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1-3 June 2018.
We were warned that the Yangtze River is very industrialised and not to expect lush scenery or pretty natural landscapes. I forgot of course. I did a three-night Nile cruise with Intrepid Travel a couple of years back and it was one of the highlights of all my travels. I was in a kind of bliss for the whole time. There was beautiful scenery and the river was alive with farmers working on the banks, and people doing laundry and swimming in the river, and abundant birdlife, and there were stops to see glorious antiquities. Every day was a revelation. The Yangtze was not that.

Despite having read the trip notes, and despite telling myself to enjoy what IS, the Yangtze Cruise, for various reasons, was not overall a wonderful experience for me. I’m pretty sure it was for the others in my group, so you shouldn’t let my story count for too much. And it’s never a good idea to compare one experience with another, but oh so difficult not to. That would require me to have no opinions. Plus, and I think this is very important, the Nile cruise was only about half full, and at every stop there were very few tourists; not many people travel to Egypt these days. On the other hand the cruise boat on the Yangtze is fully booked with Chinese tourists, and the cruise is designed to cater to them. I’m travelling with Peter, our Chinese guide, and seven others on a three-week Intrepid tour of China. We are the only westerners on board.

As I look back at it now, reading my notes and going through my photos I wonder what my problem was. You probably will too.

We board in Chongqing, one of China’s five biggest cities and a major Yangtze River port. We’re offered a cabin upgrade if we buy a tour of the small gorges and something advertised as a “live-action” performance called War of the Three Kingdoms, or alternatively Changjiang Three Gorges Large-scaled Landscape Live-action Show. I have no idea what it is but the trailer playing on the screens in the lobby of the boat

Detail of a mural in the lobby.

sure makes it look interesting. So I buy both and get my upgrade. We’re also encouraged, again for a price, to upgrade to the VIP dining room. We all choose not to.

I’m assigned to a two-bed cabin with a small balcony and bathroom that I share with a Chinese woman. She speaks no English and I no Chinese so we quietly accommodate each other and go our own way.

It’s the first night of the cruise! I’m excited and full of expectation, and uplifted by the lights of this enormous city as we slowly pull away from the dock and head out into the black darkness.

Eventually we all go to our cabins and settle in for the night. I don’t sleep well. The bed is hard and I can feel the coils of the mattress poking through. In the middle of the night I find a spare quilt in the cupboard, double it in two, and lay it on the bed. That helps.

OMG I’ve turned into a princess! When did that happen?

Also there is a speaker in the ceiling. From my notes:
There are constant announcements in Chinese and English. It’s time to wake up (at about 6.30), it’s time for breakfast (7am), it’s time now to meet for the shore excursion, now the second call for the shore excursion, now the third call for the shore excursion. I’d like to throw a brick at it. It is so loud it sounds like someone shouting at me. I found Mary who is the cruise staff assigned to take care of us foreigners because I couldn’t turn down the volume in my cabin. After much back and forth, and checking with my roommate, she agreed to disconnect it. Yay! Everything for the Chinese passengers is repeated 5 or 6 times. Mary said if they don’t say it that often they get complaints from people who say they didn’t hear it. Now she phones me if I need to be reminded of something.

It’s a grey rainy day,

the weather matching my mood as we cruise down the river past towns,


fishing boats,

and the occasional shanty.

The sky is grey, the water is brown, and I’m just a poor miserable sod who seems to have forgotten how to enjoy the moment. It’s not helped by spending part of the afternoon watching an old grainy movie (in English for us tiny band of westerners) of the river before the Three Gorges Dam was built. It’s so dreary I nearly fall asleep, so after about half an hour I go back to my cabin to complete the process.

The Yangtze is the world’s third longest river after the Nile and the Amazon, and is China’s lifeline. Starting in the northern Tibetan highlands, and passing through eighteen provinces, it eventually empties into the East China Sea at Shanghai. Flowing eastward the river covers a distance of nearly 6500 kilometres and divides China roughly into north and south.

Later that same afternoon we attend the Captain’s welcome in the dining room

in which all the main staff are briefly introduced. This is followed by a “play” performed by some of the young women who work on the boat. From my notes: Three women with red lipstick came on stage, two of them dressed as men with very stringy beards.

Something is narrated in Chinese over the audio system. It’s just a couple of sentences. Suddenly one of the “men” dropped to the floor dead, a couple more sentences of the story and the next “man” dropped dead, then the third person (I think a woman) suddenly dropped dead. A fourth actor came on stage to help the woman and within seconds he too dropped dead, then another man (this time it was really a man playing the part) came on stage and said a couple of sentences, and that was it. I have no idea what it was about but when the fourth person dropped dead in the space of less than five minutes I laughed, which was very rude of me since no one else laughed so I guess it wasn’t meant to be funny.

The food! The food is plentiful, varied and fabulous! Lunch -salad, rice, noodles, lots of green veg, several meat dishes, small very yummy seafood dumplings, dessert cakes and caramel flan.

And that night we dock (somewhere) and Thea and I go to the Changjiang Three Gorges Large-scaled Landscape Live-action Show, which is so spectacular I’ve run out of superlatives, so extraordinary it deserves its own post.

At about eleven the next morning we approach the first of the three gorges

and everyone is on deck for the show.

The landscape is more mountainous now

and we pass some small farms and villages.

Even so this river has been completely industrialised. There is no life left on it, and no heart. I never see a single bird.

The boat docks and we transfer to a smaller boat, which takes us into a tributary and deeper into the mountainous landscape. After ninety minutes we transfer to a motorised sampan

to travel for about forty minutes down even narrower waters,

passing fishermen

and a traditional boat that Peter said was probably put there by the government for the tourists.

The sampan boatman dresses in the traditional hat and cape of the early indigenous people of the area and shows us how they travelled the river before the invention of engines. Hans has a go,

and Bhakti poses for us in fine style.

But it’s not real. None of it is real. None of it is authentic. It’s a show put on for tourists and this is really brought home to me during the ninety minute boat ride that gets us to the sampans, and then back again to the cruise boat.

It should have been, it could have been, a gentle, even peaceful cruise down an ever-narrowing river between higher and higher cliffs; quite spectacular really despite the profoundly changed scenery due to the Three Gorges Dam, and despite that there are no longer any natural river banks. What we get is the high-pitched voice of a woman speaking, well really I should say shouting, pleading, harassing through speakers turned so loud that her already harsh voice is distorted. She is screaming at us the whole way there and back again. The speakers are at full volume and she talks in a monotone literally non-stop. Peter tells me she’s advertising things that are for sale on the boat. It seems impossible to get away from it. I try inside, I try out on deck. Eventually I find myself a small space outside the men’s toilet near the engines. The constant loud drone of the engines is preferable to the shrieking voice despite the smell of the toilet, the smell of diesel, and the smell of men smoking nearby.

Back on board the cruise boat I go down to the deck where I can get to the very front of the ship and sit there on the wide “bench” with my feet hanging over the edge, my arms draped over the railing, watching the water flow by, happy, at peace. Of course it doesn’t last. One of the crew sees me and tells me I can’t sit there because it’s too dangerous.

Looking back as evening falls I take this shot.

And looking back about a year later I see a beauty that I was unable to appreciate at the time.

That night is the Captain’s farewell dinner. It’s a banquet instead of the usual buffet, where dish after dish is brought to the table. Every dish is delicious and we are all groaning with full bellies and contentment. The meal is followed by a concert put on by the staff with the lovely Mary as MC.

There are several performances including a funny skit, a singer who has a good voice but is too shy to face us, and a game of musical chairs among volunteers from the audience. Tim is one of the volunteers, and nearly wins.

The highlight for me is all the girls. There are six of them. They work on the boat, probably in the kitchen or cleaning the rooms. In their spare time they dance. They entertain us first with a Latin flavoured dance, then Thai

ethnic Chinese


and ethnic Chinese again.

They are not polished, and you can see the concentration on their faces, but I find them sweet and delightful, an unexpected dessert.

We leave the boat the next morning for a tour of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest ever construction scheme begun in 1971 and completed in 2009.

This is not my kind of attraction at all, but I must admit to some awe at the sheer size and audacity of it. It raised the river by 175 metres (574ft) submerging towns and villages, and is the world’s biggest electricity-generating plant.

It’s the end of the cruise. We take a bus, then another bus, to the railway station for our third overnight train on our long journey from Beijing to Hong Kong.

Next post: Changjiang Three Gorges Large-scaled Landscape Live-action Show: War of the Three Kingdoms – a cast of hundreds/thirty horses and skilled horsemen/laser and light shows/maidens descending from on high/rotating seating/and much more.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.