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** This is a re-post from an old blog of mine**

I lucked out, the long distance bus I was traveling on was air-conditioned, with plush seats and it was clean. As we traveled down the highway from Chengdu to Chongqing, the woman beside me kept offering little snacks. She was traveling with her husband, who was quite advanced in years, they seemed to enjoy giving the only foreigner on the bus – me – snacks. I felt like a baby who gets to eat solid food for the first time; my parents beaming with pride.

This continued for some time. I had no idea what I was eating, but it was hard and bitter. I smiled back and said: xie xie, then slowly ate until we drove into a dark tunnel. Then I put the remainder in my pocket and pretended I had finished. I felt so clever, outwitting my unsuspecting seatmate, while staying the ever polite foreigner. Ten minutes later though, she nudged me again and gave me more.

My original plans upon arrival in Chengdu were to travel on to Lhasa, Tibet. However, the border was still closed to foreigners due to the conflicts there; I was forced to change my plans. I decided to take a 3-day cruise down the Yangtze River instead. I had been told from a couple of travelers that it was an experience not to be missed while in China. I spoke to the staff at the hostel I was staying in Chengdu; they made all the arrangements for me. I was to go to Chongqing by bus, then board a boat and cruise down the Yangtze River to Yichang.

Chongqing was unlike the other cities I had visited in China. Built on a hill, it offers great views of the river. I was however, a tad tired from the long hours on the bus, and the subsequent hilly walk to the cruise booking office. Although the constant staring had not bothered me too much to date, it was getting really annoying and I was getting irritable. I needed to relax and catch up on my sleep. So, when the booking agent tried to up sell me to a better boat, I took the bait and agreed. I paid an extra 1,000 RMB, but in my mind, it was well worth the money.

My 4-star cruise ship package included all meals and excursions. I was permitted to board the ship that night; although we were not sailing until the following morning. I was thrilled to walk into my cabin on the main deck and discover that I had it all to myself. My room was complete with two twin beds, a television, desk and a western style bathroom with a shower and hot water. I was elated!

I was awoken my first morning to a man announcing breakfast over the PA system. I rolled out of bed, got dressed and made my way upstairs to the dining hall. That’s where I met Tom, the cruise director and the only English-speaking staff member on board, which also made him my personal shadow. I was seated with about 6 other guests, all Chinese. They didn’t seem too thrilled at first to have a white girl at their table. They watched everything I did, what I ate, what I didn’t eat, etc. This became the norm at all the meals I had while aboard.

I soon discovered there were other foreigners on the ship; a group from Hungary and a rather large group from France. However, they kept mostly to their own groups. I kept mostly to myself, wandering around the ship, standing out on deck taking pictures or sitting in my cabin and looking out my huge window. It was peaceful and I was feeling more relaxed. At each meal Tom would sit beside me, ask questions on behalf of the other passengers and make sure I was having fun. This was to be the essence of our relationship during the cruise.

Being the only Canadian aboard and the only English speaking passenger, I was asked to join the Hungarian group for our shore excursions, where we would have an English speaking guide. I admit I felt guilty about denying them a Hungarian guide. They, however, didn’t seem to mind too much, as most of them spoke English and were able to translate for the others.

Our first stop was Fengdu, the Ghost City. Our guide explained that although Beijing is the capital of China for the living, Fengdu is the capital in China for the dead. Built on a hill, I decided to take the gondola part of the way up, as this was a group visit and I didn’t think they’d want to wait for me to reach the top. The hilltop maze of temples and statues was beautiful. After holding my breath and running up the stairs of longevity, I was more than ready to explore.

The cascades of temples were bright in colour, decorated in yellows, reds and blues. As our guide took us into the temple of the underworld, he quipped that the underworld boss was also known as Bush, he received more than a few laughs. Outside the temple, in the courtyard was a small box. inside the box was a stone. Each of us was to stand on the stone with one foot, raise the other and hold it for at least 8 seconds. We were a little over confident in our ability to do this simple task. I’m proud to say I lasted an incredible 5 seconds!

To return to the ship, I decided to walk down the mountain instead of taking the gondola. The views were breathtaking, hills were lush and green. There were trees, a few farms, absolutely pristine. As with most tourist attractions in China, the street leading to the ship was covered with shops, we were constantly harassed to purchase wares to take home.

Back on the the ship it was life as usual. The cruise director sat by my side at every meal like I was the most high maintenance guest he had. At night I sat and watched the ship’s entertainment, flanked by Chinese guests, obsessed with taking my photo.

Nearing the famous Three Gorges Dam, the upper deck was crammed with guests equipped with various cameras, and video recorders. The wind was cool, but that didn’t discourage anyone from giving up their “perfect spot”. Once again, the views were magnificent – mountains towering over the river covered with thriving green trees, the limestone rocks adding a beautiful contrast.

Later that afternoon we docked for an excursion along the Shennong River, one of several that will see devastating effects from the building of the Three Gorges Damn. Our guide explained that the water level of the river will rise another 25 metres next year. Over a million people have been displaced due to rising waters; forced to leave their homes and farms for higher ground.

We traveled in a small ferry type boat that wound its way down the small river to where we would once again dock and transfer into small wooden pods, manned by 4 trackers. At several points along our route to the pod boats, our ferry slowed down as guides pointed out hanging coffins hidden inside the cavities of the rocks. Fascinating to see these wooden boxes balancing between two long poles that stretched to either side of the cave. I can’t imagine how they were placed there, or how they managed to stay there for hundreds of years. The Shennong River was beautiful – blue skies, mountains covered with healthy green vegetation and water so calm it looked like glass.

Our trek in the little pod boats upstream was quite interesting. Twenty people were seated in each boat, manned by 4 trackers. When we reached shallow waters, these trackers hopped out of the boat, slung ropes as thick as a baseball around their shoulders, pulled us up river. Amazing to watch these men, barely clothed, wearing very thin sandals, pulling a boat full of jovial guests.

Making our way back to the ship, I was ready for a nap, not realizing how tiring the day would be. I spent the remainder of my time reading, sitting on the upper deck and taking time to write in my journal. At the water locks, I opted to not go out on deck and watch the ship pass through; I went to sleep. Enormous feats of engineering don’t interest me, but staying on the boat while everyone went to visit the Three Gorges Dam was not an option. I found out that the damn was just as I had expected, really big. The grey concrete matched well with the grey fog that shrouded the structure.

Although my cruise up the Yangtze River was more expensive than I had originally planned ($400 CND), it was a better choice than being crowded inside a cheap Chinese boat, with dirty bathrooms, having to protect my backpack and carrying around three days worth of food. The day was sunny when we arrived outside Yichang. A journey down the longest river in China is a must. The scenery, the people, and the serenity are sure to revive even the weariest traveler.

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