SCMP, Feb 22, 2005

A river still runs through it


Our taxi winds its way up and down the dark hills of Chongqing as a light rain falls on the city. We?re searching for the pier where we'll begin our journey down the Yangtze River, and suddenly our driver makes a sharp turn and heads toward what looks like an unlikely place to board a five-star luxury cruise liner. But a few minutes later a large, brightly lit ship appears, docked by the side of the river. A brass band strikes up as we get out, and a handful of Chongqing?s ubiquitous "stick men", or porters bamboo poles, gather around to ask if we'd like our bags carried down the final steps to the Princess Jeannie. I'm feeling like royalty.

I've been down the Yangtze twice before on local boats, which were certainly no cruise, and I don?t have my hopes set too high for this trip, but as soon as I step on board I realise this is going to be a different experience. The Princess Jeannie is one of three German-made ships that China Regal Cruises runs along the Yangtze, snapped up at bargain prices after a buyer in the flailing Soviet Union couldn?t come up with the money. The three ships were originally intended to sail the Volga, and Russian writing can be found throughout the boat. They are also the only foreign-built cruise ships in operation here, and Stan Mao, president of China Regal Cruises , says their arrival was ?a kind of revolution? for the cruise industry along the Yangtze.

The staff, many of whom come from international hotels, are savvy. Smart-looking crewmembers are waiting for us with hot towels and room keys. My cabin, a single, is small, but clean and comfortable, with a telephone, a colour satellite TV, toilet and shower stall with plenty of hot water. A large window makes it possible to watch the small towns, villages and gorges sailing past my cabin.

There's a pleasant bar at the head of the boat, just a few doors from my room that offers drinks and a broad view of the river ahead of us. This boat is going nowhere tonight. We?ll stay here docked until morning, when the final passengers board for the three-day journey.

Day 2: Getting there

I?m woken for breakfast at 7am by gentle music coming from the loudspeaker in my room. The dining room has an impressive buffet spread of Western and Chinese breakfast offerings, and at 8 am, as we eat, the boat pulls smoothly out of the berth and heads downriver. I don't notice until I look out the window and see the hills passing by. The ship features state-of-the-art engineering and stabilisers, which means almost motionless and quiet sailing. It?s cloudy outside and a small rain is falling.

The morning is laid-back, as there?s not much to see along this portion of the river. There are cooking classes during the day, and tai chi classes on the sun deck in the warmer months. I head outside and watch the scenery float by: old villages, terraced rice fields, and new concrete towns sprouting up beneath dozens of construction cranes. All along the river we?ll see large white signs with the number 175 painted on them in black marking the level that the river will rise to in 2009.

At 2pm the Princess Jeannie pulls into the old town of Fengdu for our first shore excursion. It?s more popularly known as the Ghost City , and today is little more than a pile of rubble, akin to a scene from a World War II movie. Most has already been torn down in preparation for when the water will rise to 175 metres, and workers can be seen pulling down the few remaining structures brick by brick. The odd piece of old furniture sits alone along the sidewalk. A handful of residents still holding out will be gone in a few months.

Looking across the river, we see the new, gleaming Fengdu rising on higher land. Some 1.3 million residents have been transplanted from and to similar towns all along the river.

We?re dropped off at the foot of Minshan . A chairlift here whisks visitors up to the top for 20 yuan, 'optional at traveler?s own risk and expense'. I take the road less travelled, and the steps provide a pleasant 20-minute walk up to the Temple of the God of the Underworld.

The statues here are different than what we normally see in Chinese temples. They are part-person, part-animal representations of the folks you?re likely to meet in the afterworld if you haven?t been good. It?s said that in ancient times Fengdu was a pilgrimage site for the deceased, who stumbled through here like jiangshi, or Chinese zombies, for their final judgment. After drinking the 'tea of forgetfulness,' their memories would be erased and they would return to the living.

We return to the boat in the late afternoon, and are welcomed with more hot towels. After our first day?s excursion, the shyness among the passengers is beginning to slide away and the small talk around the dinner tables is much livelier as we discuss the day?s events. I continue to be impressed by the food, although I?ve never been a big fan of hotel buffets. Stan Mao seems almost apologetic, explaining how difficult it is to keep a ship stocked with fresh ingredients. 'A five-star cruise ship is different than a five-star hotel,' he says. 'Here, we have to use a lot of frozen food.' But then he adds, smiling, 'We use no MSG.' When possible, the cooks try to serve local specialties. At breakfast we sampled pickled vegetables from Fuling, one of the cities along the river. But, there?s no reason to apologise. I?m into my second day of buffeting and not tired yet.

I?m wondering, however, if I can evade the 'Jeannie welcome show', that evening in the ballroom. But our guide, Cissy Zhang, is sweet and anxious that we all attend. Fortunately, the guides, waiters and waitresses, cooks and shipmates are the stars of the evening, putting on song and dance skits. A portly manager, transformed into a Cantopop star for the evening, turns out to be an accomplished alto saxophonist. He follows that up by playing a traditional Chinese flute. And then he knocks out the audience with his finale, belting out a popular Mandarin pop song.

Day 3: Through the Gorges

At 6.45am sharp I?m woken again by the loudspeaker, and it?s time to enjoy the highlights as 30 minutes later we enter the Qutang Gorge. Unfortunately, our boat has to sneak past some of the famous sites on the Yangtze: Shibaozhai , or Stone Treasure Fortress, Baidicheng), or White Emperor City, and the Zhang Fei Temple , which has been transplanted stone-by-stone to a place higher up on the hill. These stops are normally only made by the local boats. China Regal stops at Baidicheng when a Japanese group is on board.

We?re herded out to the lower front deck, where Cissy provides an English narration ? German, Japanese and Chinese groups gather on other decks. The morning is quite hazy, but the scenery is still beautiful. This is the shortest gorge, just 8 km long, but also the most splendid, with limestone peaks rising out of the water 1,240 m into the sky. We?re sailing directly into a fierce wind and everyone has his or her coat zipped up to the neck.

It?s time for breakfast but we barely have time to gulp down a few eggs and coffee before rushing outside again as we enter the second of the three gorges. With 12 peaks, Wu Gorge is the deepest and most mysterious. It?s named after a legendary wizard who is said to have blown a 25-km hole through the mountains to make way for the river to flow. According to another legend, the Goddess of Yaoji prevented the Gorges from flooding by killing dragons in the river. She occupies Goddess Peak. Passage will take about 90 minutes. Unfortunately, the skies are no clearer than they were earlier in the morning.

At 10.30am we leave the ship for our second excursion, a trip up the Shennong Stream , a tributary of the Yangtze. We transfer to a ferry that will take us to the Bamboo Gorge, the point where we transfer to the small peapod boats. The river is quiet and we see no people or homes on the banks of the river. It?s not surprising: the water level here rose by 60 metres when the first stage of the Three Gorges Dam was finished in 2003.

We do see some monkeys running excitedly along the cliffs, and an occasional hanging coffin of the ancient Ba people, who date back some 2,000 years. Our peapod boats are rowed upstream by four local boatmen, members of the Tujia minority that inhabit parts of Hubei and Hunan provinces.

After about an hour we hit more shallow water where there are rapids. The boat men jump into the cold waters with some lines made of a natural fibre and head for the banks. They scramble along the rocks as they pull us up the river, a re-enactment of days gone by when trackers pulled small boats through treacherous waters. The act seems a bit theatrical, and once over, we begin our trip back to the ferry.

We re-board the Princess Jeannie for a late lunch at 3pm, and have just enough time for the food to settle before entering Xiling Gorge . It takes 45 minutes to negotiate the zigzagging 75km of the longest gorge, with its craggy limestone peaks. The water is quite smooth, and it?s hard to believe that before the rocks were blasted away in the 1950s this was an area known for treacherous rapids that claimed many lives.

In the early evening, we enter the ship lock of the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest. It will take us 3? hours to get through the five-stage lock, but the staff has made it a festive occasion. As everyone crowds the sun deck to watch our huge ship cradled to the bottom of the dam, the ?Jeannie romance party? kicks off and the staff entertain us with song, dance and games as bartenders pass around cold beers.

The lock is quite wide and lit by floodlights. After we enter the first stage, the door shuts behind us, and our ship hugs the walls as we begin our descent. We slide through the first lock almost effortlessly. The water in the lock drains at a rate of five metres a minute, pulling us down like a rubber duck in a bath tub. The next forward door then opens and we are swallowed by the next lock. After doing this three more times, we finally find ourselves at the bottom of the imposing dam. The boat sails down the Yangtze a bit before laying anchor for the evening. In the morning, we?ll make an inspection of the dam from a variety of angles above it and at ground zero (see opposite page).

Day 4: The Dam

This is the final day of the trip. We wake at 7 am for a quick breakfast. Today we?ll visit the site of the Three Gorges Dam. Our trip ends as it began. After paying our tab, we disembark to the accompaniment of another brass band decked out in bright red marching outfits, similar to those worn by high school marching bands. We climb the steps to an old temple beside the river where we?re greeted by a dozen peddlers hawking everything from maps to picture books and woolen caps for infants.

The trip was comfortable and relaxing, and the food good. It would be nice to stay on to Shanghai, but this is the end of the river for us. The ship will turn back and head to Chongqing for its final cruise of the year.

Fact File

China Regal?s imported ships, which can accommodate 280 passengers, began plying the Yangtze in 1994

There?s a barbershop, beauty salon, clinic, gift shop, small gym and sauna and massage room, disco and a business centre with Internet access

Each ship has 146 cabins, 10 deluxe suites, 14 single cabins and 122 twin cabins. Five-star quality extends to bell service and room service, and the dining room serves western and Chinese food

Advanced water purification systems ensure that even tap water is potable. China Regal claims to be the only cruise company on the Yangzi that 'dares to use white towels'

Both Western and Traditional Chinese doctors are available onboard

A small library has books on the Yangtze River, including a worn copy of John Hersey's classic, A Single Pebble

Cruises can be booked in Hong Kong through Four Seas Tours Ltd

1/F., On Lok Yuen Building,

25-27A, Des Voeux Road Central,

Central, Hong Kong

Tel: (852) 2200 7947

Fax: (852) 2200 7799