I decided to go on a trip down the Yangtze River after I read an article about how much will change in the region of the Three Gorges after the completion of the Three Gorges Dam. Although Yangtze River boat tours will continue after the two phases of completion of the dam, I wanted to see how it currently looks because so much will be underwater after that.
An offering in Hong Kong
My trip started in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is my favorite city in the world, and any trip I make to Asia always includes a visit to this wonderful, bustling city. A friend of mine joined me for the trip but didn’t arrive until almost the end of a week I had alone. My first priority after dropping off my luggage at the hotel was buying a newspaper and deciferring (with my basic knowledge of Chinese characters) the movie schedules. My fascination with Hong Kong started with my love for Hong Kong’s film and entertainment industry. It was my kind of vacation, filled with movie going, eating, and shopping for movie souvenirs and at street markets.
Dinner one night at the northern most end of the Temple Street night market where you can get just about anything grilled on a stick (I had chicken, eggplant with peppers, crab balls, squid legs, and taro). My friend, Kathy, who is a Hong Kong native, heard of my venturing to eat this outdoor cuisine and exclaimed, “And you’re still OK?” Knock wood, I’ve never had any problems with anything I’ve eaten in Hong Kong. That fact has made me more willing to try everything that interests me, and I’m glad I do because I’ve had some of the best meals of my life in Hong Kong.
My friend, Marsha, arrived for two days in Hong Kong before we left for Beijing and the Yangtze River cruise. As it was her first trip outside the U.S., it was fun to watch her reaction to such a different atmosphere. Jet lagged as she was, she was still raring to go, so I took her first to the beach at Shek O.
My favorite part of going to Shek O is getting there. The #9 bus from the Shau Kei Wan bus terminus on Hong Kong Island is a double decker, and luckily, we got the front seats on the top floor. Up there, there are no obstructions to your view as the bus winds wildly through the narrow hilltop roads. It’s always a jolt to the system when you hear the ‘thwaaack’ of a tree branch against the windshield. Shek O is the end of the line for the #9 bus. There is a quaint beach and a wonderful restaurant called the Shek O Thai Chinese Seafood Restaurant. We had honey squid, dragon shrimp in Portuguese sauce, pineapple fried rice, and mango with sticky rice for dessert.
From there, we took the #9 bus back to Shau Kei Wan and connected to the MTR subway to the Star Ferry Pier and caught the double decker, open top bus to Victoria Peak station. Although I’d been to Victoria Peak twice, I felt it was a must for a first timer to HK like Marsha. The tram is the best part, especially if the tram must make a stop along the way to the top because the tram car bounces to a halt as if it is attached to a huge elastic band.
On our second day, we took the Mui Wo Ferry from the Ferry Terminus next to the Star Ferry Pier to Lantau Island. I think of a visit to the Po Lin Monastery and giant bronze Buddha as a must for every visit to Hong Kong. I can never really get enough of the beauty of the Buddha and Monastery. If you enjoy a very bouncy bus ride, getting from the Mui Wo Ferry Pier to the Buddha is for you. We sat in the back seat and literally flew off our seats on several occasions due to the speed the driver took us over the less than smooth roads. At the Buddha, a man who didn’t know I knew some Cantonese asked me to take a photo of him and his family by saying, “Hello, hello” and pointing to his camera. I took the picture for him, and he thanked me by saying, “Hello, hello”. His wife scolded him in Cantonese saying he should have said, “Thank you”, but he retorted that “Hello” was all the English he knew.
That night, Kathy took us out for a hot pot dinner. The shrimp was served to us live. They just had wooden sticks stuck up the back of their tail shells and were still kicking and jumping. They started to jump off the plate and onto the table. We couldn’t put them in the broth as it had not yet come to a boil. One shrimp jumped onto the floor, and we had to have it replaced. Now that’s what I call fresh!
The next day we left for Beijing. Except for visiting Shenzhen and Guangzhou via train from Hong Kong, I’d never been to mainland China. We spotted the pop star/actress Miriam Yeung Chi Wah in Hong Kong airport before our flight. We used Dragon Air, and it was on time and comfortable. As we were arriving in Beijing, the pilot announced that the sky was very smoky over the city today. That sounded strange until we were in a cab ride to the hotel, and indeed the air everywhere was super smoky, it looked as if everyone in the city was having a barbeque that night. We realized the guide books were right when they stated that the air pollution over Beijing is very bad.
We were pleasantly surprised the next day however, when the sky was very clear and blue. Deciding to get all the most famous tourist attractions under our belts right away, we booked a tour to the Great Wall and Ming Tombs. The Peace Hotel, where we stayed, is a four star hotel that offered many amenities. The tours are on offer in the lobby, and the bus picked us up outside the front door. The tours don’t specify that they also include factory stops to persuade tourists to part with their cash, but of course they did. Our Great Wall/Ming Tombs tour included a stop at a jade and a cloisonné factory. We didn’t mind because the tour guide was well informed and answered all our questions, and the driver was very experienced in dealing with the mayhem which is Beijing traffic. That made it worthwhile. Also, the Great Wall is about an hour outside town, and I don’t know how we would have gotten there on our own.
Not being good at haggling is no problem in Beijing. All you have to do is say you don’t want what the person is selling until they name a price that is so irresistible, you jump at it. Of course this can be a curse when you really, truly don’t want an item, and the seller thinks you’re just holding out for a lower price. Souvenir sellers can be incredibly tenacious. In at least two instances, I almost bought something in order to get rid of the insistent person.
The second day in Beijing was spent seeing the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace. This tour was not as good because we were rushed through each attraction without time to really see much in order to have enough time to get us to a pearl factory and souvenir shops. We spent way too much time being persuaded to buy, buy, buy. We had a fun dinner that night at a pearl tea (tapioca tea) restaurant that offered “spicy noodles soup with chicken leg” and “deep fried chucks”. We just had to get an order of “chucks” just to see what they were. They were little seafood balls. It was just one of the amusing English misspellings that you notice throughout the city and crack up over. I think it was meant to be ‘chunks’.
For the last day in Beijing, we wondered around the city buying mega-cheap luggage, eating Beijing duck, and visiting the street markets where the food stalls offered, among other things, grasshoppers, scorpions, baby birds (heads and all), etc. grilled on a stick.
Our Yangtze River cruise was downstream from Chongqing to Wuhan. I used TravelChinaGuide.com to book the trip. The package included transportation to and from the airports before and after the cruise, plus city tours and a meal. I was very pleased with their services. We flew from Beijing via Guangzhou to Chongqing. One of Marsha’s suitcases was left behind in Beijing, and it took much negotiation to figure out how to get it back because the woman working at the lost luggage counter in Guangzhou knew no English. Once we established that we both knew Cantonese, and I got her to speak slowly enough, we determined that the suitcase could go on a direct flight from Beijing to Chongqing and meet us there. That’s what happened, thank goodness, or we’d have had to leave for the cruise without all of Marsha’s clothes.
The guide and driver took us for dinner in Chongqing and told us the history of the city. On the way to the pier after dinner, I noticed a restaurant with a large sign outside advertising “Gau Yook” (“Dog Meat”). Glad we didn’t eat there.
The cabin was small, and we did have some tension between us because of Marsha’s constant snoring, but overall the accommodations were quite nice. The boat was large, and there always seemed to be something interesting through which we were passing (all the beautiful gorges) or fun activities to watch (like kites flown off the back of the boat by the kite maker, a demonstration by the pearl jewelry makers, a demonstration by the dough doll maker, etc.), so it really didn’t get tiresome. We also booked the shortest available cruise (five days) in order to minimize the possibility of feeling trapped on the boat for too long. Each day also included a shore excursion which kept the trip exciting.
The first excursion was at a riverside town called Feng Du which had a very elaborate temple at the top of a small mountain. We were given the choice of taking a rickety ski lift up or hiking it. Marsha and I decided to stretch our legs and hike it up. The view was lovely. The best part of the excursion, however, was when I returned to the base and one of our fellow passengers, Ira, had befriended some adorable children of the town. He’d take some photos of them and wanted an address to which he could send copies, but he didn’t know any Chinese. When he enlisted my help, I kind of figured my Cantonese wouldn’t be understood in Feng Du and opted to try writing the address request in characters. They understood my characters and took my pen and paper but didn’t write anything. They seemed apprehensive. When I told a friend later on, she commented that they probably wanted to write the address in English but didn’t know how.
I then decided to ask them for their school’s address, in case they were afraid to give their home addresses to a stranger. I started to write the characters for school with about 10 children huddled around me trying to see, and right when they saw I was writing ‘school’, they happily took my paper and pen and took turns writing. When I got it back after five children took turns, all that was written was “Feng Du Middle School” in English five times. I believe they didn’t understand why I wanted an address and were just hoping for an opportunity to show what they could write in English. They were so cute. I then handed out some business cards I’d made on my computer at home. I’d read that business cards were a big deal in Beijing, but I’d had no opportunity to give one to anyone there, but in about a minute all 30 of my cards were gone as the little hands shot up, and each child wanted one.
The next day’s excursion was the best. We got into small (about enough for 10 people) boats called pea-pod boats because of their shape and get pulled by trackers (four men on the shore pulling the boat with a long rope up stream) up a small tributary of the Yangtze River. It was beautiful. We could see where the ancient Ba people once placed their dead in wooden coffins high up on the gorge walls with wooden pegs. It was really fascinating. Of course at the beginning and end there were people selling crafts to the tourists. Everything was so inexpensive, I always paid the first price I was quoted. I never had the need to bargain. The trackers got to ride in the boat with us downstream, and I was generous in tipping them because I felt guilty that they pulled our boat full of big ass tourists upstream for 45 minutes.
The third and last excursion was to see the Three Gorges Dam. It was so ugly!!! I didn’t take a single photo. The air was very unpleasant from all the rock blasting they’re doing. The camp for workers looked like a really horrible shanty town. I really hope the dam achieves its objective because there’s no turning back now. The area there is nothing but construction. The dam is enormous. I think there’s no way to save the towns and artifacts that will be underwater when the dam is done. I hope it really does help with flood control, as it’s supposed to.
Our last stop was Wuhan, where our guide, Charlie, and a driver picked us up at the pier. We arrived late due to a barge that had gotten stuck on a sand bar in the middle of the river. We’d already lunched on the boat, so Charlie took us to a temple and rock garden before we went to the airport. In order to avoid changing money and to give Charlie and the driver a nice tip, Marsha and I each gave them 100 Yuan ($12 USD) each. Charlie said it was the biggest tip he’d ever gotten and bought us both a box of the locally made rice candy as a gift.
That was my trip. I am definitely going back for another adventure in China. I’d love to see more of the city of Wuhan and to see the gigantic Buddha carved into the mountain at Leshan, among other things. I highly recommend a vacation there.
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