It’s the night before Christmas. The ship’s engine rumbles ill-temperedly below, and in our cabin the sounds of two conversations, and two games of cards, lap over each other in the small space. A man in late middle age occupies the only chair, in a room which is mostly filled by three sets of bunk beds. His female companions sit across from him on one bed, animatedly chatting as they play, and vigorously munching small oranges. One woman is older. Perhaps she is his mother, and the other his wife. Or perhaps not, we don’t know. We are the only non-Chinese passengers on a ship where nobody speaks a word of English, and our Mandarin is functionally non-existent.
We sit squashed into a bottom bunk. There is nowhere else on the ship to sit, except the dining room, and a single row of plastic chairs outside on the bow deck. Inside the cabin we are brightly lit by fluorescent strip light. Outside the grimy windows the dark, wide river slides behind us as we chug steadily downstream. Steep, dark peaks flank both banks. Behind them higher, steeper mountains rise, but they’re hidden in the gloom. We are slipping, unseeing, through one of the Yangtze river’s Three Gorges.
We don’t know our cabin mates names, but they hand us each an orange. Maybe it is a bit like real Christmas after all. I’m overwhelmed with warm feeling, and smiles. The kindness strikes deep after a day of feeling frozen out and confused.
It’s been a long day, and after a while we stretch out on our bunks, fully dressed, and wrapped in sleeping bags under our thin ship’s blanket. It’s midwinter, and it appears that budget cruise ships in China don’t come with heating. I drift off quickly, but wake cold in the early hours. It’s Christmas morning.
I curl up tight against the cold, knowing I only have an hour or two before the ship’s alarm sounds a 6am wake up call. Budget cruise ships in China don’t come with lie ins either.
We’ve already had two days to learn how it goes on an organised tour in Central China, and it’s been eye-opening.
Our initiation occurred as we mounted the bus outside our hostel. There were lanyards. And shouting. The tour guide shouted instructions, presumably, for much of the drive out through the building site that is the outskirts of Chongqing. Tower blocks surround the scattering of traditional houses that cling on from another age. Tiny fields nestle into streams, too wet and steep to build on. Their sharp flashes of green are the only break from the grey city palette. It’s nearly two hours before the dust thins.
And then there are geese flapping in rice paddies, and all of the buildings are whitewashed homes. All of the windows the same shade of maroon. The guide yells on. We pull up in a town, and the driver takes over the screaming. We surmise we must get out of the bus.
But this isn’t just any town, this is an Ancient Town. Complete with waterwheel spinning uselessly alone in the middle of a concrete lined stream. The buildings are concrete too. And contain mainly gift shops. Apparently this is the first stop on our tour.
We sauntered up and down the wide, empty main street for a while, always keeping a lady from our bus in view, her white furry coat a beacon in the murk. We had no idea how long this excursion was, and some idea about the likelihood of the bus waiting for us if we were late. We needed eyes on our busmates at all times.
It’s only a four hour drive from Chongqing to the port where we’re going to board our boat, but there’s time for a stop in the world’s loudest petrol station before we start the final leg of the drive. Engines, stomach-resonating music, so much screaming. And all for a snack and loo break. For a moment I was nostalgic for the M6.
By the time we finally get on board it’s well after dark, and raining. There’s only time obtain hot water for our instant noodles through the medium of mime, before bed. And then the 6am ship-wide alarm. We’re quickly seeing how they roll here.
The first stop of the day is to look at some sort of thing. There is a lot of shouting about it. Everyone is ready to see the thing very early. The ship tannoy shouts. Everyone gathers in the lobby area. We enact a mime for their benefit in order to obtain hot water for our coffee. There is more tannoy shouting. Possibly announcing this entertainment. Or warning people not to feed the foreigners. Later events would hint at the latter. We get off the boat.
And we just sort of walk around a small very quiet village with lots of closed shops and stalls selling dried fish. For a little bit. Then we get back on the boat. Everyone else is buying all sorts of things on the pontoon we’re moored to. Most of it seems to be non-specific alcohol. Should we have brought more booze? Perhaps party-night was lost in translation on the itinerary. There is a lot of Chinese on the piece of paper and only about eight words in English. We drink tea, and ponder. As you do in China.
The shouting goes on.
Our day is a rhythm of a bout of tannoy shouting, which brings everyone crowding on to the foredeck where we are hanging out watching the gorges go by. The shouting goes on, and people begin to point at something. Perhaps a hill, or a cliff. More shouting. Lots of photos. Shouting over. Everyone else goes back inside. And quiet.
We are rarely able to discern what it is they’re pointing at or taking photos of. But we’re enjoying ourselves.
A gorge envelopes us, and expells us. It’s nice. But you know, the stakes are high when you’re expecting a AAAAA scenic area. It’s kind of only nice, not amazing. Pleasant. Kind of grimy. A little sad, but in a large, heart-pulling way. Like Dartmoor.
And we’ve heard that the real beauty lies in the little three gorges, since the dam flooded the river and widened it’s path through the main gorges so dramatically. The cliffs aren’t so towering, imposing. The peaks aren’t so high. Imagine making mountains smaller.
Read more about the impact of the dam, and the 660 km long reservoir we were cruising along in What Lies Beneath? Above the Three Gorges Dam
So the little three gorges trip is the only side-excursion we’ve booked ourselves onto. It’s kind of expensive. There’s a smaller boat involved. We have hopes of a spectacular, quieter, nature cruise.
Not so much.
I get that we chose to go on a Chinese tour, where everything was in Chinese. And that thus the tour would be to Chinese taste. I guess I just hadn’t quite grasped how much shouting and shopping that would involve.
We escape the man who is shouting at people to buy something in a mysterious bag, by going outside to watch the view. Most of our fellow passengers stay inside to watch the man. Not the rocks and water they have paid to come here to see. The rocks and water here are nice. Nicer than the main river. Still just nice though.
Somebody comes outside to take photos of themselves standing in front of the view. “The view” being three foreigners. Obviously.
We stay outside watching the river in the drizzle, listening to Fairytale of New York on repeat and pretending to be having more fun than we actually are.
Then there’s a horrible bit where we all get into small boats and go further up the river, but can’t see out of the boats because the roofs are too low. And there’s a man who gets into the boat wearing a straw hat and jacket, comically pretending to be the people who’s way of life has been destroyed by the rising waters. Or possibly destroyed by capitalism, or communism, or whatever they’re calling it these days. Everyone tries on the hat and jacket and gets a photo. Laughs all round.
On the way back to the big boat we try to nap.
And at dinner time, we decide to try the dining room. This seems to embarrass everybody.
We stand by the counter to order our meal, having determined that this is how to be fed. Buy a token, take the token to another window. Receive food. Simple.
Not if everyone in the vicinity of the counter refuses to look at you. Or sort of looks through you, desperately searching for somebody Chinese to serve.
This goes on for a while.
It seems that sheer stubbornness is all that eventually gets us fed. We slink off for a beer outside, on the noisy, diesel soaked stern deck. There is a big, heavily decorated, diesel-free deck above us, but it’s locked.
The dining hall and diesel smells mingle in the cold air. The beer is warmer than the air now, and the steep banks of the river are huddled under a coat of low, murky cloud. But it’s sort thrilling, being wrapped in these dark hills, and strange experiences, so far from home. It’s Christmas eve, and we are floating down the Yangtze, and we have managed to be fed.
And though we don’t know it yet, there will be oranges for dessert.