After a the rather hectic start to China, a combination of the tour itinerary and the general approach to life of the people, a trip down the famous Yangtze River is a chance to slow down a little (that said the journeys either side of the boat were a little long and arduous).
In total we spend 3 nights aboard the less grand than it sounds Oriental Emperor, with almost the entire 150 guests being native Chinese with the exception of our tour and two germans. The genuine ‘China tourist experience’ ended up being just if not more interesting than the landscapes and vistas that we had come to see.
Nothing onboard was even slightly tailored to the western tourist. From the announcements on the loud speakers (loud, repetitive and all a bit ‘Hi-di-hi’), to the food (whole turtles and duck head curry) and the entertainment (Chinese karaoke and the very entertaining game of Mahjong), everything was wholly aimed for the local tastes. And for a group of 9 foreigners this was a wonderful chance to witness the local culture at close quarters that we wouldn’t have swapped for any of the other more glamorous but sanitised boats we saw full of tourists from overseas.
Our presence was clearly as much of a surprise to other guests as it was to the crew and more than any other time we found ourselves the focus of lots of staring and surprised looks for most of the time on the boat. Which due to the bargain nature of the tickets our tour company had purchased, we had more of than other guests as they left the boat on excursions to see temples that were not included in our booking.
That said the guidebooks say that the tours are not worth it and the real attraction is the scenery that the “wildest, wickedest river on earth” (author Pearl Buck) spends 600km of its 6000km journey winding its way through. The three gorges of the Yangtze River are considered some of the most spectacular scenery of this vast nation, even after the construction of the infamous dam that changed the water level in the area by up to 175m.
Limestone mountains covered in lush green vegetation rise up out of the water to create a captivating backdrop as our boat makes its way down river, and you can only imagine how more impressive this journey would have been at the end of the last century before the river was dammed.
As a result of the project the Chinese government had to relocate 1.3 million people impacted by the loss of their land and homes to the flooding and its this that made the decision to create the world’s largest power generation facility a controversial and often criticised one. Prior to our visit we were not fans of this project based upon how it was covered by the western media, but having spoken to locals about how the government dealt with this issues and the benefits of nearly 90TW of clean renewable power in a country in the middle of an environmental disaster we leave believing it was a tough but necessary decision.
Putting the politics and social impacts of the dam’s presence to one side, the actual physical construction is one of the great civil engineering feats of mankind. It is simply awesome.
The dam is 2.3km wide and 185m high at its crest and the base of the wall is made from 124m thick concrete. Water level changes in the river can be measured over 600km upstream from the wall and it holds a staggering 40 billion cubic metres of water, or the water demand of the UK for about 7 years (for readers from Yorkshire that is 84 years of demand)! The Yangtze is still a navigable river and the huge 5 stage ship lock system and soon to be operational ship elevator systems allow passage to around 175 ships a day. Witnessing 8 cruise ships (ours included) going through each lock simultaneously helps to give you some sort of view of just how big this thing is.
We are the last passengers to disembark, because you don’t want to put yourself in the middle of a scrum of Chinese people trying to get anywhere (you could be trampled to death at a Chinese buffet), having loved our time aboard and ready to explore more of this weird and wonderful country.