Arriving back in Kunming from the village projects in GuangXi area, we hastily made our way to the PSB office with the expectation of having to play the stupid foreigner card. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to care that we’d legged it and gave us the visa extension without any hassle. Last week we had ordered some spare parts from Paddocks and Rimmer Bros in the Uk who had kindly offered us a discount because we’re such nice guys and because we were actually stupid enough to try to drive through Tibet but the parts hadn’t arrived yet so we made plans for another departure from Kunming.
On Wednesday we flew into Chengdu which was only an hour from Kunming by plane or 16 hours by train and the flight was only 100 yuan (7 quid) more. Doesn’t make sense to me either. Are Chinese trains the slowest in the world? Answers on a postcard please.
In Chengdu we checked into a youth hostel where we shared a dorm with two girls (one irish, one dutch). Travelling isn’t all bad. In the evening we went to see a Sichuan cultural show which turned out to be pretty good. There was thankfully not a lot of Chinese opera but there was a virtuoso Erhu performance, shadow puppetry and balancing acts. The highlight of the show though was the display of the ancient art of face changing or “bianlian”. Costumed performers change masks in a split second with a wave of their hand or a flourish of their cloak. A professional can change 10 masks in 20 seconds. This was the best part of the show with performers coming right up to the audience, shaking their hands and changing masks at the same time.
The next day we went to the Chengdu Panda Beeding Centre. These disgustingly cute creatures are facing extinction for a variety of reasons, namely: they are too lazy to breed most of the time; they are badly designed anatomically i.e. the male member is too short to be very effective; they are solitary creatures who live a long distance from each other so it can be difficult for them to actually come across a mate and they only eat 15 of the 200 types of bamboo. Oh, and humans killed most of them and continue to destroy their natural habitat.
The best bit about the Panda centre was the Red Pandas. These little guys look like racoons and are much more energetic than the so-called Giant Panda (I suggest whoever named the Giant Panda looks up giant in the dictionary - I’m pretty sure it doesn’t say “not very big”). So that was it for Chengdu. A bit of culture, a few rare animals… time to sling hook. So that’s when we made the mistake. Yep. We booked a Yangzte cruise.
It sounded great. Cruise down the Yangzte - See the 3 gorges before they get submerged. See the biggest dam in the world. See the vast number of shoes floating along beside you. Unfortunately, what they didn’t tell you was that you’d be one of only a handful of non-Chinese on a boat of over 200 people. That you’d have to share a cabin with a loudly snoring fecker who actually snores continually - regardless of what position he is in. That it was nearly impossible to get the canteen to give you any food and that nobody spoke any english.
Still, we made the best of it. Friday night we boarded the boat at 8pm. Seeing that our cabin was to be shared with two pensioners, we made our way to the top deck to enjoy the view only to be told that we had to buy a 3 quid pass to get onto the top deck. How rum is that? Watching the river bank cities go by over a few beers with the other europeans was pretty good but by 11pm we were knackered and went to the cabin. That’s when the snoring began.
I’ve just had to delete a whole paragraph due to the unsavoury language it contained so suffice to say, it wasn’t a good night’s sleep and neither were the next two.
At 6am on Saturday morning we stopped at the City of Ghosts. This old town is home to many Mahayana Buddhist temples, with statues depicting the demons and horrors that await you in hell should you not be nice to your mother. The imagery was pretty cartoonish but the exterior architechure was impressive and the mist floating up from the river in the early dawn light did indeed produce a spooky effect. The rest of the day was spent eating pot-noodles, drinking beer and playing cards while the shoes drifted by. The scenery wasn’t very impressive yet as we hadn’t reached the gorges area.
By noon on Sunday we had reached the famous 3 gorges and after passing the first we were moved onto smaller boats that would better navigate the shallow waters of the 3 small gorges which were on an offshoot of the Yangzte river. The scenery here was stunning though the gorge walls were not as high as those of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Unfortuanately, it was difficult to enjoy the scenery in peace because loud speakers blared out a continual stream of female tour guide gibberish at ear splitting volume. At one point it stopped for five minutes, just long enough to build up your hopes that it was over. But no.
After a few hours on the smaller boats we were again transferred onto even smaller boats which only held 25 people so were could navigate the 3 mini gorges. This was bizarre. The boat captain talked continually and sang folk songs as we passed people installed on the cliffs playing pipes and you could get a cheesy photo of yourself wearing a hat and holding a long pole. The Chinese loved it. The Europeans were… bemused. Then it was back on the bigger boat, followed by the cruise boat again for another rum night’s sleep. In the morning we would reach the great dam.