Wednesday 8 August 2012

Floating Down the Yangtze

It's October 2008. I’m sitting on the observation deck of the Victoria Queen cruise boat, trying to write some notes about our progress down the Yangtze River. However, I’m getting nowhere – the scenery is too compelling to concentrate on anything else.

The riverbanks present a constantly changing blend of nature and civilisation: a succession of green hills, one crowned with what looks like a lighthouse-shaped temple. 

Occasionally we pass under vast bridges, replacing structures that were too low for the water level raised by the massive Three Gorges Dam up ahead. One city we pass has several new apartment blocks towering above the new waterline. So far, everything in China has appeared as I’d expected it to: big, big, big.

But all stories, in the end, are about people, and that’s something that China has no shortage of. Dragging myself away from the scenery back into the comforts of the cruise boat's bar one deck below, I talk to bar supervisor Steven Xu about what it’s like to work on this floating hotel. 

Steven is symbolic of the new China that’s economically open to the West; describing himself as a “country bumpkin”, he’s the first of his family to leave the farm for a job in hospitality.

“My parents are farmers outside Chongqing,” he explains. “They grow corn, sweet potatoes and rice. But it’s not the big farm you imagine, there are not more than ten pigs.

“They feel proud of me, because I’m the only family member with a job related to English,” he continues. And Xu is clearly one of those lucky people who have an ear for new languages. “I only started learning English two and a half years ago in vocational school. Since I got a job on the Yangtze, I’ve practised a lot and improved a lot.”

In some ways, this cruise could be happening anywhere in the world – it follows the international standard profile of cruises, with onboard lectures, excursions ashore, a captain’s banquet and a cheesy cabaret night with acts from the crew and passengers. 

The cabins are compact but neat and functional, with the unexpected bonus of bathtubs, and private balconies from which to survey the passing scenery.

On the other hand, the cruise boat is a fascinating fusion of China and the west, one of the many intersection points between the two cultures as more tourists head to China. There are also Chinese passengers aboard, part of a new middle class exercising its right to sightsee in comfort.

Another pleasing result of this cultural crossover is the diverse stock behind the bar.

“Chinese people like the strong liquor we call spirit, distilled from wheat, sorghum, rice and all kinds of stuff,” says Xu. “It can be 52% alcohol, even 60% alcohol. We make a cocktail called Yangtze Rapids, with this spirit and curacao, mixed with orange juice. It’s good.”

Of course, I didn’t travel to China to drink cocktails (though as they’re cheaper than the boat’s espresso coffee, I feel a certain licence to do so).

On the second day we leave the boat to visit the Ghost City of Fengdu. It’s called a ‘ghost city’ because traditionally the Chinese believed that this place was where their ghosts would pause for judgement on the way to their final reward. 

Built over centuries, it’s an attractive complex of temples, gates, bridges and other structures tapering over and around a high green peak.

At the summit we pass monstrous statues depicting deadly sins, to reach the place where the lord of the underworld resides. This is a truly intimidating figure in robes within a sanctuary illuminated by candlelight. 

Around the corner is something more macabre, a set of statuary showing what happens to various evil-doers in the afterlife. The corrupt government official’s fate is particularly gruesome – he’s being sawn in half, longways, through a particularly sensitive anatomical region.

Returning, I decide the boat is really quite splendid. There’s something delightful about ending a sweaty hillside slog by stepping back onto waterborne luxury, welcomed by red-coated staff who hand you a warm towel and a cup of hot ginger tea.

The next day we start to pass through the famous Three Gorges, and the river appears much cleaner than it was at Chongqing. This area seems much less populated, and nature takes centre stage as the rocky riverbanks rise dramatically, often at steep angles.

Then we step aboard a river ferry which takes us up an arm of the gorges, passing increasingly spectacular cliff faces and the occasional hanging coffin in high-up caves, legacies of the ancient Ba culture.

Eventually we end up at a floating platform from which we board sampans along a narrow lesser gorge. The boats are piloted by men in straw hats and straw cloaks. I’m struck by how cheerful the locals are, helping haul us in and out of boats, and clearly enjoying their jobs running tourists up and down the gorges. 

The final highlight of the journey is the massive Three Gorges Dam, a controversial structure which required the non-stop laying of concrete for almost a decade, and which displaced over a million people along the Yangtze’s banks as the water rose to its final level. 

Controversy aside, it’s an astounding thing to see, as are the locks the boat passes through during the night, dropping us down a hundred metres to the water level beyond the dam.

After breakfast on the last morning of the cruise, we board a bus to take us to the visitor centre above the dam. Our guide is Kevin, who delivers a spirited patter along the lines of being “a good dam guide or a damn good guide”. 

I tell him about an Australian prime minister named Kevin who speaks Mandarin, and he responds “But mine is better - you can't beat a native speaker”.

The dam is truly impressive, and yet another reminder of how China does things on a big scale. But dams and gorges aside, the highlight of the cruise has been the Chinese people, unfailingly good-natured as we’ve encountered them in markets, sampans and on board.

Steven Xu is keen for this cross-cultural contact to continue. “I hope our passengers remember the people they meet here, feel happy and come back again,” he says. “The thing I like most is the people around me – both my colleagues, and our passengers from all over the world. As long as tourism here is booming, I’ll keep doing this job.”

This post was sponsored by Cruise About NZ. Check out its site for cruise holidays.

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