CRUISE THE YANGTZE RIVER GORGES BEFORE THEY VANISH FOREVER
"I'd like to get you on a slow boat to China" was a popular song in the mid twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, forget the slow boat. Thankfully, the governments of the United States and China are resolving recent altercations, so jet there before some historical sites vanish. The legendary Three Gorges of the Yangtze River are doomed to be underwater forever with the opening of the gigantic Three Gorges Dam in 2003.
A comfortable, direct flight from Los Angeles aboard a China Southern jet took us to Guangzhou Province. Following a stay in the elegant China Hotel, we flew to Chongqing to begin an eight-day Yangtze River cruise aboard the American managed Victoria Princess.
Boarding the ship, after a scary walk over water on rickety planks, we entered the Yangtze Club Room. Huge windows and comfortable seating would later prove ideal for viewing the monumental scenery of The Gorges. Fellow passengers, who spanned several generations and represented many countries, chatted. The cruise director and ship's doctor, a young man trained in both eastern and western medicine, extended greetings. An English-speaking river guide, ship's artist, Tai Chi master, and crew were introduced. Passengers were encouraged to make use of the reading room, gift shop, beauty facility, and to attend classes in silk painting, mahjong, tai chi, and acupressure.
This small ship cruises the river nine months each year, with spring and fall being the recommended seasons for travel in China although when we toured in early November, the weather was already cold. Travelers are urged to bring prescription medicines and consider purchasing additional medical insurance. Be aware that some bargain cruise prices are for a four-day segment that does not cruise the Three Gorges - the most exciting segment of the cruise.
The ship lacks elevators - a consideration for the physically challenged. Our suite's bedroom/sitting room featured carved Oriental furniture and large windows. Two bathrooms, one having only a shower over a tub, were a luxury. A color television set, that sometimes worked, usually in Chinese, and refrigerator were welcome appointments. Bottled water and hair dryers were provided. Most cabins were acceptable, if not large. Laundry service was available, but not dry-cleaning.
The Dynasty dining room offered both Asian and Western cuisine. Breakfast and luncheon buffets were bountiful. A professional food critic traveling with our group was favorably impressed. Delicacies included ham wrapped in crepe style eggs, corn soaked in soy sauce, braised cabbage, sweet and sour pork, tempura, fried dumplings, as well as hamburgers and French fries for the less adventurous. A single-sitting, family-style dinner was served efficiently as we maneuvered chopsticks NOT so efficiently. Smoking was not permitted in the dining room or cabins.
One evening after dinner, we were treated to a fashion show that included opulent, traditional kimonos, modeled by crew. Afterwards, a few passengers danced to CDs.
Three Gorges Near Sampan
The Three Gorges are the result of the Yangtze River, the longest river in China and the third longest in the world, traversing a group of mountain ranges. The region, and its' ecology, will be changed forever by Three Gorges Dam. We visited the imposing Dam site at Sandouping. Twenty-five thousand people have labored on this, the world's largest construction and hydroelectric project that has been compared to the building of the Pyramids. Thirteen cities, five-thousand-year-old archaeological digs, and well over a million people will be displaced when their world goes underwater. Many of the elderly, saddened that they must leave their ancestors' home, have already transferred remains from burial sites to higher ground. Contrary to information published by the World Commission on Dams, the Chinese government insists that the Three Gorges Dam will control killer floods, thereby outweighing the negatives.
Wushan, dating back to the latter part of the Shang dynasty (c1600-1027 BC), is the starting point for boat trips up the Daning River through the Three Little Gorges. First we visited nearby Fengdu for an exciting excursion to "hell" in the "Ghost City" and were warned to "watch out for ghosts and to be good." Frightening statues of ghosts, the devil, and monsters were straight out of Disneyland. Tragically, this 2300-year-old city, the embodiment of reincarnation and Buddhism, will disappear when the dam is completed. Posted signs, updated daily, remind all of the days remaining before the "Dam Apocalypse". After scaling six hundred stairs, we jumped into chair lifts to view the city and surrounding waters.
Cruise passengers were subjected to a hair-raising bus ride. The driver honked incessantly, as he maneuvered through unbelievably narrow, garbage-strewn streets crowded with people knitting, playing mahjong, and tending hole-in-the-wall stores. Dentist and barber offices, using foot-operated chairs, were open to the street, reinforcing our gratitude to the modern world's advances.
Comfortable, motorized sampans carried large groups through Qutang Gorge/Wu Gorge for the awesome Lesser Gorges excursion. During a four-hour trip, we consumed box lunches, as boatmen poled when necessary. Chinese tourists in nearby boats waved and blew kisses, and we reciprocated. Caught in a time warp, water buffalo and cows plow the fields, farmers haul irrigation water from the river, and women wash clothes in the river, pounding them against rocks, as did their ancestors. Young men, in underwear, braved rocks and strong currents to reach the ships to sell trinkets. The White Emperor City, famous Hanging Walkways, plank bridges suspended from holes in the side of the mountain, and The Hanging Coffins, three hundred meters above water level were wondrous sights.
After sailing through Xiling Gorge, the Princess entered the shiplock at Gezhouba Dam, and the back gates closed behind it. The crew ran a lottery to dramatize the exact moment the lock gates would open. Crowds of locals stood atop the locks, quietly watching, as excited passengers cheered, especially the winner of the lottery.
In the port of Wuhan, our party strolled to a modern, main street; recently redesigned to eliminate traffic. Clothing stores and fast food restaurants could have been located in any U.S. city. We were tempted to purchase a decorated, cashmere sweater for $70.00, as young women in impossibly high platform shoes tottered by. Crowded side streets were lined with open market stalls, men pushed wheelbarrows loaded with pigs ready for cooking, as bicycle driven rickshaws wove in and out of the throngs. Sweet, English-speaking schoolgirls befriended us when the food critic suddenly vanished. They fanned out to find and lead her back. She grumbled, "Why were you worrying? I wasn't lost; just having coffee at MacDonalds."
Yangzou's Slender West Lake
Camera buffs photographed "the most beautiful scenery in China," at Lushan Mountain, Chiang Kai-Shek's retreat, and Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), the most famous mountain in China. The trip meandered by green rice paddies, tea bushes and mid-walled villages. The itinerary included Nanjing's mausoleum and tomb of Sun Yat Sen, and 2000-year old Yangzou's Slender West Lake, home to Marco Polo in the thirteenth century.
Disembarkation occurred in Shanghai, known as "the no sleep city" and "Manhattan of China," due to a proliferation of neon, stunning skyscrapers, and vigor. Aided by high tech expansion, prosperity has met communism and changed China forever.
Visit the Jade Buddhas, especially, to view the gentle, white jade Buddha. Running out of time, we rushed to the Old Shanghai market, Bund, Chinese acrobats, pandas, and the jade carving factory. A lavender jade pendant will be a treasured reminder of "the murky mists of mysterious Shanghai."
Shanghai's Famous White Jade Buddha
We are hoping to open a fortune cookie that says, "Another trip to China is in your future." May you have the good fortune to visit China, and view The Three Gorges, before the "apocalypse." Consult your cruise specialist for further information about fares and sailing dates.
Victoria Princess Information:Victoria Cruises five ships were built in China to cruise the Yangtze River. The Victoria Princess began sailing in 1992. The 4,227-ton ship features 69 standard cabins and eight suites, accommodating 158 guests. The vessels are 286 feet in length and have been designed to exceed the most rigorous safety requirements, with full double hulls and fitted with the most up-to-date navigation equipment. The Victoria Princess was recently fully refurbished with new carpeting, new furnishings and new plumbing in stateroom bathrooms. A downstream and upstream itinerary are available. Outside suites and cabins have lower berths and a private bathroom. Standard cabins are 155 square feet with picture windows. Prices for the eight-day downstream cruise from Chongqing to Shanghai are from $1,520 per person during the high season and from $1,400 per person during the off-season with shore escursions priced at $180 per person year-round. Dining room seats 160. Tipping: It is still illegal to accept tips in China. However, on board tipping is optional, with a suggested amount of $5 to $7 per person per day. It is now customary to tip travel guides and bus drivers. Recommended dress on board is "smart casual." For Captain's Cocktail Party and Farewell Banquet a suit and tie for men and dress for ladies is suggested. For touring ports, layered clothing and shoes comfortable for stair climbing and hiking are practical. Most Chinese wear daytime clothing for evening performances.
China Southern Airlines: Tel: 1-888-338-8988
Victoria Cruises INC., Tel: 1-800-348-8084 Fax: (212) 818-9889
Shanghai Marriott Hotel Hongqiao: Tel: (86 21) 6237 6000 Fax: (86 21) 6237 6222
China Hotel, Guangzhou: Tel: 011-86-020-86666888
You will need a visa.
Photos courtesy of Jack White.
Jack and Toni White of Rancho Mirage, California have, for many years, been freelance travel writers specializing in cruise travel. Their articles have appeared in newspapers throughout the United States and Canada, including the Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, and Vancouver Sun. Prestigious Palm Springs Life magazine published their article on filming the movie Out to Sea on the Holland America Line Westerdam. They also write regularly for Mature Living and Plus, formerly Senior Life.
Jack graduated from USC as an architect. His background in architecture allows him to review, write, and produce photographs from a unique perspective. Toni attended UCLA after graduating from Hollywood High School where she had been the Feature Editor of the Hollywood High School News, where one of the writers was comedienne Carole Burnett. Toni lived abroad for many years in South America and in the UK and has a familiarity with different cultures that influences her writing. The Whites love to travel and especially want to share their passion for cruising with you.
Toni & Jack White may be reached at: JACNTONI@aol.com.
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