Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Slow Boat To China

After a five-hour ride on a creaky bus – the highlight of which was watching The Matrix simultaneously dubbed and subtitled in Mandarin – we set foot in Yichang, a small city by Chinese standards with only one million inhabitants. A few mundane hours later, we found ourselves ensconced in claustrophobic quarters on an undistinguished tourist ship. We wondered how we would manage to make it through the next five days.

As the next morning beckoned, we found ourselves surprisingly refreshed. Something about the cabin bedding in combination with the gentle rocking of the waves below us made for an extraordinary night’s sleep. After taking decadently-long, hot showers, we decided to approach the day with an open mind. Our newfound positive attitude was almost immediately rewarded at breakfast. We were seated at a table of friendly, gregarious fellow voyagers, including two Californians, Jackie and Grant, in China for a combination of business and pleasure, and two Germans, Werner and his 16-year-old son Gregor, stationed in Beijing for Werner’s official duties with the German Embassy.

After breakfast, we met the remaining non-tour group passengers – the Lees (Malaysian-Australians May and Kwang, Irene and Ming), Malaysian-Kiwi Jin, and Germans Manfred and Hejki. We immediately bonded with our newfound friends, sharing anecdotes about our travels and wisecracks about the current adventure. Seeing herself as the group's de facto PR spokesperson, Kaberi nicknamed the thirteen of us "The Independents." Together, we immersed ourselves into the various cruise activities, and had much fun in the process. Even Vik, not usually a social butterfly in the best of circumstances, took every opportunity to hang out with the gang (even rising early once for 7:30 am tai chi lessons).

Our first shore excursion was to see the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world on a volume basis. Touring the facility, we regretted that Kaberi's father hadn't joined us, given his 30-year career as a globetrotting hydroelectric engineer. Even in the backdrop of a gray, overcast day, the massive scale of the Three Gorges complex -- comprising ship locks, a ship elevator, 16 turbines and various tourist pavilions -- was an eye-opening testament to Chinese ambition. Our local tour guide enthusiastically touted the project's success with regard to flood-reduction, energy production and economic development while glossing over the widespread, heavy-handed relocation of local villagers and negative ecological consequences.

Once back to the ship, we gathered on the front deck to hear Curtis, our outstanding river guide, give a narrated tour of the first two gorges. We sat with the Lees and enjoyed both the company and the scenery in equal measure. Ming and Kaberi took turns venturing outside onto the gusty stern to take pictures of the mist-strewn mountains. Kwang reminisced about visiting the Yangtze River -- the third longest river in the world -- some 20 years ago when the water level was roughly 75 meters lower than the 156-meter mark of today. Curtis informed us that the river will rise further to 175 meters by 2010. The planned flooding has rendered entire communities obsolete. This notion was reinforced for us in short order when we saw a red "175" painted on the side of a modest house. In three years, that house will be entirely submerged.

The desire for a quick nap overcame the two of us, and we skipped an introductory Chinese medicine course. When we rejoined the Lees two hours later, we learned that Kwang had been the guinea pig for the acupuncturist. When we asked how he felt after the treatment, he boasted that he could now hit a golf ball 30 yards further than before. Without skipping a beat, Jin quipped that the length of Kwang's drive was now a grand total of 30 yards. With the jokes flowing in rapid-fire fashion, we lost track of time as our ship bisected the rocky formations passing by on either side.

In the evening, a family-style Chinese dinner lent itself to sharing both platters and anecdotes with Jackie, Grant, Werner and Gregor. Vik's various dietary restrictions were the source of much amusement for the table, particularly because the ship's chef seemed intent on spiting him through the liberal use of both pork and beef as spices. When a tofu dish arrived adorned with ground pork, Vik was beside himself. Nevertheless, our good mood sustained. Our group reassembled to enjoy the ship's Fashion Show, which turned out to be a cultural show showcasing music and traditional dress from various periods of Chinese history.

After breakfast the next morning, we boarded a hydrofoil to coast through the Three Lesser Gorges. While we basked on the stern, Kwang drew upon his experience as a civil engineer to explain to us the logistics of securing bridges into mountainous outcrops and the means of protecting cliffsides from erosion. After taking turns with Jackie and Grant mimicking Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic-like poses, we made our way to the Emerald Gorge. With the overcast skies beginning to clear, we were able to enjoy the various vivid shades of green in the waterways. Under the capable direction of our local guide, we were able to discern wild monkeys, mountain tracks and hanging coffins in the periphery. Afterward, we transferred to a small wooden boat to tour the Mini Three Gorges (at this point, Vik mused that Three Mediocre Gorges would be next on the itinerary). Amidst the din of tribal songs and local horns, we enjoyed the remote serenity on a more intimate scale.

In the afternoon, we partook in the ship's two planned activities, Dumpling Preparation and Mandarin 101, with the Lees. That evening, after a talent show featuring the crew, seven of us commandeered the ship lounge for karaoke purposes. May proved to be our fearless leader and, soon enough, all of us got dragged before the microphone. Kaberi's favorite memory of the evening was watching Ming and Irene lovingly dance together. She's hoping that she and Vik can follow in the Lees' footsteps.

On our final day aboard the ship, we joined our compatriates to see the ghost city of Fungdu. Vik was insistent on foregoing the apparent tourist trap, but Jackie and Grant talked him into coming. With a giggly tour guide leading us through the attraction, we found ourselves getting into the spirit in short order. We even participated in some of the silly diversions. Grant and Vik both paid to light candles and incense sticks to please the Chinese god of prosperity. The entire group cheered on Vik as he tried unsuccessfully to balance a four ton ball onto an iron point. All of us successfully performed the local "tests of character" by making our way across a small walkway representing longevity without tripping and standing one-footed on a rock for three seconds. In spite of it all, the outing proved to be a much better alternative than remaining aboard the ship.

The afternoon passed quickly with different configurations of folks hanging out together. Vik talked business with Grant while Kaberi communed with the Lees to hear about life in modern China. After dinner and drinks with our respective tablemates, we all convened in the evening to take pictures robed in the royal outfits of the Emperor and Empress. The camaraderie that we enjoyed as a group, even while participating in a variety of seemingly-ridiculous activities, was a truly affirming and enriching experience. And we were thrilled to have walked away with so many new friendships with amazing people from around the globe during our five strange and wonderful days on the Yangtze.

1 comment:

Horton said...

Marge and I have been completely engrossed in your travels since discovering your blog. It was a great addition to the wonderful rememberance of my birthday. No news since 5-3. Are you ok?