A River Runs Through It, China

Friday, August 7, 2009

We were beginning our river travel from the industrial city of Chongqing, the official gateway to the Yangtze River.  Getting here required several buses, though only one was actually scheduled.  Break-downs seem to be expected.  The bus driver would pull over to the side of the road, chat with Bing who would then turn to us and say “bus is broke – we wait for new bus”.  Thirty minutes later – people and luggage all transferred – he would again say “Nothing can stop us now!”  And we would continue on our journey.

Another Chinese city – another Chinese hotel – another Chinese supermarket.  We seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in supermarkets – but it was all voluntary and in some instances – the highlight of our day. It felt like the one thing we could control in a world gone crazy with Chinese stuff – the purchase of food and drink. One of our happiest moments was finding Philly Cream Cheese. That was two weeks ago and we haven’t seen it since – but it was good while it lasted!

Now we’re on the boat and they will feed us three Chinese meals a day – all included in the price of the trip.  Regardless, each of us walked out of the supermarket with $50 of food (each) – bags of food we would add to the already heavy loads we were carrying.  We are officially rebelling at having to eat noodles three times a day.

The shopping list included fresh tomato’s, cucumber’s, Happy Cow Cheese spread and fresh bread – all the fixins’ for sandwiches.  They sell small packages of oreo cookies and saltine crackers – then banana’s, apples and peaches were added.  Instant coffee and tea bags – Skippy crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jelly went into the pile. Skippy Crunchy Peanut Butter??!!  Another happy moment…

We’ll be cruising down the Yangtze River past the three gorges toward the dam and we’ll be touring this from our “luxury cruise liner” Okay, that was hard to write – but it comes directly from the promotion packet.

Three hundred steps just to get down to water level.  This photo was taken the next morning.  We had arrived at the boat the night before after 11 pm and cruised down that plank in the dark. I certainly wasn’t lugging the orange wonder down them.   Someone is always trying to sell you something or carry your luggage.  Do you know that women will walk the entire distance of the Great Wall with you – or climb up Mount Emei – just to be there in case you want to purchase a bottle of water or a fan?

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I paid someone to carry my bag down the steps.  Embarrassingly enough, the someone was a “she” and half my size.  She threw the thing right up onto her shoulders and off she went.  I told myself that I had to carry the other backpack and my purse – that’s why I couldn’t do the suitcase too. But really, I just didn’t want to lug the damn thing. Also, I’m supporting the local economy. And by the way – everyone else did the same thing.

And keep going…

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Check that out!  What would you pay at home to have someone carry your bags down that?  $20? Gladly!  She charged me 10 yuan (remember that 7 yuan = $1)  I gave her 50 yuan. We are both very happy 🙂

And onto our boat. I don’t have a picture of our boat but it is a sister to this one.

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Let’s tour the ship together – the reception area

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The Lounge

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It’s not the Queen Elizabeth II – but it floats and it sparkles at night 🙂

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The Dining Room

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Two hundred passengers: (1) American, (1) New Zealander, (7) Brits and (191) Germans

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As you can see, the boat provided western utensils – the first we’d seen since leaving Beijing – but we were so impressed with ourselves that we decided to continue using the chopsticks.

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Our very spacious room for three – Steph and Amy (in the back) shared the bed and I took the floor on top of about 8 comforters – actually incredibly comfortable!

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The big room came with a big deck – so we had cocktails at night. Thank god we brought extra food.  Can’t have cocktails without hors d’oeuvres!

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So, there we are on the Yangtze River.  One of the first things you notice as you gaze over the rail –  is its dark brown color. It’s a dirty river. The Yangtze’s brown color comes from the silt that is being carried downstream from the mountains and valleys it passes through.  But that doesn’t account for all the garbage that floats by. It’s very polluted.  The Chinese River Dolphin was declared functionally extinct in 2006 and the Chinese Alligator and the Chinese Paddlefish are currently on the critically endangered species list.  You’re thinking I must be exaggerating…

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I’m not.

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The river is almost 4000 miles long – the longest river in China and Asia, and the third-longest in the world, after the Nile in Africa and the Amazon in South America.  It is also considered to be the dividing line between north and south China.  While there are many dams along the river – the Three Gorges Dam is the most famous.  It’s the largest hydro-electric power station in the world and the largest electricity generating plant of any kind – providing power to 3% of the Chinese population.

Three Gorges Dam

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The locks

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The decision to build the dam has been deeply controversial in China and abroad.  Costing over $40 billion dollars, the project produces hydroelectricity, increases the river’s navigation capacity and reduces the potential for floods downstream by providing flood storage space.

The project management and the Chinese state media regard the project as a historic engineering, social, and economic success, a breakthrough in the design of large turbines, and a move towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the dam has also flooded archaeological and cultural sites and displaced some 1.24 million people, and is causing dramatic ecological changes, including increasing the risk of landslides.  In late 2009, the final stage of flooding will occur to raise the waters to a height of 175 meters.

To prepare for the inevitable flooding of the river, the Chinese government demolished existing cities that lay on the river and build new cities higher – high enough to survive the coming flood.

A concrete jungle of buildings – high enough to to be above the flood

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Homes that have been built above the coming water line.

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As noted before, I haven’t seen many homes. These are some of the first.

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Going through the gorges – it’s really beautiful

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We took a boat ride down one of the tributaries of the river one afternoon – very scenic! Below is the boat rental dock – where we’re heading to get our boats.

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Each boat is owned and operated by a single family.  The male members of the family operate the boat.

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It got a little competitive between boats – there was the splashing of paddles – the delivery of water

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This summer may be the very last time that tourists like me will see the gorges as they have always been.  I consider myself lucky to have been here.  They will soon be flooding the river and the gorges will disappear under that water.  This will also submerge many ancient cultural relics – possibly forever.  Human activity was recently found in the Three Gorges area dating as far back as 27 thousand years ago, initiating debate over the origin of the Chinese people.  While archeologists are working as fast as possible to uncover everything they can – they know they can’t work fast enough – that much will be lost to the water.

Sights along the river

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Our three days on the river were really fantastic.  We had a chance to spend some time together and party a little bit.  There were some interesting characters and events  on board like Martin, the Magician, and a  passenger talent contest – not a good thing.    All in all – a good time was had by all!

Another overnight train and we’re at our next destination – Yangshuo.  This train was the worst by far – there was no air conditioning at all.  It felt like we were traveling in a furnace – hot air coming at us from every direction.  It was 17 hours of what I imagine hell to actually be…

Note for those of you planning to travel with a large group – this is what it’s like.  The walking – the buses – the trains – lugging your bags yourself. Traveling by yourself or with a smaller group allows you to make choices that are not available to a larger group and to rent air conditioned cars with drivers. But I digress. On to Yangshuo. By the end of our stay in Yangshuo, we had all decided that it was the most beautiful place on our trip!

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It’s a small countryside town surrounded by limestone karsts and bordered on one side by the Li River.

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The river runs around and through the town providing opportunities for quaint rock bridges and waterside cafes.

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The town is immaculately clean with a very western flavor.  I noticed something here that I’d seen throughout China – the split pants.  I found this to be interesting.  They can be seen on very young children of ages between 1 and 4.  They can also be found on the elderly.  The pants are split from the front to the back and every once in a while – you catch a glimpse of stuff that you’d rather not see.  Now, on a small child, it’s not a big deal but with elderly gentlemen – it can make you turn your head pretty quickly.

Many parent choose not to use diapers, so the split pants on children allows them yo urinate whenever the urge hits. Again, maybe not so bad when it’s a child of 3 or 4 – but when it’s an adult… All I can say is look away – look away – quickly!

I’ve been seeing this occur all over, but the worst place was the train – the most recent train was the worst incident. In every car, there is a communal sink area where you can wash yourself, your face, brush your teeth etc…  Steph went to brush her teeth only to find a young mother and her child already there.  the mother was holding the boy under the arms and away from her – pointed right toward the sink. The baby boy was peeing all over everything – as they do – the sinks, the floor and the mirror!  Grown men don’t have great aim – this was a mess! The mother was just holding him out with her hand under his butt and the split pants wide open! Everyone waited until we’d arrived at our hotel to finish morning absolutions.

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Pretty and peaceful

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Our hotel

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Thank you to all the rock climbers who have been swarming to Yangshuo! You’ve requested western food and this wonderful little town has delivered in spades! After visiting hell on the train, it seemed only fair that we should get a little glimpse of heaven and it’s here in Yangshuo!


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Love the name of this place…

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Lucy’s Place for breakfast – western style!

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Bing went for the Chinese breakfast at the bottom – I mean how do you eat fried dumplings at 8 am?

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More local eateries


We strolled through town before heading out to the river to watch the fishermen catch fish with their cormorants. Our boat…

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And the cormorant

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The cormorant is a fascinating bird. It’s able to dive under water and stay there for a long time. While it’s under water it searches for fish. The bird then catches the fish in its beak and returns to the surface.

The bird is unable to swallow the fish as a string has been tied loosely around its neck. The fisherman, who is on a bamboo raft will lift the bird onto the raft and remove the fish and drop it into a basket. The bird then goes back into the water to try to catch more.

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Wet feet — wet wings — wet me!

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The birds are treated very well all of their lives. In the past, and in some cases still now, they are essential for catching food for their families.  We were told that while the birds are fishing, they are allowed to eat every 7th catch.  After the night’s fishing is done, he will keep them out for a while longer and let them eat every catch.

The streets of Yangshuo get busy at night with a combination of locals and tourists milling about and enjoying the scene.  They have plenty of outdoor cafe’s and cold beer and let’s not forget that pizza!  Have I mentioned yet that white wine is not something easily found in China?  While enjoying my “cheat” night at the hotel in Leshan, I ordered a bottle of white wine from the menu for our table.  Five minutes later, another tourist came to the bar to request the same thing only to be told that I had the one and only bottle in the entire hotel!

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Heck – they do a great beer – as long as you can get it “bing” which means cool.  So while it sounded a little strange, seeing as how that was our guide’s name, we became quite adept at ordering a “Beer, please, very bing”.

This was a Chinese restaurant that let you choose your own shish-ka-bob.  It might have been OK if it wasn’t 90 degrees outside – a little to warm to keep meat out in the open. Taking a pass…

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A bike ride through the countryside was on the agenda for the next day.

Bikes with baskets…my favorite kind!

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A quick stop by the side of the road for some flowers from this nice lady —

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I feel pretty – oh so pretty

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Stopping for a drink…and of course some shopping

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Sights along the way — rice fields

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Okay – who wants this job? Betting the ox didn’t raise his hoof…

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Limestone Karsts

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Limestone karsts were formed 260 million years ago when a shallow sea, running the entire length of south Asia, slowly built up deep deposits of coral and shells which were later buried under sediments washing in from the land.  Compressed deep in the earth, these calcium carbonate remains  formed limestone.  This was then thrust up above the surface when the Indian subcontinent collided with mainland Asia some 30 million years ago.

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Yangshuo is also China’s foremost venue for rock climbing.  There are currently 200 established routes listed in the guidebooks with more routes being climbed every day!

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A lovely little pit stop from drinks before we begin our climb to the moon.

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We can’t seem to go for more than about two days before we must climb up!  It’s good for the butt – right? In the distance you’ll see “the moon” and where our climb will take us.

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Daily activity checklist – hike up a hill – check.

Lunch at a place that doesn’t define the meat – check

Beer to wash away scurvy germs that might be entering your body – check

We peddled into a small village and ate at a farmer’s house.

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Parked our bikes and headed in for lunch


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Our host, the farmer, was kind enough to point out where lunch was coming from…just outside the door.

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Hey – it’s identifyable 🙂

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And so we continued our bike ride through the countryside – which if possible – is the absolute BEST way to see a place.

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Drying corn

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Farmland – some of which is rice. The plot closest to us in the picture is water chestnuts.China_A River Runs 94

Oh yea…it’s hot out there baby!

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Immediately following our day of biking was a foot and all-over body massage for a mear $20 — this is how every day should end – happy sigh.

Our last adventure in Yangshuo was to go see their famous light show – in the largest natural theater in the world!  It incorporates the natural setting of the karsts and the Lijiang River as it’s stage setting.  It also showcases the talent of the man who choreographed the opening ceremony for the olympics, ZhangYimous.   Just WOW.


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It was a beautiful…stunning…awe-inspiring show.  The night breezes cooled the temperature down to perfect and we could hear the bamboo rustling in the wind.  It was truly a WOW night.

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Our time is winding down together.  We’ll be in Hong Kong in a couple of days and that’s where we’ll say our goodbyes…hopefully after a couple of cocktails together!



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