Hubei, China Yangzi Gorges 2002.06.05 - 06.08

Boating on the Yangzi

Boating through the Three Gorges of the Yangzi River is touted as something to do before completion of the Three Gorges Dam in 2009. The dam will raise the water level 175 meters to create the largest artificial lake in the world, ultimately submerging much of the touristy gorges and displace 1.5 million people. When initially planning our itinerary through China, this Yangzi boat ride was one of our primary intents. "Now or never," was the crux of our reasoning.

Between Hanoi and Chongqing (main starting point of the Yangzi cruise from West to East), however, we heard report after report of disappointed tourists. "It's tour group mentality. As an independent traveler, the herds will avoid your odd non-conformity," a Malaysian traveler warned us. "Ticket scams and tour group flag-following," an excerpt read in a Japanese guidebook. "I decided to stay in my berth. I really don't want to talk about it," a Dutch man recalled gloomily. None of the independent travelers we met recommended the cruise. Cross that activity off the list, we decided.

Later in Chengdu, we shared a dorm room with a lovely Kiwi woman, Rosemary. "Oh I loved the Yangzi Gorges," she said to our surprise. Documenting the complete circuit, Rosemary noted cities we could board and disembark ferries. Inspired by her enthusiasm, we decided to give the gorges a try. From previous traveler stories, our expectations were sufficiently low for a barge ride on the Erie Canal to be considered a moderate success. Nonetheless, we opted to bypass over 400km of river distance by bus and limit our boat cruise to the minimum time required to see the Three Gorges and on-going construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

Boarding an early bus in Dazu, we reached Chongqing before noon. A connecting bus in Chongqing took us to Wanxian, 400km downriver. Though a 30 minute bus ride through a city is normally insufficient time to judge its appeal, Chongqing made a definite negative impression. Congested with traffic and a thick grey smog, the city had zero appeal. We were happy not to be stuck here overnight.

In addition to regular daytime buses out of Chongqing to downriver cities, the tourist ferry departs at 19:00 for a 16 hour trip to Wanxian. The bus, on the other hand, took 9 hours but was entirely unpleasant, bumping over dirt roads loaded with belly-showing, goober-hawking, chain-smoking men who were absolutely revolting. Once in Wanxian, exhausted from 12 consecutive hours on a bus, we hoped for a ferry ticket tout. There were none. In fact Wanxian was a depressing town without much of anything. Being after 20:00 and hungry, we selected a plush restaurant; one that had its TVs tuned to the US beating Portugal in the World Cup first round. Thankfully, not only could we set down our backpacks, eat, and watch the US unbelievably outscore the $50 million Figo, but as luck would have it, the neighboring table of local businessmen spoke English and helped us with ferry information.

The key points were: yes, there's a ferry departure at night at around 20:30 or so, and getting from the bus station to the ferry dock requires a metered taxi that should cost no more than ¥10. Thanking them profusely, we headed for the dock.

Unlit but teaming with people, we guessed we were at the ferry dock although the lack of ticket touts and touristy looking people made us unscertain. Everyone waiting on the dark stairs leading down to the water looked more like villagers wanting to transport trade items from point A to B. Nobody looked like they came to see the gorges. Masami searched the storefronts above the stairway. Wes scouted the dock itself. We deduced that: 1. there were definitely no ticket sellers looking for tourists, 2. the only place that appeared to be a ticket window was closed, and 3. nobody was sure what time a boat would arrive. Waiting patiently on the step for an hour surrounded by various body odors and a definite stench of urine, we were relieved to see a boat from upriver dock. A light at the ticket window illuminated. All at once, the ticket-less loiterers swarmed the tiny ticket window, shoving cash through the grill and shouting their destination. We were the only foreigners, and apparently the only ones looking for a tourist activity. Packs strapped on and ready for battle, Masami reached the ticket window and successfully purchased two third class bunks to the next major town of Wushan while Wes gripped the grill with both arms, muscling the Chinese hands away. Traveling as a pair often has such advantages.

Our boat was nothing like we had read about in the Lonely Planet. There were no restaurant, no announcements about upcoming significant sites, and no tourists. Since we were on a night boat, none of this made a difference. The boat staff said we would reach Wushan at 06:00. We set our alarm for 05:00 in hopes to see the first gorge located just before Wushan.

At 05:00, our bunkmates who we knew wanted to disembark at Fengjie, the town before the first gorge, were still asleep. Figuring the boat must be running late, we turned off the alarm and dozed off. Waking naturally at 08:00, we saw our bunkmates were still on the boat. "Fengjie?" we questioned again. "Fengjie," they confirmed. How late was this boat running? At 09:00 we finally reached Fengjie. At 11:30 we reached Wushan, only 5½ hours late.

Rosemary recommended a trip up the Little Three Gorges, roundtrip from Wushan. Disembarking our utility transport boat, we asked the people ashore. "Meiyo... Mintian Liu-dian," they informed us that the next trip wouldn't be until 06:00 the next morning. Forget that. We wanted to keep moving. The next boat downriver was scheduled to depart in 2 hours at 13:30. Another third class berth please. Having gone from bus to bus to boat over the past 28 hours, we were ready for a shower. So we walked into Wushan to find one. Our brief time in Wushan was enough to know two things. First, it's grubby, and second, enough tourists without a clue wander through that nearly every local we talked to tried to make a fast buck off us by overcharging. A shower at a public bathhouse that normally costs ¥3~5 per head was quoted at ¥20 each. A 1km minibus ride that would normally cost ¥1 maximum was quoted at ¥5. Even the potato vendor on the sidewalk wanted fancy air-conditioned restaurant prices for her plastic bag of spuds. We showered, paid a bit more than we thought was appropriate but far below the requested ¥40, and happily returned to our second boat, which thankfully was a tourist boat. It had cable TV (for more World Cup action, of course), air conditioning, and a restaurant. The third class ticket gave us a berth in a room with 8 bunk beds, 4 more than on our first utility boat, but it still felt luxurious by comparison. We floated past undulating hills, pointy-peak mountains, and of course two more gorges. The scenery ranged from dull to moderately interesting, and we could understand why anyone arriving with high expectation would be terribly disappointed. Good thing our expectations were low. We enjoyed watching the Chinese tour groups ooh and aah at seemingly uninteresting holes in rocks as their guide blared incomprehensible (to us, that is) Chinese through a megaphone. We enjoyed the solitude on the viewing deck when the Chinese decided en masse that nothing else was worth observing until the next announcement. Most interesting was not the scenery but the Three Gorges Dam and its predetermined impact on the river towns. Huge concrete water markers reading 135 M and 175 M demarked the rise in water level at the completion of Dam Phase 1 and Dam Final Phase. Evidence of past lives below the 175 M markers were in rubble while those above remained intact. Towns were split horizontally. Those forced to relocate lost their history. Those made to stay lost their neighbors. In this environment of total emotional resignation to the inevitable Great Dam, we felt catastrophe and sadness for the millions of people affected. Do the Chinese tour groups feel the same? Or does the engineering monstrosity and future benefit of downstream water flow control (Yangzi floods wipe out villages and towns) entirely dismiss remorseful feeling for those currently impacted? Our Chinese language skills pretty much reach their limit at, "Two bowls of rice and stir-fried veggies." We had no way of questioning people on our boat.

We reached the city of Yichang at 22:30 feeling good on our 38th hour of transportation. Debating between checking into a hotel for 6 hours or staying awake for the 03:20 train, we chose to go directly to the train station. The ticket window had closed at 22:00 and would reopen at 02:30. We waited. When the counter opened, Masami requested a hard sleeper berth. No. Soft sleeper berth? No. Soft seat? (at least these have reserved seat numbers) No. The ticket window would only sell an unreserved hard seat ticket. Bummer. At 3AM we were in no mood to risk standing for the next 8 hours to Huaihua, Hunan Province. We'll board, and if we don't get a seat, we'll get off at the first station on the main line with regular service, we decided. At 03:10, the cattle gates opened and hundreds of non-reserved hard seat passengers scrambled through the platform entrance and onto one of the rear train cars. And by some miracle, we got 2 adjoining seats while dozens of others were resigned to a luggage rack, dirty floor, or remain standing. We were too exhausted to worry about the others. We had a seat, and though it was uncomfortable, we slept regardless. Sweat-soaked, muscle-cramped, and tired, our determination to reach Kaili dissolved. At the Huaihua transfer station, we checked into a luxury hotel at 13:30 to recover. Kaili is another 5 hours train ride distant. The continuous stretch from Dazu, Chongqing Province to Huaihua, Hunan Province totaled 54 hours including transit time.

So would we recommend the Yangzi Gorge boat trip? Let's just say that if your heart is set on it, we wouldn't discourage you from going. Enjoyment on the ferry has lots to do with your cabin mates. We were lucky twice. Some cabins were packed with chain-smoking fat-bellied card gamblers, who wouldn't make good company on a long haul. Forth class ticket we don't recommend because of a lack of cabin windows and air conditioning. First and second class cabins we didn't view, though they definitely exist. Third class ferry tickets cost about two times bus fare for the same distance.

If we could change any part of our journey, we would board a tourist ferry in Chongqing. This would have added 7 hours to the journey and cost ¥50 more, but return 2 key advantages. We would have avoided a miserable bus ride to Wanxian, and the ferry would have docked in Wushan for an optional 6-hour tour through the Little Three Gorges. The Yangzi Gorges is a trip we care not to repeat ourselves, but hopefully these tidbits will benefit a future traveler.

A tourist ferry floats downriver near one of the Three Gorges. Notice the haze and uninteresting scenery.
Most interesting were the partially destroyed towns on the riverbank. All structures below the 175 Meter marker have been demolished. Buildings higher up are intact.
The Three Gorges Dam is an impressive construction site. It's definitely more interesting to look at than the Three Gorges themselves.

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