China.

Reference: China

Title: China and the Yangtse Gorges.

Length: 1500 words.

Publishing rights: All rights.

Travel operator: Kuoni/Voyages Jules Vernes.

Copyright: Derrick Grover.

China and the Yangtse Gorges.

East Annexe

There was a light rain when we arrived at the Yangtse River dam. The grey backdrop gave it a sombre air reflecting the serious implications to the surrounding areas and beyond as far as Beijing where the water supplies are inadequate. Many villages and towns are being flooded and the new reservoir will extend over 400 miles upriver to Chongqing. The immense concrete structure was too large to capture in a single photograph.

We were on the Yangtse River Cruise organised by Kuoni/Voyages Jules Verne. The Yangste gorges are but one aspect of this trip. You get a taste of China both ancient and modern. Not that there has been much time to wander amongst the natives. The itinerary is packed with tours offering little opportunity to dally.

The nine-hour flight on Air China from Heathrow to Beijing had been comfortable and there was more knee room than we expected. After arriving about midday we had a tour of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing before another flight to Washun and a stay in the 5 star Oriental hotel for the night. The coach trip toYichang the next day passed cotton and rice paddy fields; a prosperous farming region with adequate rainfall where water buffalo still draw the plough. Our courier stayed with us the entire trip and we were joined by local guides at each stage of the journey. They are a mine of information, usually ex-schoolmasters who have passed examinations in English and tourism to qualify as an official guide.

Our cabin on board the MS Oriental Emperor was adequate with sit-up bath and usual facilities. Our only complaint was the hard mattress, but extra pillows softened the effect.# For meals there was a bewildering variety of Chinese food. It was a case of diving in with chopsticks and hoping for the best. There is a noticeable difference between the dishes in North and South china, the latter more foreign to English taste. The waiters continually add more plates so that care has to be taken when rotating the Lazy Susan. Plates overlapping the edge can easily knock over a glass of beer.

It is important to be meticulous about drinking water and fresh fruits. Boiled water was brought to our cabins for drinking and cleaning teeth; bottled water or beer was served at meal times. We were careful and suffered no ill effects.

The lounge with dance floor and bar served as the meeting place, venue for the dumpling making competition, and theatre when members of the crew presented a cabaret - it was of a professional standard and a highlight of the trip. Even the captain's rendering of a song showed the talent that could provide an alternative career.

There was no library or gymnasium but a covered cafe on the sun deck. The main nationalities were British, German and Chinese. At meals times, tables were allocated according to nationality but, within the group, seating was not reserved.

Restaurant

Upriver from the dam lie the Yangste gorges, the hills rise majestically on either side as the river winds amongst them. Through the nearer gorges could be seen further hills receding in the mist. New buildings are being erected above the future waterline to re-house more than a million people whose homes are being flooded. The merit of the dam has been subject to much debate but the capital cost is comparable to the cost of the damage and repair work in the 1998 flood. The hydroelectric power will generate the equivalent of one third of the UK's consumption and will repay the loans for the project. It will replace about 50 million tons of coal combusted each year and reduce pollution significantly.

Washan was particularly interesting; a bustling market town replete with local colour and coolies carrying their wares in baskets on the traditional yolk. This will be flooded and relocated further up the hill.

Here we were met by market traders and offers of transport by sedan chair up the steps from the ship (for 40 Yuan equivalent to £4). The driver of the bus negotiated the busy main street too quickly, it was a place to venture slowly and absorb the local culture - a culture that will probably be lost with the movement to modernisation. We soon reached the Danian River which hosts the little gorges. These are perhaps more impressive since the sides rise vertically from the river, and sometimes overhang. Our guide regaled us with facts about the area. I closed my eyes against the bright sunshine. Presently there was a tap on my shoulder. "Was I falling a sleep?" enquired our guide. An ex-schoolmaster expected his pupils to pay attention.

Ghost city the next day was shrouded in mist - a fitting perspective for its reputation. A chair lift carried us to the temple at the top of the hill; others climbed the footpath and arrived at the same time but with less breath. The temples are steeped in mythology and abound in threats of sanctions for wrongdoing; grotesque statues line the footpath. There are tests of strength and balance to assess your well being.

The Yangste is an important highway for trade as well as tourism. Multiple barges loaded with coal, building materials or cars are powered by steamers, which navigate up and down the river. The cost of transport is being reduced by about 30% as the movement of the river gives way to the stillness of a reservoir. Sampans with bamboo roofs plied the side of the river, their occupants fishing, transporting goods or apparently simply passing the time of day.

Chongqing marked the end of the cruise. The zoo boasted several giant pandas; one peeped at us over a bridge, others were busily chewing bamboo - a particular variety which is grown nearby. Close views of Bengal tigers were also a feature.# The return flight to Beijing was more relaxed; the coach journey was short and our hotel comfortable. We were denied the relaxation for long. The next day was filled with visits starting with the Great Wall. In view of the crowds on the westerly side we chose the less frequented one. Here one could contemplate the task of its construction in peace. The steps, in places, were exceptionally steep and the exercise made up for the lack of a gymnasium. It was a hot day and a supply of bottled water was essential. Especially in view of the competition amongst the group to see who could walk farthest in the hour and a half available.

Our visits to Tian An Men square and the Forbidden City were in temperatures of about 95 degrees F. As ever our guide gave us a detailed account of the history but lacked a shaded place for its delivery. An assailant hiding behind a tree had assassinated a previous emperor. Accordingly no trees are allowed and the Forbidden City is an expanse of brick and concrete.

Our guide used the coach journeys to tutor us in the trends in modern China. The Han Chinese represent about 92% of the population and they are the ones who are restricted to one child per family. Minority tribes do not have the same restriction. The children although spoilt by their parents are hard working. Lessons start at 7 am and finish at 5 p.m. Two hours homework is required in the evening. The pace of modernisation is an indication of the progress to be expected in the coming century. After years of withdrawal from the world this sleeping giant is awakening and is going to make a big impact.

View some photographs supporting this article here.

Temples; River Yangtse; river boats; Sedan chairs; Local scenes; Ghost city; Great Wall of China; Forbidden city; etc.

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