Friday, November 25, 2005

The rest of my boat trip

Ok, I know it has been a long time coming... I mean, I've been back from my vacation now for about six weeks... but yes, suprise, here is the rest of my trip.

After leaving the Mini and Lesser Gorges, we rejoined our boat. On the way to our boat walking through the town (who's name I never knew... it will not exist in a few years anyway) I stopped and bought some street food. I am constantly amazed at how cheap, yet how good the street food is. I bought three steamed buns filled with a chili pepper/cabbage/pork mixture. They were delicious although since we were in the middle of Sichuan Province, really, really spicy. I purchased the three of them for 1 RMB, or about 12.5 cents.

We rejoined out boat and headed down the Yangtze towards the second and third gorges. Just after dinner we entered the second gorge... all I can say is "Wow, what a sight." I've only seen the grand canyon from an airplane, so this is definitely the most spectacular natural phenomenon I've ever seen in person when considering size. The mountain cliffs that leapt from the river's water were so large that they started to seem unreal. Boat.... water surface.... gigantic mountain. I guess it wasn't the size that was that impressive, it was just how suddenly they rose. The mountain peaks were not miles away, as you'd expect... the top of these cliffs were within a few hundred meters of the boat. They seemed to just go straight up.

It is funny that they are called the Three Gorges. There was a definitive break between the first and second, but I would be hard pressed to find the gap between the second and third. I spend the rest of the evening curled up in a chair on the deck, reading my book, and watching the gorges pass. Then, it was off to my room to nap for a while before we reached the Three Gorges Dam, the monster responsible for so many millions of acres being swallowed by the river.

Our tour guide came by the room around 10pm to let us know that we had reached the dam. We were given an option: we could stay on the boat and ride through the locks, although we wouldn't get to see much of the dam, or we could leave the boat, take a car tour along the dam, and then go to a restaurant. Yes, I know... big surprise... I actually passed up food and decided to stay on the boat. Emerging onto the deck, I was somewhat surprised. I had expected to see a gigantic wall of concrete, not thinking that you'd only see that from the downstream side. From where we were, you could tell that we were approaching a structure, but you couldn't gauge the magnitude of it.

And then we entered the locks.

Again, wow. I read that when China started building this project, the world went through a concrete shortage and that it was very difficult to get any in large amounts for a few years. I thought when I read it that the article must be exaggerating, but I can tell you that I fully believe that assertation now. I've been in locks before; big ones. But nothing like this. The lock system was a series of five locks, dropping our boats about 25 meters at a time. They were building a sixth lock upstream that wasn't needed yet as the water level hadn't reached that high. Eventually the whole system will raise and lower the boats 150 meters! Thats about 1.6 football fields long! Each lock could fit eight large ships in! Keep in mind that our boat was basically a small cruise ship... and they could fit eight. I swear, Chinese boat captains are as bad as the taxi drivers (read: suicidal). The boats kept hitting each other, the walls... everyone kept jockying for a place and there seemed no real order to it. Oh well, out of our control so, Ngee Siew and I cracked open a beer, sat on the deck, and watched the water levels drop. We had quite a long wait as the whole decent took around 5 hours.

Leaving the docks, we pulled over to the shore to pick up our fellow passangers who had disembarked. From their photos and stories I was very glad that we had decided to stay on the boat. I had gotten a much better view of the dam even if I couldn't see the actual outer structure. Ze Germans and I had decided to stay up all night as we would be arriving in Yichang around 3am... we had decided at that point that sleep wasn't worth it. We stayed up in the cold river air and talked about all sorts of things. It was very nice and I hope to keep in contact with them. It was during this time that I saw the largest rat I have ever seen, bounding across the deck. If I had to guess I'd say it was about the same size at Chipper (my Uncle and Aunt's old dog). Craziness.

Ngee Siew, Kristin (one of the Germans), and I were the only ones taking the bus from Yichang to Wuhan, so we stayed up for the rest of the night. We were finally herded off in a confusing mess to the busses where were to be crammed in for the next six hours. It was miserable. I had a fat, sweaty Chinese man using me as a pillow and a nice hard glass window to rest my head against. Did I mention that the Chinese are on the whole a small people, and nothing is made for anyone with long legs? I was in so much pain by the end of the ride that I just wanted to end it all. We arrived in Wuhan, found a hotel and slept for a few hours. Then it was off for some food (side story: we ordered tea and they didn't seem to have any. They had to run down the street and even then they only came back with sweetened iced tea. No tea in a chinese restaurant. And what we really didn't understand was everyone around us was drinking tea. Weird.). After scrambling around trying to arranged various train tickets, we started visiting some of the sights of Wuhan. First was the Flying White Crane Pagoda. Again, I don't know much of the history because I couldn't understand most of what we read or saw, but the pagoda itself was one of the most impressive that I've seen in China. I'm not even sure it was very old, but it was beautiful and provided a great view of the city (although Wuhan is not very pretty, it is neat to look at because it is so big. Wuhan is really three cities that combined into one). Then it was off to the temple of 500 dieties that we had heard about, although once we got their we found it was closing in a few minutes so we opted out. While walking around we randomly found some type of rock gallery that showcased many extraordinary rock and crystal formations. Not very Chinese-like, but very interesting. Then it was off to the shopping district, a pedestrian street much like Nanjing Road in Shanghai except without so much money. Ok, I'll admit it... we gave into temptation and despite being in the middle of Hunan Province we had dinner at McDonald's. In my defense, it was not my idea. Kristin had a craving for icecream, and I am not crazy enough to stand between any woman and her Haagen Daas (or Mcy D's soft serve in this case). To bad for Ngee Siew... he discovered in the McDonalds that his cell phone had been pickpocketed. Poor guy was crushed... he always did have an unhealthy attachment to that phone... constantly playing on it... but I digress.

To drown Ngee Siew's sorrows, Kristin and I took him out for a drink with the aim of getting him a whisky or something. What does he order? Rose tea. Oh well, Kristin and I each had a gin and tonic to make up for Ngee Siew's sobriety. On our way back to our hotel we wandered through a street market. Quite a sight (and smell). A small little alley way jam packed with dead animals, vegetables, spices, crafts, pets. I got a few really good pictures although I got yelled at by one merchant who didn't appreciate having his picture taken. Ooops.

Speaking of pictures. Clearly I have many from this trip and many really good ones. I have been having extreme problems getting my photo uploading service working properly. I have tried all sorts of things (and new services) but I cannot seem to get the connection to hold all night (which is how long it takes to upload these pics). Anyway, I'm sure (rather I hope) that most of you are interested and I will keep trying to get them uploaded for you to download.

Well, then it was off to bed. The next day we woke up, made our way to the train station, said our goodbyes to Kristin, and were on a train to Zhangzhou. Six hours later (and a nice nap in our hard sleeper) and were walking the streets of Zhangzhou looking for a place to stay. We got a hotel room directly across from the train station and then tried to book a way home. Ok, here is where I started to panic. We tried for hours to find a way from Zhangzhou to Yantai. Every train route and every plane (direct or otherwise) was booked solid for days. I really thought we were stuck. Then as luck would have it, we wandered across a Long Distance bus station. We got our tickets easily enough and they were cheap! They were even sleepers so we could sleep the whole way. And only a 12 hour trip!

Skipping ahead 24 hours.... (Zhangzhou was pretty boring anyway)

12 hours my butt. Try 22 hours. And by sleeper they meant 12-inch-wide-mattress-that-Nick-does-not-fit-on-with-a-metal-panel-to-use-as-a-pillow. Oh sure, you could use your most-likely-lice-infested blanket as a pillow but then you froze to death. And the bumping, oh the bumping. I though all of my teeth were going to fall out from the constant vibrations. Forget sleeping, it was enough not to go homicidal and kill everyone on the bus. Oh, icing on the cake: no toilet.... for 22 hours. Sure they stop every 5 hours or so in a village to use the latrines (read: disgusting maggot infested hole in ground) but lets just say that was not the most appealing option.

Anway, the worst part of the trip by far was the very last segment of it. We pulled into Yantai around 7am and had to be at work that day. All in all it was one of the best trips I've ever taken and I was so happy to see a part of the world that literally won't exist in a few years time.

Again, as soon as I get photos working I'll let everyone know.