It was just after noon when we were lining up to get off the ship again, this time for a tour of the Lesser Three Gorges.
At first we were a little disappointed when we saw we were getting on another reasonably sized boat. We’d thought we were taking a nice little boat, maybe a small wooden one with a tiny motor hanging over the back. No such luck. Still, it was a bit nicer than our ship. It had seats, to start with. This was something we found odd about the cruise ship – it was designed to be entirely anti-social. Aside from in the dining room there was only a single bench to be found on the ship – there was nowhere to hang out except in your room.
We rushed onto the boat to grab a window-booth, and were joined by another Australian – Renee – who we’d met the night before. As the boat started moving, Renee and I swiftly abandoned John to mind our seats so that we could go outside and enjoy the view. John was still feeling seedy and insisted that he didn’t mind
Like everywhere else in China, the Lesser Three Gorges would have been a whole lot more beautiful if there was a sky, rather than the perpetual layer of grubby haze that looms over the country. Still, they were certainly attractive. The boat moved quite slowly and so we had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.
The Chinese guide was talking over the loudspeaker and pointing, but we didn’t know what at, at first. Soon we learned that she was talking about the hanging coffins – an unusual traditional burial practice of minority ethnic groups in the area. Like the Tana Toraja in Sumatra, Indonesia, the local people traditionally buried their dead not in the ground but in hand-carved wooden coffins on the side of the steep cliffs. Some would be placed inside natural caves, while others were balanced on ledges or on wooden stakes jammed into the cliff walls. It’s unknown how many of them were placed; if they climbed the cliffs from the water or if they were lowered down from the top of the cliffs. Regardless, I was greatly enjoying trying to spot some. Few are left: they rot away, or their support stakes do and they fall into the river. Most of the locals had binoculars, whereas I had to rely on my two eyes and the shouts of excitement around me.
We spotted a couple, and I was rather pleased. I find burial and funerary traditions fascinating, as they tell us so much about how people imagine their world and their afterlife.
We got to a point and suddenly the boat stopped and we were herded off. Finally! We were getting onto LITTLE boats! While everyone pushed and shoved trying to get onto the first two boats, we sedately lined up at the third gate to be first onto a boat. Of course some others got the idea, only instead of lining up at the next gate they stupidly thought that John, Renee and I would be willing to let them push in front of us. They were disappointed in our fast-acting elbows – we’d all learned a thing or two about queuing in China! We got on our boat first and sat right up the front so that we could see where we were going. Surprisingly they even handed out life-jackets, although I wouldn’t want to be putting them to the test if I couldn’t swim.
We had a local guide who chattered away loudly, interspersed with bouts of singing. He had a hat and jacket made of some kind of hair and wanted us to put it on to pose for photos – eventually I gave in and got up there dressed like an idiot while about thirty cameras flashed away at me. I think that between the three of us, every Chinese tourist on the boat has a photo of or with an Australian!
It was much nicer travelling down the narrower gorges by longboat – we were much closer to the water and felt much more in tune with our surroundings. On the edge of the river in one of the gorges a small boat with musicians sat, playing traditional instruments and singing. Traditional Chinese music is so different to what we’re used to hearing that I’ve no way of knowing whether they were actually any good at singing, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.
We had to get back on the big boat, and it seemed to be going incredibly slowly. By this stage we were getting hungry, having barely eaten for days due to sickness. Rather than taking us back to the ship, our boat docked at a wharf and we had to climb about 200 steps to get up to a town. We worked out eventually that we were stopping here a while for food, and followed the crowds. We got onto little electric shuttles, which took us to another section with a lot of food stalls. And most of the food looked damn delicious…with the exception of the deep-fried whole turtles, and the giant ugly fish on sticks. They had noodles, and strange egg pancake things, and – most exciting – woks full of baby potatoes fried up in spices. We both bought tubs of these for about 10 RMB each, and went back for more. They looked familiar and safe, and were unbelievably tasty. We weren’t looking to take too many risks with food at the time, and these absolutely hit the spot.
At about 7.30pm, we were getting back onto the ship and looking forward to hot showers – which, of course, never came, as about two hundred other people had the exact same idea!
The next morning was another early one – our last excursion before disembarking for good was a trip on a bright yellow dragon-style boat down Jiuwan Stream. The usual pushing and shoving ensued as we all tried to claim seats on the boats. Of course, half the passengers insisted on the use of umbrellas rather than the more practical hats, and so John and I were constantly being stabbed in the head by the pointy bits.
It was a fairly short trip down the stream by boat, wearing incredibly daggy and poorly fitting blue life jackets, before we jumped out of the boats and started walking along a wobbly floating walkway. We weren’t entirely sure what we were doing other than following the crowds. It was a little disorienting – the walkway floated on top of big plastic barrels, and John seemed to have a little more difficulty than I in remaining stable.
The walkway wound around into a narrow canyon, at which point we realised we’d be ascending an equally wobbly set of stairs to continue our adventure along the side of the cliff. We were quite excited by this – the day before we’d seen cliffside walkways and thought they’d be a little more interesting than the slowboat through parts of the gorges. The number of people necessitated a slow ascent, which was quite fine by me. I wasn’t entirely confident that the stairs could cope with the weight – they shook precariously and I crossed my fingers hoping they wouldn’t pick that moment to detach from the cliff and send us all crashing down into the water, smashing our bodies on rocks as we fell. Given I’m now writing this it’s safe to say the stairs held.
It was nice to walk along the cliff, looking down. The greenery was a nice change, and the aqua colour of the water was a pleasant change from dirty brown and garbage.
Heading back down we had to watch a terrible performance we understood none of before getting back onto the dragon boats. It may have been more enjoyable had we understood a word, although I doubt it. The quality of dancing was pretty average and it was almost embarrassing to watch. While I don’t mind a bit of kitsch, this was quite painful! Still, it’s all part of the experience and we were glad it only went for about twenty minutes.
Heading back to our ship, it was time to pack our stuff and get ready to disembark for good. We’d been told by the hostel [again, they were clearly unfamiliar with the cruises they sell] that there was only one bus that went to Yichang and it would take two hours to get from the drop-off point in Yichang to Yichang East Railway Station. Fortunately, on the boat there was one ‘director’ who spoke English and she confirmed what my research had showed – that there’s two bus options upon departure. One goes to the port in Yichang, and the other goes directly to Yichang East Railway Station, although that one you need to pay an extra 20 RMB for. Which was fine – we’d have to pay for a taxi anyway and this was easier. As we planned to stop at the Three Gorges Dam on the way, she wrote the bus number on our ticket and we were ready to get off the boat.