Both John and I were really keen to do a cruise down the Yangtze River, and we agreed that we wanted to do the domestic cruise. That said, we decided we’d go first class and have our own cabin rather than share with up to six strangers. We arranged our cruise through Lazybones Hostel in Chengdu, thinking this would be easier than going to Chongqing and trying to sort it out there. It probably would have been easier too…if the staff were familiar with the cruises!
They advertise them everywhere in the hostel, but they didn’t seem very sure about them. We originally wanted a four day, three night cruise and booked for this. The next day they told us this wasn’t running anymore and so we had to change to the three day, two night. I was a little disappointed as I’d been quite interested in visiting Fengdu Ghost CIty. Still, we were excited to go.
The package we booked included transport to Chongqing, accommodation, Zhangfei Temple, the Lesser Three Gorges and the Three Gorges Dam. A minibus was to pick us up at 6.30am, but didn’t arrive until an hour later. Then it decided that breaking down halfway to the bus station was a smart idea. It shuddered as it sped through Chengdu at the mighty speed of about four kilometres and hour and eventually stopped on the side of the road where another minibus picked us up. The delay meant that the bus was almost full when we got there, but we managed to get a couple of seats – on the bottom, right at the back, where all leg room was overtaken with bundles of newspapers.
We were a little confused as to why we had to take a bus so goddamned early when we weren’t getting on the boat until about 7pm, and when it only takes 4 hours by bus to Chongqing. We found out why when the bus unceremoniously dumped us outside some kind of tourist attraction that’s apparently big with domestic tourists. We’re still not entirely sure what it was; a half-constructed set of shops all done up to look old-school Chinese. Half the shops were closed and not a single one sold Coke – it was clearly a Pepsi town, much to John’s disgust. There were a couple of artificial canals they were building bridges over. Still feeling fairly seedy after the Sichuan Hot-Pot disaster we skipped on the restaurants there; they looked somewhat suspicious, and food still wasn’t an appealing option. We also had no idea what time we had to get back on the bus, as not a soul spoke a word of English. And so we hung around, waiting to see what all the other people wearing dorky travel cards on yellow cords around their necks were doing.
Eventually it was back on the bus and we were getting to Chongqing. At Chongqing, a lady holding a sign with John’s misspelled middle name on it awaited us and we followed her to a significantly less comfortable bus, having no idea what was happening. This bus took us to a travel agency somewhere else, where we paid for two additional ‘attractions’ – Baidi Emperor City and the Jiuwan Stream. After waiting about an hour there we were gestured into a car which took us around the corner, where we were subsequently bundled onto yet ANOTHER bus. By this point we were a little confused, having been under the impression that the first bus was taking us to the cruise ship. No such luck, but at least this one – eventually – did.
And that’s where it got more confusing. We’d paid for a first class cabin, and yet our dorky travel cards dangling from our necks had bed numbers 1 and 3. We were shown by a rather surly middle-aged woman to our cabin…which turned out to be a four-person dormitory. We weren’t overly impressed. Fortunately a young Chinese guy saw our confusion and happened to speak a little English. He let us use his phone to call the hostel and find out what was happening as, of course, the hostel had failed to give us any useful information or anything at all to show what we’d booked other than a very useless receipt with nothing but an amount written on it. No ‘contract’, which everyone kept asking for. We were getting pretty worried that we had nothing at all to evidence what we’d paid for, and that we wouldn’t be let out on any of the tours we’d booked.
The hostel called the agency, and then called our helpful friend back. Apparently the first class rooms were booked out so we had that room to ourselves. This was still a little disappointing as we had bunk beds, but at least it was ours. And apparently someone, somewhere on the boat, knew what we’d paid for. We just had to trust to this! As it turns out, each section of the boat has a ‘director’ responsible for the people in his or her wing. We luckily had the same director as our helpful friend and she came and gave us the tickets we needed. It was a relief! We’d been told that without a ‘contract’ we wouldn’t be allowed on the excursions, so we were very happy when she showed us that she had us marked down for everything we’d paid for.
The boat left almost two hours later than planned and so by the time we arrived at Zhangfei Temple it was about 11pm and rather dark. While I’d thought that would make exploring a Confucian temple rather dull, it actually made the experience more magical. The domestic cruise includes Chinese language tour guiding only, which was fine by us as we preferred to explore on our own anyway. So we skipped ahead of the crowd, who were milling around listening to the guide’s explanations, and were on our way.
The temple was actually quite fascinating, and afforded beautiful views through dark leafy trees across the river to the city on the opposite bank. The darkness gave me the opportunity to play with my camera to see what was around us, and I’ll admit that the whole place was just amazing in the dark. I can’t imagine that the atmosphere would be half as enchanting during the daytime; it’s amazing the difference darkness can make in how you experience a place.
Thus by the time we got back on the ship – luckily in China they use ‘western’ numbers, and they stick a little blackboard by the exit of the ship to let you know what time to be back – it was after midnight and we were rather exhausted. While I had mostly recovered from the hot-pot induced hell, John hadn’t and after all the stairs at the temple was pleased to be back on board. I’d made some sandwiches – we’d bought some ‘bread’ rolls, Happy Cow refrigeration-not-required cheese and tomatoes in Chengdu – and we were asleep.
We were up what felt like only a few hours later, as the next shore excursion, to Baidi Emperor City, was at the ungodly hour of 6.00am. We were still half asleep waiting to get off the boat, and only starting to wake up as we followed the hordes to a bus station and were handed little bits of torn-off blue tickets to get on the bus. First off the bus we tried to beat the hordes in crossing the covered bridge to the White Emperor City; rather unsuccessfully really, especially as we stopped to look in horror at the water below. Most of it wasn’t exactly recognisable as water until you saw little skiffs and boats in there. It was a literal sea of garbage, with men in small boats paddling through and even fishing through it. It was revolting. We’d seen that the water was a little gross the night before, but it’s different in daylight when you can really see that you’re floating through a river of rubbish. It saddened me that the people care so little for their own environment; that they see nothing wrong with throwing garbage into the river. And they do – sticking my head out of the window of the boat was almost dangerous as everyone uses the river as a bin and the windows as the opening.
We crossed over and followed the signs towards the temple and city complex. On the way we saw the below sign – somewhat confusing. We assume it basically meant ‘stay off the grass’, but someone was either trying to be poetic and clever or Google Translate suffered a serious failure.
The steps up to the temple were rather daunting, and despite it being around 7.30am by this time it was already pushing 35 degrees and some intense humidity. Having stopped to photograph the garbage we’d ended up at the back of the line, and with the number of steps we were OK with this – everyone was taking them slowly so we didn’t stand out. The complex was colourfully and nicely situated but overall rather underwhelming. It was far from worth the price we’d paid – about 150 RMB, which included transport there and back – and definitely wasn’t worth getting up at 5.30am for. Still, we didn’t know at the time and if we hadn’t gone, we’d have been left wondering.
It was back onto the boat after this and cruising down the river to the next pitstop, which is a story for another day and another post.