Next up was Chongqing, former wartime capital of the Republic of China. I was actually pretty familiar with the city (also known in the west as 'Chungking') from a report I had done on the city in history class in high school (why Chongqing? Don't ask, I can't remember!) One thing Chongqing suffers from is very poor weather, in the summer its known as 'the furnace' and in the winter... well it wasn't that cold, but it sure was foggy and gloomy... and in general its quite a poluted, dirty city (even by Chinese standards). Which is why I wasn't planning on spending anymore time there then I had to. I had only one reason to go to Chongqing, to get on a boat and leave! Chongqing is a major departing point for cruise ships passing through the scenic Three Gorges Region of the Yangzi River (aka the Chang Jiang).
I flew in from Guilin late at night, but I was really lucky to find a couple who were nice enough to help me try to find a cheap hotel room, since Chongqing didn't have a travel agent desk at their airport (an amazingly small airport for a city of several million)... and find a cheap hotel we did. This one was only 90 RMB a night (thats about $11). It was relatively clean, had its own bathroom and had a decent bed, and TV, but when the security came by to remind me to lock and bolt my door I got a bit concerned (so I shoved a bunch of furniture in front of the door too when I went to sleep).
Well the boat I was taking was definitely not on the Carnival Cruise Line. But as I was trying to keep things on the cheap, I definitely didn't mind (except for the mice, of course, I minded them). Like most things in China, it had classes, which only went up to second... second was nice enough to only have 4 people per cabin and a private bathroom. There ended up being three Japanese tourists on board, and so they ended up putting us together in a cabin (lucky for them, since they spoke english, but very little Chinese, so I ended up translating a bit (as best I could... which isn't that good!). The third class cabins had 6 people in cabins with a communal bathroom, and on the bottom deck was the 4th class cabins, which somehow managed to fit 8 people (then there was the last class... which was plastic seats and/or a spot on the cold steel deck...). Also on the tour with us (as opposed to just using the boat for transit) were a group of geologists who worked together for China Petroleum, they all worked together and were taking a group trip together.
In case you're not familiar with it, the Three Gorges is a famous scenic region of the Yangzi River (aka the Yangtze aka the Changjiang). In addition to great scenery, it also has some famous historical sights along its banks, including some from the famous Three Kindgoms period of Chinese History (which I was surprised to find out is hugely popular in Japan). But the Three Gorges is in the world focus now because the Chinese government is building a huge dam in the most downstream gorge. This dam will flood much of the scenery, making a resevior 400 km long and up to 175m (600 feet) deep. This is the biggest dam project ever attempted. It has a lot of potential pay-offs, including generating huge amounts of pollution free electricity (which China needs more and more of nowadays), better flood control for the 15 million people who live downstream and opening up another 50 million people upstream in Sichuan province to large ocean going vessels.
Downsides include the fact that scenery will be lost forever, archeological and historic sites will be destroyed (some will be moved), 1.5 million people need to be relocated (that's several sizable cities and lots of small towns and villages), there is a risk of extinction for several species in the river, and last but not least, the risk of disaster. (I was shocked to find out recently that there have been several thousand dam failures in China in the past 40 years... yikes!) Therefore there has been significant foreign and domestic resistence to this project, but the government is going ahead with it anyway. The first part (135m) is set to be completed by the end of 2002. In another couple years the full height (175m) will be done, and then by about 2010 the resevior will be filled. So I took this opportunity to see it before the water level starts rising.
The first stop was the famous city of Fengdu, also known as the Ghost City about a hundred miles downstream from Chongqing. In Chinese folklore Fengdu was home of the entrance to the afterworld, so it has a lot of temples devoted to heaven, hell, ghosts, demons, etc. (China has rich folklore around death, there are numerous gods related to it and multiple levels of hell for people guilty of different crimes in life). There are several old temples, with newer statues and buildings intersperced, and on the other side of the hill is a new disney-like attraction called the Ghost Palace built for tourists, complete with second-rate animatronics of the tortures of hell!
The city itself is right on the bank of the river, so it will be completely flooded by the dam, but the temples are actually on top of the large hill behind the city so they won't be touched. Currently you have to take a chairlift up to the top where the ghost stuff is. Once the dam is done and filled, the city itself will not be that far underwater because its so far upstream from the dam. Therefore they are going to demolish all the buildings so they do not become a navigational hazard to ships. At some point all these people will have to move to the new city still being built on the other side of the river. Here are a few framegrabs and videos clips with descriptions:
- Some of the bizarre animatronics. The light was really low in here and the camcorder didn't handle it that well, but I think you can tell what is happening.(946k)
Click here for some more pics of Fengdu I found on the web.
After spending a few hours in Fengdu, we got back on the boat and headed back down river, this was the first daylight sailing we were doing, so it was the first chance to clearly see some of the ships that ply the river. Lots of barges, lots of junky ferries, etc. My personal favorite were the Russian Hydrofoils use for high speed transportation between river cities. They look like they were made (and last cleaned) in the 70s, and have a bug-like appearence. Unfortunately as they were quite speedy, I wasn't able to get a really good shot, so I found a few better ones on the web (see links below). My new life's goal is to go back to China and ride one of these things down the entire navigable length of the Yangzi!
Picture and description
Photo of the hydrofoil passing through the Dam construction site
A close up
The next stop wasn't until early evening. We stopped at Zhang Fei's Shrine. Zhang Fei is a famous General from the Three Kingdom's period of Chinese history (3rd century BC), His exploits are recorded in the famous book the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (available online!) I found a nice short description here of his story. A Temple for Zhang Fei was originally built 2000 years ago after his death, and was rebuilt in the 1800s after a flood. It's built pretty high up on the side of the valley cut out by the river. The final dam waterline will at least partially submerge it, so they're apparently (eventually) going to relocate some or all of the buildings to higher ground.
Early the next morning we entered the first of the three gorges, Qutang Gorge. By sun up we were docked in the town of WuShan. The plan for the day was to travel to the mouth of the Daning river. This is the entrance to the 'Lesser Three Gorges'- another scenic series of gorges along this small tributary to the Yangzi. Whereas the river along the main three gorges is very wide with high peaks looming on either side, the lesser three gorges are much more narrow and surrounded more by deep shear cliffs.
At the mouth of the Daning river we boarded shallow draft, open top boats for a cruise up the river. This part of the trip was a lot different since it was just about 12 of us, a tour guide and a few crew members. Plus unlike the main ship which cruised downstream at a pretty good clip, this boat was going upstream, barely, when it didn't get stuck on the bottom (like Guilin, the water level here was quite low because it was winter). Which was good, cause it meant we got up close and personal with the scenery.
But the shallow water also made for fun group activities like "Everyone go to the back of the boat so we can get off these rocks." The other fun transportation issue we faced was the fact that certain sections of the river travelled too fast for our boat to handle full of people, so they would pull over, let us off and we'd have to walk past the fast section and get back on. And it just so happened that the locals had been so kind and considerate to set up tables full of goods just waiting for us to set foot on dry land.
Our tour guide was a piece of work too, not only did she sing local indigenous minority songs, and point out all the famous rocks and caves we passed, but she also did a really good job of parroting the Communist party line on the dam project, explaining to us how the government was going to relocate the local villagers to new towns with schools, plumbing and electricity. I thought it was all propaganda til I saw the women handwashing their clothes on rocks along the shore, and the "urchins" we saw further up the river (wait for the next chapter for more on that).
- Passing other boats(974k)
The next chapter will cover the rest of the three gorges (big and small) and a few random shots from the remainder of my trip.
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