We set out on an outbound flight to Hong Kong from Adelaide South Australia in November, my son who persuaded his school principle of the values of travelling and performed a high class sort of truancy, Debbie my female friend and I.
Our destination was the Three Gorges region on the Yellow River in the middle of China. We went prepared with a Lonely Planet guide which we borrowed from the local library, some travelers cheques and a few U.S. dollars, we were also prepared for cold weather of about 2 to 3 degrees. We were not prepared for the biting winds that were to come on one of the most famous rivers of the world and the various dangers on the way.
As we completed our 6-hour flight into Hong Kong we looked over into the seas around this peculiar port which historically was one of the treaty ports the Chinese set up to access outside goods from Europe. From our cabin window we saw a plethora of skyscrapers jutting skyward, perched on the side of mountainsides together with barges and ancient junks moving like snails in the harbor. We touched down and took local shuttle bus into town to the ferry terminal.
At the terminal we boarded a hover-ferry bound for Macao. We found a cheap and suitably run down pensione or hostel run by a cheerful Chinese woman in her 40’s. It was just 5 minutes from the centre of the town square which was magnificently designed in 16th century Portuguese colonial architecture. The grand buildings of imperial Europe rubbed shoulders with modern American style franchise chains in this unique island of promenades, alleyways and opulent Catholic churches (whose interiors resembled the upturned hull of a Portuguese man o' war complete with golden treasures).
During the next few days we retreated in time as we explored the kaleidoscope of streets leading to ancient churches, colonial merchant houses, Chinese gardens built by wealthy businessmen and Taoist temples with dragons and lions at the entrance. One temple with tarnished pots and blackened walls on an unnamed back street housed a sleepy attendant who snoozed in his chair, unmoved by the intrusion of the bewildered westerners visiting this smoke filled dungeon -like house of worship. There giant coils of incense burned around the clock year after year in homage to the Gods of nature and to Yin and Yang.
The city island was a labyrinth of side streets leading to small gardens, alleys which unfolded upward along hilltops and then into steep inclines with cobbled streets. One magnificent garden was frequented daily by retired gentlemen and women happy to pass the day chatting and playing cards in the bamboo groves under the sun. Early in morning and at dusk skilled players of Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese fitness, moving meditation cum martial art, gathered in the parks.
Macao has a distinct character in that it has a blend of European and Asian, churches and markets exist side by side, the local Macao Chinese language vies with Portuguese, and the ports have Asian junks and casinos. It is a synthesis of cultural variety.The following day we caught a local bus to the border of the sleeping giant that is China. We crossed bustling border crowded with local traders laden with heavy bags full of booty crossing into China from Macao or the reverse. At the other end of customs and their stern bitter faces we boarded a bus with the assistance of a cheerful Chinese 17 year old who was happy to practice her English and serve us coke. The bus journey from the border Shininess to Canton was fast and furious. Mile after mile we witnessed half built high rise apartments and buildings in the distant fields. This was an emerging industrial and housing colony of mammoth proportions.
We arrived in Canton in the evening and went to the train station instead of staying at one of the 10 storey hotels, which pierce the skyscape of Canton (the southern capital of Guangshuo and the southern economic hub of China). We took a taxi to the train station in night not knowing anything of the city, save the address of the station. In my travel book I was warned that pickpockets at the station were everywhere. We entered the area prepared but it was still very scary. taxi dropped us off in a carpark area near the front gate but it was unlit and desolate and we had no idea which hall to enter in this gigantic station which was the destination point for hundreds of trains to all parts of China and Hong Kong.
The hallways of the station were poorly lit but huge. There were sheepish men standing beside drink dispensers and lockers and waiting areas. We felt we were being looked at from all directions and we formed a tight body with one person covering our rear guard. There were people following us as we walked aimlessly around asking where the correct ticket office was. As we went to purchase some foods for the train in the old-fashioned food shops which resembled China in the days of the Cultural Revolution, we were surrounded by suspicious men in suits. As soon as I pulled out my money from my bag there were eyes piercing the cool evening night. One pickpocket kept following us and stayed about 20 feet behind us waiting like a hyena for a chance to attack. We kept a tight formation and managed to evade the vultures seeking out their prey. As I turned to go away from the long glass counter where I had been buying some dried fruits, salted nuts and beans there was a man lurking behind me. I told him to politely go and find another victim because I was not ready to be his sacrificial lamb.
We waited in a spacious hall with rows of seats for our train to come and travel up the centre of China on the main route to Shanghai toward Wuhan. We decided to get off one stop before in a city barely visible on the map and catch a ferry down river destined for Chunking (the capital of Sechuan province famous for its food in the west). We boarded our train just before midnight, sat down in our reclining seats and tried to catch up on some lost sleep. Continuously through the night as we sped north past rows of rice and vegetable cultivation, train attendants would move trolleys up the aisles and passengers would knock into your shoulder on the way out the door to their destination. The stations outside our warm cabin looked cold and desolate with little color. They were a reflection of China the frugal nation …a million mouths.
We woke up having traveled through the night and at about 4 am we realized that our train ticket needed to be updated to go to next station. In our train guide to China it suggested that we could request this with the ticket collector on the carriage and this would not be a problem. This was ad hoc Chinese management at its best. After summoning the desired amount of courage and consulting our Chinese word guide we went to the rear of the carriage in a little corner where the conductor slept and ate and cooked. He matter of factly changed our ticket and then moved on to the next throng of requests waiting to be seated. People boarded the train and stood in the aisle and patiently waited or forcibly asked if they could buy a first come first serve seat.
When we arrived in the train station, we went out front of the station and into the carpark where we saw the unimpressive town with its grey buildings, run down cars and assorted agricultural vehicles. There were local buses but we were unable to speak Chinese so their destination was a mystery. We got off the train after purchasing some breakfast of chicken and rice. It was cold and windy, very bleak. At the station we called a taxi and it was a young 20 year old lady who had a red 2 door 4 cylinder minicab who picked us up. She was a real racing driver and agreed to drive us to the boat jetty where the local ferries moored on their way up the Yangtze river. We drove at high speed and she agreed to change some U.S dollars into local currency and barter for our boat tickets at the terminal which was a dilapidated mud brick shack at the end of a boat ramp. It was cold and dingy and there were locals milled outside shed who all said that a boat was coming soon. We were to board here up stream from Wuhan and travel for 4 days through the 3 gorges to Chunking. We bartered for our ticket as I had a student card from when I studied in China a few years earlier. The ticket collector seemed happy to give us a cheaper ticket as if it was somehow the usual thing to bargain down the price. We were prepared with our wad of fake student cards, youth hostel cards and anything that vaguely resembled a student or pension ID. ticket collector happily relayed information that the ferry had four classes and that meant that they were vaguely much the same between 2nd class A and second class b except for the price. The lower class was quite a lot cheaper and very basic which we later found meant one slept on deck (on an iron floor) surrounded by the odd pig or goat, and many spitting passengers who never worried where they spat.
We boarded the boat barge on the end of a long rickety jetty and there inside covered by tarpaulins were people huddled around a stove and some food stalls. It was bitterly cold and the wind bit into our skin as the murky brown water of the river lashed the sides of the barge. Initially we thought this was going to be our ferry but then the large 2-storey white ferry came along and moored. We rushed out of the barge and waited at the gangplank. Then I went and talked to the Captain of the ship. I showed him our tickets and asked where the second class sleeping quarters were. We realized nobody really spoke any fluent English. Never mind we thought, we might be able to sort this out ourselves as we scrambled on the ship with the throngs of other passengers.As we were ready to enter our area we were taken by the ships captain and second in charge and told that it was unfitting for westerners to be anywhere but the first class. Well, we said, what is the difference? After a little haggling and the exchange of some US dollars we were able to buy our way into first class which was rather sparsely filled. It had the advantage of having a front view of the river in a lounge on the top level. We felt like royalty with our own shower as opposed to a communal one. Later we saw the third class quarters and were very happy we were in first class as there were about ten people in the same sized area as the three of us.
Many local people then boarded the boat from the barge with all kinds of luggage. We settled into our cabin on the second level in first class and began our 4-day marathon up the murky waters of the Yangtze. We quickly scoured the boat and found the restaurant and snack bar, which were to be our life raft for the next days. Our cabin consisted of bunks, shower and a private balcony. The latter was open to the full blast of the wind and rain of the day. In the nighttime these winds would howl and blow at the ship like a demon taunting us. Every few minutes there would be another craft moving by us and making waves crash against our boat including small fishing boats, large ferries with impressive dragons on the forward bough, and super fast hovercraft from Chunking. There was never a moment even in the middle of the night where the sound of a river craft could be heard nearby.
All through the night our ferry swished through the freezing darkness with howling winds and temperatures around 2 degrees. In morning the wind was most ferocious. Our cabin was not heated so we thawed out on the front lounge area reserved for first class passengers. This was our only privilege and we ate in the dining room each morning to a menu of about 3 to 4 dishes. After all this was a local vessel and not a tourist ferry which could cost up to 10 times the money we were paying. We were doing it like the locals and loving it. It was rough but enjoyable. About every three hours we would moor in at a major city and offload goods and cargo. There would always be a host of local sellers on the side of jetty peddling fruit and vegetables.
Our third day was the most exciting as we would enter the natural wonder of 3 Gorges, an amazing area of high mountains and cliff faces. All along way we passed tiny villages perched on the side of this magnificent river and in the area of the Gorges the cliffs became higher and steeper. There was a real energy in the air, and the morning sun was particularly warm and clear. We were lucky as some days there were squalls of rain on an hourly basis and the nights were bitter. We sailed through an area which was quite different from others we had seen, for it had fewer villages, the cliffs were much higher and the scenery was amazing. On the top of cliffs were clouds hovering over these wise old mountains and there was a palpable air of timelessness. This area was the place where Kung Fu legends were made, where heroes and heroines fled to seek refuge or where ancient Taoist temple hermitages lay deep in the forest far away from anyone. There was little sign of human occupation for almost a day. The sun shone brightly and the air was crisp and moist. High on the edge of a precipice one could see a miniature house, which resembled the landscape painting of an ancient artist. There was an eerie silence as we floated past the gigantic grey cliffs resembling the back of a dragon. High up on mountain a lone eagle could be seen looking for its prey. We would round a bend in the gorges and there amazingly would be a pristine waterfall flowing into the great dragon river.
As the sun began to set we had this wonderful view of distant mountains and ranges beyond. It was a day of great natural beauty and one we shall never forget. It was almost like a natural prayer to the forces of the great Mother Spirit of the River. We were the innocent observers moving slowly in her ancient womb in this tiny boat. When the sun finally faded there was a feeling of peace and reverence. That evening we felt especially privileged to be able to share this environment with forces of nature knowing that in a matter of years this unique gem of nature would be forever lost in the name of progress, socialism and advancement of man over nature. The Chinese government's plan to flood the gorges would be their triomphe de force over nature. In the following days we drifted into Chunking with the memory of the river in our minds and the knowledge that we would be able to tell our future generations of this lost dinosaur.