been bad weather and might be slippy I guess?

At each stop there is a bus stop to wait at for a bus to the next point on the circuit. Had no idea how long any of this would take and had no guide for help, so ended up running late but made it back for the bus ok. The dam is massive and in some way doesn't reflect the figures you hear. It seems smaller than expected, but no less impressive.

For ships that have to scale the difference in levels between the two sides, there are a sequence of massive locks that can cope with some seriously large ships.

At the end of the tour, back to meet our bus and then an hour's drive to Yichang through some amazing scenery. Incredibly long tunnels hewn through the mountains and deep ravines down to narrow gorges, all very dramatic and in one place there is a chair lift that looks to have an awesome view. At Yichang Passenger Service Centre I transferred to another bus to Wuhan (4 to 5 hours and 110 Yuan). Initially there were no seats as chinese have the amazing ability to teleport themselves from nowhere, to occupying every seat on a bus in a couple of seconds. Took a bit of sorting out but managed to get a seat. A few pit stops along the way and the roads were fairly empty. Not much leg room to stretch out unless you have short legs, so a bit uncomfortable for a long journey, although significantly better than in some countries i've been to.

Arrived in Wuhan at 10:30pm, but it is a big city and took a while to get to the hostel on the east bank of the Yangtse river. On first pass it seems a much nicer place than rumours suggested. Staying at the Wuhan International Pathfinder Youth Hostel for 68 Yuan, which was easy enough to find and a rabbit warren of interesting rooms.

Wed 30th Jul - Woke up this morning with idea of trying to plan a route to Lhasa in Tibet from here. The plan would work and could have booked it, if it wasn't for the damned Tibet Travel Permit, which currently takes around 5 days. By the time I get there it would be time to leave, if I have to exit China on the 11th August. There are scams that can be pulled but organising it can be a pain. So, after a bit of deliberation decided to go to Kunming instead. To make best use of my time, it seemed better to take an internal flight. That is itself was a saga in lack of spaces, but eventually booked one. So, a random change of plan and now flying tomorrow evening. Got some accomodation booked for the first night shortly afterwards at 'The Hump' hostel in the city center.

That's about it for now....


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