The next morning we got up early, had a huge breakfast at a cafe across the road from the hotel, and boarded a hydrofoil for a journey upstream. The trip dossier had actually been misleading on this section of the tour, saying that we would board a boat in the evening (i.e. last night) and have twin-share cabins. In fact we didn't spend a night on the river at all; I was initially disappointed to learn this, but that was mainly because I'd been under the impression that a single day's journey wouldn't take in the whole of the Three Gorges. In fact the gorges lie between Fengjie and Yichang, so one day was enough to see all of them.
It was too windy to go out on the deck (such as it was) of the hydrofoil, but this wasn't important as our main Three Gorges sightseeing was to take place the next day. We disembarked at a town called Badong, took a ferry across the river, and were taken by tiny minibus to the Shennong stream. After a walk down a long flight of steps we had a 15km journey down the Shennong stream in a small wooden boat. The trip took us through Parrot Gorge and Dragon Gorge, and finished back at the Yangtse. Every time our feet touched the ground - including a short stretch where we had to walk because the water was too shallow - we were accosted by locals trying to sell us fruit, trinkets, and the woven straw shoes worn by the boatmen. Like the women in Yangshuo, they refused to take no for an answer.
The boat we took down the Shennong stream.
In the boat, just before starting our trip downstream. Left to right: Frank, Eric, me, Ben, Gabrielle.
Negotiating the rapids.
Boats being towed back upstream.
Laundry drying on boats (this photo taken by Frank).
Ancient coffin holes, high up in the rocks. Nobody knows why, or how, the coffins were put there.
The water was very low, it being the dry season, so the journey took a bit longer than scheduled, and as a result we were running late to catch the hydrofoil again. Took a ferry back across the river, to New Badong (the new town being built to rehouse people who will be displaced when the water level rises once the dam is complete), climbed the hill to the road, and then the minibus took us back at breakneck speed to "old" Badong, where the hydrofoil had been kept waiting for us for almost an hour. As soon as we were on board the boat departed, and a certain member of the group who shall remain nameless commented, "Made it just in time, huh?"
The town of Badong. (Looks depressing, doesn't it? It was much livelier inside.) Part of New Badong can be seen to the right.
Two hours later we arrived at Fengjie, where we were spending the night. It was a town of about 70,000 people and looked similar to Badong from the river. Our hotel, although probably one of the best in town, was very noisy, with all the rooms leading off a tiled central hall five storeys high (almost reminiscent of a prison), and a very loud karaoke party in a function room out the back. Walking round the town, we were stared at as if we had two heads apiece; evidently they don't get many foreign visitors. Keeping moving was essential; even just stopping for long enough to buy a couple of oranges from a market stall attracted a crowd of twenty people. It was an interesting experience, but I was glad we were only there for one night!
25th March: The Three Gorges
We spent the morning in Fengjie, where I somehow managed to attract the attention of a girl who jumped at the opportunity to practise her English (at least half of which I couldn't understand) and subsequently spent an hour and a half dragging me round the town, suggesting that I take a picture of almost every market stall we passed. She seemed to think that I was there long-term and would like to give her English lessons, so evidently she understood my English about as well as I understood hers. I finally managed to make my escape when I had to go back to check out of the hotel and meet up with the other group members.
Our trip back downstream to Yichang was on a slow boat - a Chinese cruiser, not one of the luxury vessels reserved for foreigners. I think this was a daytime-only one. We had 3-bed cabins with wash basin (the alternative seemed to be either 6-bunk cabins the same size or a wooden bench in one of the public areas). No keys; if you went out and locked the door, you had to get an attendant to let you back in. The toilets were communal, consisting of a long central channel divided up by waist-level partitions. We were fortunate with the weather, especially bearing in mind that our visit to the area had, according to Jerry, been preceded by three days of rain.
The entrance to the first gorge. This scene is also shown on the 5 yuan note (I kept one so that I could scan in the picture, but unfortunately I can't find it now). The white markers on the right show the 135m and 175m levels. Once the dam is complete, the normal water level will rise to 175m; the top of the dam will be at 185m. The plan is to protect against flooding by running the water level down to 135m before the flooding season. Critics suggest that this won't be done, because it will reduce the power output of the dam.
The whole group, with Jerry, on the way through the Three Gorges. Rear: Eric, Jerry, Frank. Front: me, Ben, Gabrielle.
Another boat, similar to ours, making its way through the Three Gorges.
It was dark by the time we reached the dam and almost 10pm by the time we got back the hotel in Yichang. On the bus back to the hotel Jerry gave us a very nice farewell speech. We ate at the night market again, and were serenaded by a couple with a guitar, for which we ended up paying 10 yuan, despite (I think) having originally been told that there was no charge. In fact they asked for 20 yuan but seemed quite happy with 10. It's probably considerably more than they would have got from a Chinese audience anyway.
26th March: To Wuhan
We took a morning bus - which turned out to be a 50-seater coach, shared with only a single Canadian lady - for the four-hour journey to Wuhan. On arrival at the Wesun Hotel there we were greeted very enthusiastically by Mikar, the assistant manager. He was extremely eager to be helpful, almost to the point of irritation - a real mother hen! There can't have been many other guests to keep him busy.
Wuhan is a big city, with a population of about four million, but the attractions seemed to be few and far between, requiring long taxi rides. It was more of a stopover than a destination in itself. Eric and Frank went to see an archaeological museum and Mao's villa (nice enough but not that exciting, apparently), while Ben and I had a wander round the locality of the hotel. Found a big municipal park where hundreds of people were flying kites, and an animal and plant market.
Flying kites in the park in Wuhan.
Eric, Ben and I tried to go to Yellow Crane Pagoda for the sunset, but we got there a bit late (largely because the taxi couldn't stop very close) and it had already closed in any case. Maybe it closes early on a Sunday.
Yellow Crane Pagoda.
Another early morning, for an 8.30am Wuhan Airlines flight to Nanjing followed by a seven-hour bus ride to the Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) hot spring resort. (During high season such a long bus ride isn't necessary, because there are flights available to a closer airport - Tungxi, I think.) We arrived in the late afternoon, and spent the next three nights staying at the Tao Yuan (Peach Blossom) Hotel. The resort is very pretty but of course very touristy as well - though catering mainly to Chinese visitors. In both the the hot spring resort and Tangkou, the town down the road, you were constantly chased by either women trying to sell you tea or restaurateurs making eating gestures to try and gain your custom. We made a point of going to the places that weren't so pushy.
The Huangshan hot spring resort.
That evening we ate at a restaurant in a back room at the post office!
28th March: Huangshan
Everybody went their separate ways today. I walked up to the western cable car station (a fairly substantial walk in itself) and took the cable car up to the summit area. The ticket system was a little confusing: you had to buy an 82 yuan ticket from one window to enter the mountain park, and then it was another 55 yuan or so - ticket from a different window - if you wanted to go up via the cable car. None of the signs were in English.
From the top of the cable car there was still a lot of climbing to be done. It was steep, but all the paths and steps were well-made with pitched stones so it wasn't dangerous. The weather was perfect - just hazy in the distance - and the views were great. On the way up to Lotus Peak I hardly encountered anyone, but afterwards, as I headed towards the central area, it got busier. Some people were exploring independently, others were in organised tour groups. Each group had matching baseball caps and was led by a guide with a flag.
Looking across towards one of the hotels in the peak area.
Me on Lotus Peak.
Below Lotus Peak; couples engrave their names on padlocks and attach them to the metal chains.
The "rock that flew there".
The summit area is very large; I think I read that there are 72 peaks, and there are hotels dotted around the area too. I climbed Lotus Peak, walked over to the weather station (with a few minor detours along the way) and then headed down the eastern steps and back to the hot spring resort. They were doing repairs at the top of the eastern steps so I had to walk on a precarious-looking bamboo platform for a short distance. I encountered dozens of porters carrying heavy loads, mostly suspended from bamboo shoulder poles, up and down the mountain: supplies for kiosks, hotel bedlinen, construction materials etc. Admittedly the eastern cable car wasn't running, but I think that in this area human labour is probably cheaper in any case.
Porters on Huangshan.
We had dinner at Mr. Wu's in Tangkou, and played with his very cute three-year-old daughter. Mr. Wu speaks some English and offers tour guide and travel agency services. His restaurant is one of a row of tiny restaurants in the market place.
29th March: Snow monkeys and Tangkou
Mr. Wu took Eric, Frank and me on a morning trip to see the snow monkeys. There is a clan of about 50 of them living wild in a local nature reserve. They're quite tame; when they saw us climbing the steps they knew that breakfast time was coming up, so they made their way down to the stream and were waiting for us by the time we arrived at the viewing platform. We weren't allowed to enter the upper parts of the viewing platform; evidently the monkeys regard that section as their territory and don't appreciate human intruders.
In the afternoon Eric and I walked down to Tangkou to have a look round and, in my case, get some photos developed. The latter turned out to have been a mistake. There was only one shop in town that did development, and they made a complete mess of two of the films I gave them and only a mediocre job of the other two. (I subsequently got most of the prints redone elsewhere, and they came out better, but some still weren't great - even the negatives were poor.) There was one other photo shop, next to a small bridge and displaying a big Kodak sign, but that one wasn't open; maybe it only opens in high season.
There were legs of ham hanging out to cure all over the town, which prompted Eric to regale me with numerous terrible pig jokes.
Huangshan and ham, from Tangkou.
Legs of ham being cured, to a background of what I've been told is something about family planning (post-Mao).
30th March: To Hangzhou
Our day began with a six-hour bus ride, mostly on very bad roads and in a bus with no suspension to speak of, to the city of Hangzhou. Hangzhou is another big tourist attraction, but again caters mainly to Chinese tourists. We were staying in the Xin Xin (New New) Hotel, on the north shore of West Lake, for two nights.
Went to a couple of department stores and I found them quite intimidating, with no opportunity to browse without at least two members of staff watching your every move. When I bought something I took it to the nearest counter, where the clerk filled in a ticket and sent me to another counter to pay, then I had to go back to the first counter to pick up the goods.
That evening Eric and I ate at a well-known restaurant serving local specialities. The food was excellent but the service was far too attentive for our liking. Three people hovered while we pored over the menu (in the end we made a fairly hasty decision just to get them off our backs) and you could barely take a sip of drink without someone rushing over and topping up your glass, which you could have done perfectly well yourself since the bottle was already sitting on the table.
Bicycles at a junction in Hangzhou. (They're only stopping at the red light because there's a guard on duty.)
31st March: Hangzhou
Had breakfast from the patisserie at the very posh Shangri-La hotel. That seems to be where the rich foreigners stay. Eric and I hired bikes (5 yuan/hour plus deposit) from the Wanghu Hotel and cycled round the lake. We took a detour to try and find the Museum of Chinese Medicine; we failed in this aim but succeeded in finding what appeared to be a huge scratchcard lottery event, and a newly-rebuilt castle. I couldn't understand much of the blurb, but I think it said that reconstruction had begun in 1985 and been completed this year (2000). I'd guess that the original castle was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. We didn't go in, but afterwards I wished I had done. We also visited the National Silk Museum, which had plenty of English explanations and only cost 5 yuan for admission.
Castle in Hangzhou.
Eric and me on our "iron pigeons".
After returning the bikes I changed some more money into yuan and we indulged in the luxury of some Haägen Dazs ice cream. Unfortunately this didn't go down well with my digestive system, and while the others went out to the night market, I spent the evening being violently sick. Haägen Dazs, of all things!
1st April: To Shanghai
I was feeling considerably better by the morning, but still pretty fragile. We took taxis to the station and had a 2½-hour journey in soft seat to Shanghai.
Travelling in soft seat to Shanghai. (The train was a double-decker.)
In Shanghai we were staying in the Nanjing Hotel, just off Nanjing Lu (Road), about ten minutes' walk from the Bund (now called Wai Tan). Went for a walk along the Bund with Eric, including a drink at the famous "M on the Bund" restaurant, then wandered back along Nanjing Lu to the hotel.
Eric and Ben on the Bund promenade - that's Pudong (the new part of Shanghai) in the background.
Me and the Bund.
The Bund, from M on the Bund.
We had our farewell dinner at a place called "Henry" somewhere in south-west Shanghai. Took a short walk round the area before getting taxis back to the hotel.
It was an excellent trip; we were well looked-after by Gabrielle, and I got to do a lot of things that I wouldn't have done if I'd been travelling independently - besides which I had none of the hassles of independent travel to deal with. There was plenty of flexibility regarding what activities we did; if a particular activity was included in the tour but one or more of us wanted to opt out, we had the option of spending the money put aside for that activity in some other way. I like Intrepid's "responsible travel" philosophy, which means using local transport and services, and finding other ways to minimise our environmental impact. For example, Gabrielle bought reusable chopsticks for all of us (and a fork for Frank!) so that we weren't using a new pair of disposable ones for every meal. Just one small gesture, but it demonstrated that the "responsible travel" attitude was more than just lip service.
2nd April: Shanghai
It drizzled all day today. We'd been extremely lucky with the weather and had virtually no rain at all up to this point. Frank left early in the morning for Japan, where he was launching straight into another Intrepid tour. Eric left a little later, after breakfast. He was off to Beijing to join the Silk Road tour. Ben was staying on in Shanghai for a few more days before making his way up to Xi'an and Beijing independently, so he and I went to the Shanghai Museum in the morning. An impressive building, with a huge amount of stuff to see, but by the time I was ¾ of the way round it (doing each gallery faster than the previous one) I'd had about as much museum as I could take.
In the afternoon I moved into my new abode, the Pujiang Hotel. The Pujiang is the oldest Western-style hotel in Shanghai, previously super-deluxe but now catering to budget travellers. It's THE place to stay if you're in Shanghai and on a budget. It's located just over the bridge at the north end of the Bund (across the road from the Shanghai Mansions) and costs only 55 yuan for a dorm bed. It's a very impressive place, and I was in a vast room - probably about three times the size of my entire apartment in Japan - containing 14 beds (not bunks). You had to pay a 100 yuan deposit when you picked up the key from the floor attendant, which would have been a bit of a pain for someone just about to leave the country if there wasn't a 90 yuan airport tax to pay on departure anyway. The main drawback is the noise; although everyone in the dorm made a great effort to be quiet, the same couldn't be said of the staff, who were chattering loudly in the corridor at 4am. It's all old wooden floors too, so footsteps or a trolley could make quite a lot of noise. It probably would have been OK with earplugs, but I was too worried about sleeping in and missing my flight.
The Pujiang Hotel.
I walked down to the Yuyuan Bazaar in the Chinese quarter and had a look round there. Extremely touristy, with every shopkeeper vying for your attention, but it was interesting and pretty. I didn't go into the gardens, but noticed that admission was 25 yuan. The Chinese sign used extremely complicated Chinese characters to give the price - neither the usual, simplified ones nor the older, more complex ones used in Japanese (of which I know 1 and 2) - so I suspect that the price for Chinese may have been lower than for foreigners.
Dragon in Yuyuan Bazaar.
In the evening I met up with Gabrielle and Ben again. We walked to the friendship store, then ate at a little restaurant just across the road from the Nanjing Hotel.
3rd April: Return to Japan
I left my hotel at 6.30am, intending to get a taxi to Renmin Square and the airport bus (no. 625, I'd been told) from there. However, the taxi fare to the airport (Hongqiao, as opposed to Pudong) was only 48 yuan and I had enough money left to pay it, so I decided I might as well save myself the hassle of negotiating the bus service. As a result I got the airport at 6.45 (no traffic congestion at that time in the morning), which was a bit early for a 9.35 flight - and then I wasn't allowed to check in until after 9am! This was because, on the advice of the woman who gave me my ticket at Kansai International and assured me that there was no need to reconfirm the return flight, I hadn't reconfirmed. It turned out that the flight was fully-booked and I could only get onto it on stand-by. Needless to say, I wasn't very happy about this, but there was nothing I could do about it and to my relief I did get a seat in the end. (The flight was with MU China Eastern, by the way.)
The rest of my return trip went smoothly. It was good to return to a country where I can understand at least a little of what people are saying to me. Returning from China made me realise how much my Japanese ability has improved since my arrival last summer. Even being questioned by Immigration was quite enjoyable because the whole interview took place in Japanese and I understood nearly everything that was said (though I did accidentally say that the purpose of my trip had been Korea (Kankoku) rather than tourism (kankou)!).