Bye bye Beijing
Our numbers have swelled. Eleanor and Tom are from California, taking time off their normal cruising to get an in depth view of China and Cambodia. Eleanor has the spirit of a young colt, she wants the world and she will get it. Tom has seen the world through the eyes of an artist and a businessman – they have seen it all but they have liked what they have seen, and so they are great to have along. You’re never far from a drink either, very useful for me.
Judith is almost exactly the same age as me and we seem to have kindred souls. Along with hubby Michael they remind us of London and are great foodies and adventurous travel mates.
The wall stretches out like a giant tape worm across China, over 5500 miles in length. Up close it is rugged, unyielding, stone against stone. As it snakes across the landscape towards the horizon, hugging the highest peaks, I feel I want to go along its length one day, into the unknown distance. The image I have is of a small group of horses maybe 10 riding under a moonlit sky, their hooves sparking on the uneven stone. Today, we have a choice: We can take the steeper route to the left or the more gentle climb to the right. We see hundreds of other tourists in a long line across several towers reaching to the distance. Some of us decide to take the steep route with fewer people. After about an hour we have reached the top – we feel literally and metaphorically far above the throng. We have aching limbs to show for it and I cannot breathe so well. No horses could have climbed up what we did. As I catch my breath, I can see at least 10 towers further along the wall, about 3 miles away. I try to imagine what it would have taken to build the entire length of this wall, the distance from London to Beijing as the crow flies. A builder from up North has also taken the steep route up. “I’m in the trade he says, I just don’t know how they did it.”
We have done the wall and the we have done the mall, Mawa now wants to check out the metro. Is it up to the standard of Bangalore. The signs are thankfully in Chinese and English. It is easy to navigate, clean, with relatively short waiting times. Our fellow travelers are more Coorgs from California.
But the thing that somehow moves me more is the heavenly gate. The gate itself is pastiche, designed to impress, built to dazzle with science, to show the people that the emperor, not only defines this world, but also has a map of the heavens. He knows when the seasons will come, how to appease the Gods when the rains leave the land dry. Although the granaries are now empty the birds following some atavistic memory dance around the gables, searching for grain. But the people, the old and retired, they throng here, to be close to the gate that they will pass through. Hundreds of them, thousands, sit, play cards, do tai Chi, knit, play dominoes, mahjong, strange musical instruments, chat, flirt, try and find new girlfriends and boyfriends. No one called them here, they just came to be with others just like them. I have never seen such a heart warming pleasure in being old, without cares. It takes our breath away and Judith says she wants to be here when she is old.
We fly to Yichang in the southern interior of China. Christine our local guide tells us that from here the boat will head to Chongqing where both the food and the girls are the spiciest in China. As our bus travels through a canyon of tall high rise the conversation turns to property prices, the tax the government levies on everything. Christine, clutching her (real) Gucci bag says that despite the apartments being much too expensive for people like her, with half of them lying empty the building goes on. The market is fuelled it seems by speculators who are waiting for the prices to rise. They have risen by several times in the other cities, the men with the money, they will wait, while young brides whisper to their husbands at night, so that their mother-in-laws only just hear, that it is time to move into a place of their own.
We are let off the bus at a park near the river for a walk. There is a local swim club, its members wearing orange jackets, swimming with the current. Very soon they are specks in the water, almost at the other shore. As the sun loses its heat and falls closer to the earth I see another man contemplating the river on his own.It looks like he just shaved his hair off, himself, there are tufts of hair still standing on bits of his head. A man tells me not to move, he is taking a picture of me taking a picture. He is fat and friendly – the kind of man of whom we see a lot in China, who laugh at every detail of life as if it is part of a cosmic comedy. I like him instantly. Amidst all the building, there is time for simple pleasures it seems. The river, the mighty Yangtze streams past silently bearing witness, to the millions of lives that for ages have lived on its shores.
We have ordered a spicy dinner and we get one – wiping our sweat and drinking cold water we get ready to leave. On the way to the toilets we spy for a fleeting moment the private rooms, served up with banquets, of men and women gambling at cards, Karaoke, the business of pleasure Chinese style. It is unexpected and surprising. After the obligatory shopping stop we board our boat, the Victoria Jenna. The cabins are lovely, spacious, better than we have seen on any boat so far this year. The crew, young and liveried, is there to greet us in front of the gangplank. There are 170 of them on board, we will be about 200. It is a pleasure craft. We take the lifts up to our rooms and fall down on the cool white sheets. The Jenna is waiting for more crew and will not sail tonight, but the rumble of the engine and the streaming river make us feel we are already moving. The river is covered in mist, warm mist – she will hide her sights from our prying eyes.
The main villages in this area are somewhere below us under the rush of the current. The 3 gorges dam displaced 1.3 million people, and most of the locals have been re-settled in new apartments built on the tall riverbanks. We take a bus over one of the many hundreds of bridges we will see, to the dam site. We get off our bus and newly built German escalators carry us up. It is all colossal and breaks numerous records, but from our viewpoint on the side looks less than impressive, a bit cold, like a modern port. What is impressive and what we will navigate through later that evening is the system of 5 locks that will take our ship up over 140 metres.
We have plenty of time to watch the water flow past us before we start our journey upstream. We watch Dr. Lee in the stateroom give a talk about Chinese medicine , about Yin and Yang, about the meridians that allow the flow of Qi through the body. It seems to me as if the Yangste is also one of these meridians that flow through China, the 3 gorges dam seems like an obstacle to the flow of Qi. Then Dr. Lee demonstrates the use of vacuum cup suckers, to re-invigorate the flow of blood on a hapless volunteer. The poor man cannot see the 5 red smudges left on his body. Dr. Lee strokes them, they will disappear in a week or so he smiles and tells us. The volunteer’s wife is not pleased.
We have started moving again towards the locks. It is dark, foggy and the huge gate opens in front of us like the tanker in the the Bond movie. Two barges carrying cargo enter ahead of us and the gate closes with a clang behind us. There are floating bollards to which the ship is tethered, as our lock fills with water, we are raised up incredibly quickly, 30 metres in a couple of minutes. The sound of the floating bollard as its wheels chafe against the concrete makes me think of the sound of the gates of Hell opening. I can almost touch the wall on one side of the boat. We have reached the top and we can see the trees set out under the florid orange lights at this level. In front of us, a new set of gates starts to open…
In the morning the fog clings to the river, like a translucent glue. We can see the flow of the river below us, every so often, the sun or the temperature opens the vista of the first gorge. I finally understand all those strange landscape paintings found in in every Chinese restaurant in middle England, middle France, middle America. They were all inspired by this landscape. The strange towering mountains, washed in green, veiled in fog, the dark lumbering rocks that rise out of the river – are not some imaginary Chinese creation like dragons and Xian Tings but real. It feels exceptional to be gently sailing through the gorges, as if we have entered some magical world, some Xanadu where strange beasts look at us as if we are passing prey. Every so often we see a few homesteads, bounded by small fields of corn, with a few pigs and sheep, snouts down in the mud.
We have been told about the 55 non-Han ethnic groups that live here. About the Miao where the bride is obliged to cry at her wedding, in order to have a happy married life, about the Ba who learn to sing so that they might entice their lovers with their voices between the valleys. In the evening the cabaret on the boat plays out these rituals with the waiters and waitresses dressed in beautiful silk costumes. I go on to the top deck and find myself alone, the fog allows me to see the watermark that shows how high the water will rise in winter. Looking at the strange scenery , I honestly do not know for a moment, where I am.
At night we see the lights of a huge city on the banks of the river, no one knows its name. There is a light show on several of its buildings, and the neon is reflected on the water like Las Vegas. It is distant and silent and a bit eerie. I am reminded of the scene where Kurtz’s boat turns around a bend in the river and they reach the bright lights of a US army camp.
The boat docks at China’s largest city, at 7 am in the morning. There are 33 million people living here in an area the size of Ireland. It’s not Shanghai and not Beijing. Any guesses? We are lifted out of Yangtze valley by industrial ferniculars into a foggy and damp Chongqing. This industrial city is deep in the the heart of China, and it is in the process of developing further. It already produces 3 million cars and 30 million motorcycles a year, but in a few years it will produce 30% of all the tablets and laptops in the world.
The buildings are tall and although the fog restricts our view, they reach endlessly into the horizon. It is awe-inspiring, both a bit frightening and wildly exciting for its unknowability. We are here to beat the morning rush and see the pandas. Lyang Lyang is sitting in his luxurious garden his big stomach stretched out before him, munching at some delicious bamboo shoots, he looks strangely human, like a fat man reading the newspaper before the rest of the household wakes up. Our cuddly noises do not disturb him.
We see lions, hippos, a bear with her 3 cubs, tigers, including a cub in an incubator, and then return for one last look at the pandas. The zoo is filling up so we rush to the next site on our itinerary – to see some restored family associations that helped the new migrants settle into Chongqing centuries ago. The old wood and stone houses, the square yards, the elevated thresholds talk of another era, of a time when the new migrants did not crowd the city 1500 families a day, as they do so now. Above, the roof of the main temple a building crane is already moving, the family association will it seems become an even more precious reminder of a past that was full of symbol, meaning, superstition and respect.