Chongqing to Yichang
10.08.2007 - 10.09.2007
We arrived in Chongqing early in the morning (after a sleeper train from Xi'an) and were lucky enough to find another traveling couple and some nice locals who helped us find (and negotiate) a minivan ride to our hostel. Chongqing is another one of those cities in China that you've probably never heard of, but has about 10,000,000 people in it. Apparently, in the summer, it is just a hot cloud of haze ... with 10 million people in it. It was definitely hazy while we were there (what a surprise), though not too hot. Here's a shot we got walking around that night while we were trolling for food. Finding this did not help.
We knew we wanted to take a boat on the Yangtze the next day, or Yangzi as it is sometimes spelled, so we thought we see it and the Three Gorges Dam at the same time. Most of the tours in this section of the river are very posh, very expensive, and take four days. This was not what we were looking for, so we found out about the Hydrofoil boat through word of mouth, which is a very fast boat that covers the same distance in 1 day, on the same stretch of river. Our hostel offered to purchase tickets for us, though usually they charge a commission. So, feeling like we were weathered travelers now, we decided to head into town and find the ticket office ourselves to avoid the commission. Once again, though, the map in my guidebook was oversimplified, and we got hopelessly lost. No one spoke English, and the little phrase section in the back of my guidebook was not helping. Tired and starving, we opted for a food break instead. Chongqing is supposedly the home of the Hotpot, which is a style of serving food. You sit around a round table with a mini stove in the center that heats up a giant bowl inside of another bowl. Each are filled with some sort of oil/broth and one is spicey while the other is more mild. Then you order what you want cooked in it, they bring out the ingredients, you put it in, wait for it to cook, then fish it out and eat it. Once we figured out the process (as we went in knowing only the name Hotpot, not what it entailed), ordering was the next challenge. We went through our list of acceptable meats listed in my guidebook:
1. Chicken? She pointed to her feet. No, no chicken feet, thank you.
2. Beef? She shook her head.
3. Pork? Again she shook her head.
I am beginning to wonder what kinds of meat they DO offer, at which point she gestures to me to follow her to the back so she can show me. The first refridgerator she opens has trays of brains in it. They must have been sheep brains, because they were quite large! Again, I politely declined. We stuck to vegetables for that meal, and it was tasty, though nothing I have been craving since then.
While walking around, we passed several men doing work on the sidewalk. They were each pounding on the cement with a big hammer and an even larger chisel and I realized they were breaking up the concrete blocks. These three men were doing the work of a jackhammer. Come to think of it, I had not yet seen a jackhammer anywhere we had been, and there was always construction going on. They had already demolished about 1.5 meters of sidewalk. It must have taken them days. Looking ahead at the sidewalk that disappeared into the crowded distance, I wondered how this would turn out for them. I doubt there is a reliable workman's compensation here for all the inevitable injuries. They are most likely just replaced with another able body.
Well fed, but still tired, we took the bus back to our hostel, and booked the darn hydrofoil ticket through our hostel, checked email, ate, and went to bed. The next morning we were up early to catch our boat, which brings me to my next observation about China. I've realized that nothing here is really all that efficient. Maybe if you pay thousands of USD and book an all inclusive tour things are different, but everything for us has been extremely, and unnecessarily, complicated. Let me elaborate: we bought a ticket for a one day trip down the Yangtze, from Chongqing to Yichang, or so we thought. We were told to be ready to leave at 6:00am, and the woman working at the hostel would take us there. We were in a taxi by 6:15, our "guide" with us, and arrived at a ticket office where she proceeded to purchase the tickets with the money we had given her the night before. Then she told us we were to wait around for our real guide. So we sat in this empty ticket office for 20 minutes while the sun came up. Then our guide arrived and smoked a cigarette for another 10 minutes; our hostel "guide" dismissed herself at this point. Then, all of a sudden, our new guide (who did not speak English) was gesturing frantically for us to get ready to leave. We gathered all our bags and I am wondering where we are going as there is no water in sight. We start walking down the road, our bags obviously slowing us down, which seemed to perplex our guide, and we walked for about 10 minutes until we reached a bus terminal. He ushered us through the entrance and out to a waiting platform where there was just an empty parking space waiting for us. And so we waited...and waited some more. 1 hour later, a bus pulled in, and we got on. Our guide waved goodbye from the platform. Four hours later, we pulled into a port somewhere further down the Yangtze and got on the hydrofoil. But we made it. I don't ask too many questions anymore. This is how we spent the bus ride (by the way, I had to bribe Ellen to use this photo, so please do not make fun of her):
- *I have another example of inefficiencies. In our hostel in Beijing, the bathrooms were downstairs and across the public courtyard from the dorm rooms. The toilet paper, however, was in the kitchen area, which was underneath the dorm rooms. So, you have to go to the kitchen to get TP, walk across the courtyard (say hello to the people hanging out there, feeling slightly awkward as there is only one thing you could be going to do with a big wad of TP in your hand), and then walk all the way back to the kitchen to wash your hands in the sink which was located next to the toilet paper dispenser. So, maybe they don't have room for the sink in the bathroom, but wouldn't it be better to put the TP dispenser in the bathroom?**
Anyway, back to the hydrofoil. Only the locals really take this boat as it isn't for sightseeing, but more for transport. However, there is a small "deck" (which is really only the space between the two seating areas and also serves as smoking deck and hawking deck) that is open to the air, and proved to be a decent viewing platform. Luckily, there is one on either side of the boat, so when the smokers emerged, I would just transfer to the other side. Here is a view of one of the gorges:
The Three Gorges Dam was built in the 90s to provide hydroelectric power to the surrounding area, but it is a very controversial project for several reasons, including the eminent environmental sequelae as well as the displacement of the people living along the river. Of course, controversy in China is a relative term, as dissention is not really allowed, so it's more of a quiet passive controversy. The river was flooded about 10 years ago to a height of 150 meters, and it has something like 25 more to go. The other unfortunate aspect of this is that the Gorges, which supposedly used to be quite spectacular, are not so grand looking anymore. They were still beautiful to see, but I could imagine them being much more magnificent 150 meters deeper. Plus, the river itself is brownish, opaque, and full of debris from the submerged vegetation that has broken down. We passed an island (well, now it's an island) that had a temple on the right hand side... and a giant television on the left. Nothing like a temple thousands of years old next to a TV that is larger than my house.
You can also pay to go see the Dam construction project in Yichang, though we did not.
We met some other people on the boat who were working for a western newspaper, and they were writing a story about the Dams in China (Three Gorges is the largest, but not the only controverisal Dam). One of them was a westerner, though had lived in China for several years, so it was interesting to get his perspective on the country. He did admit that the pollution has affected him. Apparently, about 750,000 people die prematurely each year in China from pollution related causes (per this man per World Bank study). Having not read the study, I cannot vouch for it, but the numbers don't surprise me.
We arrived in Yichang, with an address to a hostel that our previous hostel host had found for us. She had tried to call while we were in Chongqing, however was disconnected but assured us that it would be no problem to find a room once we got there. As an aside, we have been overwhelmed by the willingness of the Chinese people to help us when we are lost. One of the girls who worked for the bus transportation (that got us from the riverfront to downtown Yichang) actually took the time to walk us to the address because it was clear that we didn't know where we were going. The fact that we found it to be an old abandoned hotel once we got there is irrelevant. She could have just as easily pointed in the direction we should go and sent us on our way, but she didn't. And when we found the building to be out of service, she walked us across the street to a hotel and haggled a price for us. Everywhere we have been so far people have gone out of their way to help, and we are grateful, since half the time we are banking on luck to get us to the next place.
The hotel was nice, and we were exhausted. After a meal of noodles, tofu, and bok choy (our new favorite) we passed out. The plan was to catch a bus to Wudang Shan the next morning. Another day, another adventure.