Friday, February 26, 2010

Down the Yangtze River - Off the Beaten Path - October 2004

By John Meckley

UPDATE Feb 2010: Added photos to the article .

The timing was right. This would be our 5th trip to China. On previous trips we had checked off most of the top tier sights: Great Wall, Forbidden City, Qing Army Soldiers, Guilin and Li River cruise, Hong Kong, Shanghai, as well as Hangzhou, Suzhou, Hainan Island and Kaifeng. We were ready for the Yangtze River. Of course just getting on a regular cruise boat at Chongqing and getting off at Yichang was too easy. We wanted to blaze our own trail down the river following these goals:

  • Sleep onshore each night (Preferably in a room with a river view)
  • Cruise through each of the 3 gorges in daylight (preferably on a slow boat)
  • Avoid tourists (Chinese and Western) and tourist traps
  • Take a boat up or down Shennong Xi
  • Get a good look at the Three Gorges Dam (“Sanxia Daba” in Chinese)
The usual guide books were not much help as we planned the trip. They covered the different types of boats: those catering to western tours vs. those catering to Chinese tours. They compared traveling upstream versus traveling down stream. Winter trips were contrasted to summer trips. 2003 and 2009 water levels were explained. A few suggested overnighting in Wushan to break up the trip. However, none had comprehensive hotel, restaurant, and onward connection information for any of the on-river cities between Chongqing and Yichang.

Some of the lack of information is understandable. Southwest China is changing fast. There is a tremendous amount of road and rail construction; many new expressways and of course in 2006 one will be able to take the train to Tibet.

So after weeks of studying, emailing, and web surfing, we arrived at this tentative plan:
Legend: BD--Badong, CQ--Chongqing, FJ--Fengjie, YC—Yichang
Day 1:
Take the 7:45 AM hydrofoil (schedule posted on the web) from Chongqing directly to Fengjie, arriving at 3:00 pm the same day, 400 km downstream.
Rational: Fengjie marks the beginning of the first gorge. There is not much else to see from QC to FJ except Little Threes Gorges at Wushan, but since that’s very popular we will excurt instead on Shennong Xi.
Excursion: A trip to BaidiCheng from Fengjie is possible if the hydrofoil arrives on time in Fengjie at 3:00 pm.
Sleep: Spend the night in Fengjie

Day 2:
Plan: Take a slow Chinese tourist/cruise boat from Fengjie to Badong, going through the entire first gorge and half of the 2nd gorge.
Rational: A slow boat maximizes time in the gorges.
Excursion: If we arrive early enough we head straight up Shennong Xi by boat and spend the night in Yengduhe – or take a bus. Else we spend the night in BD and make an up-and- back trip to Yengduhe the following day.
Sleep: Badong or Yengduhe

Day 3:
Plan: Take a boat up or down Shennong Xi depending on whether we spend the night in Yengduhe or Badong.
Rational 1: If you skip San Xia (Little Three Gorges) then you must do Shennong Xi.
Take a fast boat or slow boat to Yichang depending on schedule, stopping to view the dam.
Rational 2: How can you cruise down the now controlled (not free flowing) river and not visit the largest dam in the world?
Sleep: Spend the night in Yichang.
Day 4: Catch an afternoon flight from Yichang to Shanghai.


22 Oct 2004: Arrive Chongqinq
Left Dazu on the 3:40 PM bus. Arrived in Chongqinq (CQ) about 6:00 PM. Immediately took a taxi to the Si Ping Hotel, listed in Lonely Planet and about 500 meters from the boat docks, and secured a room with a river view and bathroom for 180 Y. We then wasted about 1 hour, including switching rooms, while the attendant tried to get the water heater in our bathroom working.

Walked down to the docks. Got our bearings. Found Dock #3, the dock where our research says the 7:40 AM hydrofoil leaves. Took in the sights: the river confluence, the bridges, the lights, and the locals. Located the ticket office which is just up from the docks and bought 2 tickets @ 230 Y each for the 7:40 AM hydrofoil to FengJie (FJ).

Hired a taxi (5Y) to take us the short ride to the city center where we checked out the pedestrian mall, the People's Liberation Monument, and had a tasty meal of hot pot skewers (chuan chuan xian) at .2 Y per skewer for a total of 25 Y with yi ping pijiu (one bottle of beer). Taxied back to the hotel, showered with 52 C water, enjoyed the view of the river from the window and crashed.

People's Liberation Monument
Chongqing - China

23 Oct 2004: Chongqing to Fengjie
Got up at 6:45 AM. Checked out of the hotel. Got our deposit back. Grabbed a taxi and made it to the top of Dock #3 about 7:30. After waiting until 7:45 for the funicular to move (I was a little nervous because the boat was scheduled to leave at 7:40), we made it down to the dock, ran onto the boat, snagged a couple of 2nd class seats by a north facing window, stacked our luggage in the aisle, and settled in for the 6 hour ride to Fengjie.

The Docks at Daybreak
The Ferry Docks - Chongqing, China

Even though the Russian made Hydrofoils (fei chuan or fast boats) were built with 3 classes of seats: 1st class up front, 2nd class in the middle, and 3rd class in the back, only 1 class of ticket is sold. So you can nab any seat that is open. Of course when sitting in the best seats in “first class” you look directly at a 23 inch TV screen running the latest Jackie Chan movie or period soap opera in order to see the river through very dirty windows. At least in 2nd class the TV monitor is father away and there is room to stand in the outdoors passage between the classes to see the gorges. There is also a good view out the bath room window.

Our boat is identical to this one
Hydrofoil - Yangtze River - Sichuan, China

Underway at 7:50. After about 10 minutes I tried out some Chinese phrases on the folks sitting next to us and found out that they were from Fengjie and were headed back after a business trip to Chongqing.

I had a photocopy from Lonely Planet of a map of the Yangtze and calculated the time we will arrive at each city based on us arriving in FJ at 2:30 or 3 as our neighbors said we will. I also took notes in my journal every 15 minutes or so in order to write this report when we got back home.

Below are notes from my journal pretty much verbatim. I keep the present tense because after several attempts to rewrite in the past tense the sentences seemed to lose the sense of “moving down the river” which is present in the original notes.

8:45: Passing under the bridge at Changshou.

I just practiced my rudimentary Chinese on our aisle mates who are from FJ and say that we will arrive at 2:00 pm – a 6 hour trip.

8:55: Passing a small town that has obviously been relocated higher up the banks as the lower buildings at the river edge are abandoned.

Cell phone reception is good here.

I take a few swallows of SL’s rice soup in a can – my stomach is a bit queasy.

The river is brown, smooth, and swift. The banks are lush, green, and rocky.

The channel is marked with white reflectors that are either mounted on shore or on small decked row boats anchored in the river.

See the occasional water buffalo, empty barge headed upstream, small boat with single oarsman, and the various types of sand-making operations.

9:25: Passing a shipyard with about six barges under construction on the bank. There are no formal shipways or dry docks. This section of river has lots of visible commerce: shipyards, wharfs, and commercial river traffic.

It’s cloudy, in the 60’s outside, pleasant inside. There is a road that has been following the south bank for a while.

View from the restroom window.

9:27: We just passed under a bridge and can see the old pre-dam city on the north bank and a brand new town with an immense sloping sea wall with steps and funiculars that goes on for several kilometers on the south bank. This is Fuling. Wow! The sea wall is huge. It slopes down in 3 separate, slanted, sections down to the river.


9:30: We stop for an instant in Fuling to pick up and drop off passengers.

10:25: We stop briefly in Fengdu to pick up and drop off passengers.

Sun-Ling and I get up and stand outside to watch the scenery. It’s just as cloudy outside as in. ;-)

10:45: The north bank is covered with banana trees.

11:25: Stop at Zhongxain.

11:50: We pass several empty cruise ships headed upstream. The fu u yaun (server) is taking lunch orders.

There are young ladies, servers (fu u yuan), on the boat who will bring you hot water at no charge for your tea or quick noodles, or who will sell you noodles for 4 Y and other cheap snacks – cash only -- except during the lunch hour when you would really want 4 Y noodles because during the lunch hour they want to sell you a box lunch for 15 Y. Turns out they had a vegetable meal and SL and I shared one. You get a container of stir fried potatoes and pickled vegetables with second, equally large, container of rice. OK even though a bit pricey.

12:10: This section of the river is wide and the surface choppy. I cannot see what folks are doing on the banks.

12:50: Passing Wanxian on the north bank. A large town with lots of new buildings above the 2009 waterline including a futuristic stadium shaped like a boat and a1920’s style clock tower. We stop for drop off and pick up.

1:30: Pass YunYang on the north bank.

3:00: Arrive in Fenjie (FJ)

We disembarked and rode the funicular up for 1 Y each. Getting to top we still had to walk up many stairs to the ticket office and dock exit. We investigated the onward boat schedules and then took room 306 at the Shi Cheng Hotel for 110 Y, a discount from the listed 180 Y. Our room had TV, hot water bathroom en suite, and a river view. The Shi Cheng also has “shared bath” rooms at a lower price. It’s just a few hundred feet upriver from the ticket office.

The docks at Fengjie. You can see the funicular.

We hired a taxi, after some discussion on the fares and threats on our part to hire motorbikes, to take us to BaidiCheng, wait, and return, all for 70 Y. It’s 15 kilometer trip that could be done by local bus, but due to time constraints we opted for the taxi which turned out to be perfect because the driver was friendly, quite a talker, spoke good Mandarin, and stopped at the best spot to let me take photos of the old, now flattened, town.

The older part of Fengjie is slowly swallowed by the river.
The Old City - Fengjie, China

In Fengjie, there is a bridge across the Yangtze which is under construction and due to be completed by Chinese New Year. The driver lives on the south bank and commutes by ferry each day.

Bridge - Yangtze River - Sichuan, China

It took about 30 minutes to get to BaidiCheng. We paid 50Y to walk up the 200 or so steps to the secular temple which is only somewhat interesting; however, you get a magnificent, commanding view of the entrance to the Qutong Gorge from the top. This attraction will be an island when the river reaches the 2009 level. Took photos.

Qutang Gorge
Qutong Gorge - Yangtze River - China

We bought pieces of marble-like teardrop-shaped glass from several of the many hawkers and vendors. BaidiCheng is a major excursion for Chinese and western tour boats.

Ate a very tasty dinner at a small restaurant near the hotel for 10 Y per person: spicy tofu, lotus root, fried noodles w/egg, fresh mushrooms with ching tsai, tea and beer. Did some laundry in the bathroom sink. Decided to go to bed early, sleep in, and catch the 1:00 pm slow boat to Badong.
24 Oct 2004, Fengjie to Badong

Breakfast was 2 noodle soups for 4 Y each. We bought drinks, crackers, sunflower seeds, oranges and canned sweet-rice soup for the trip.

We purchased the lowest class boat ticket for 31 Y each on the 1:00 PM slow boat down river to Badong. This particular boat had 3 decks of cabins of various classes, several lounges, a cafeteria, and a bit of outside seating on the 2nd deck. Since we are only riding to Badong, we are “deck passengers”. No cabins for us.

Again: Directly from my journal.

1:00: We pull out on time, briefly stop at BaidiCheng to pick up several Chinese tour groups who dad been dropped off there @ 8:00 AM this morning, apparently after taking an overnight bus from Yichang. Then it’s immediately into Qutang Gorge, which is spectacular with cliffs, bare rocks, and lines of misty peaks. At one point we pass a succession of tributaries -- smaller gorges -- to the south and north.

Qutang Gorge
Qutang Gorge - Yangtze River - Sichuan, China

2:15: We are through the Qutong gorge. We sat up front on the 2nd deck for Qutang but are now squeezed in on the warmer back outdoor deck with fellow sunflower seed spitters, cross stitching old ladies, and a group of chess players. The air temperature is 64 F but it is damp and windy due to the boat speed. Fields on the south bank are terrace and planted. There are no western tourists on this boat.

3:05: Arrive in Wushan for pickupdropoff.

The Wushan Yangtze River Bridge
Yangtze River - Sichuan, China

4:15: We leave Sichuan/Chongqing and enter Hubei province. We are in the middle of the Wu Gorge and its 12 peaks. Very impressive. A Chinese tour group and guide join us on the front deck and we get a free “speech” on the self-descriptive names of 12 peaks: dragons leaping, lions climbing, etc.

The first 10 km of Wu gorge are too steep for habitation or cultivation; however, the last 10 km or so before Badong were heavily terraced – even saw a few goats.

Wu Gorge - Yangtze River - Sichuan, China

5:00: Arrive on time in Badong

The funicular was not operating so we humped it up at least 200 steps. We installed ourselves in room 8022 at the Dong Gong Hotel -- a double with river view, bath, TV, hot H2O, and free condom for 100 Y per night, negotiated down from 180. [We sent Sun-Ling ahead to find a room while I stayed with the luggage.] This hotel is located in the same building as the ticket office (boat station). The rooms looked identical to our previous hotel and we had an incredible view of the river and its tributary (Shennong Xi), the new bridge, docks, etc. Outstanding. I forgot to take a photo out the window.

Boat Terminal
Ferry Terminal - Badong, Hubei, China

Dong Gong Hotel - Badong, Hubei, China

These new boat docks are like bus stations. You can buy boat tickets, connect to local and in some cases long-distance buses, hire a taxi, obtain groceries, etc.

Dinner: a ying-yang hotpot – half spicy red, half not spicy white -- at a restaurant one block off the river. The pot has a divider with the familiar ying-yang curve, one half red and spicy, the other not. It’s 15 Y each for all you can eat plus a beer for 5 Y. Stupendous!

Strolling after dinner sat down and chatted with some friendly folks who are sitting outside a store where we had just bought some tea. The topics of conversation:

1. They believe George Bush is creating terrorists in Iraq.
2. They give us the skinny on taking the boat to YenDuHe – complete with back-of- the-napkin map. Basically, the boat to YenDuHe goes as far as possible up shennong xi without running aground, then turns around and comes back. Currently it stops before YenDuHe.
3. The give us the scoop on “seeing the dam”
a. You can see a small part of the dam from the hydrofoil (unless it is very hazing and cloudy – then you can’t see anything). The hydrofoils do not go through the locks.
b. The slow boats, which do go through the locks, take one hour to go through each lock and there are 5 locks
c. You can hire a car with a special permit to take you to view the dam.
d. There is some dispute on whether tourists can tour the power plant.

25 Oct 2004 - Badong

Excursions up ShenNong Xi:

Up at 7:30, pack, leave bags with the young lady behind the counter at hotel.

Catch the 9:00 am boat/ferry to YenDuHe at the side of the main dock. Buy tickets on the boat for 10 Y each. This boat has 2 decks with the rear half of the top deck open --a good place to observe the small gorges.

The boat makes 10 to 15 stops up river. The first directly across the river at the foot of the new bridge spanning the Yangtze. The bridge has so little traffic that I was not sure it was open. We can see it from our hotel. Last evening, I watched for almost 5 minutes and saw only foot and bicycle traffic and made the wrong assumption that it was not open for vehicular traffic.

There is one other site-seeing party beside us. A local fellow with his wife and 2 visitors.

The ferry passed through some splendid gorges then widen up and it seemed we were passing through lakes. The ferry made several stops. It serves the same purpose as a bus. At some points we could see an old foot path on the rocks above our heads.

Shen Nong Xi - Badong, China

More from the journal:

10:30: We arrive at the official tourist area (add name). Boats are returning, filled with tourists in loud orange life jackets. The boats are manned by 6 men: 5 oarsmen, and one helmsman. Some of the men are in shorts, suggesting that they actually do get into the water at some point and pull the boats upstream as shown in old photos.

Shen Nong Stream - Hubei, China

10:50: We arrive at the terminus, which is just upstream from the official tourist reception area. The ferry stops at a makeshift landing. We get off, then walk down a muddy track and ford a stream to get to a main road and the proper landing. We turn around after taking a few photos since the boat pulls out at 11:30.

11:30: Pull out on time for the trip back downstream to BaDong.

On the way upstream we had seen signs noting “entrance to the gorges”, “monkey viewing areas” and we actually see 2 monkeys in the “monkey viewing area” on the downstream ride. There is a surprising amount of wildlife on Shennong Xi: monkeys, goats, cormorants, a bright blue bird somewhat like a kingfisher, ducks, and white water birds (egrets or herons).

1:00: Arrive in Badong just in time to se the 12:30 down stream fast boat pulling out late. We pass a very large cruise boat belching black smoke and leaving a trail of black sludge floating in its wake.

Cruise Ship Pollution - Badong, Hubei, China

2:00: Waiting for the hydrofoil to Maoping, the small town located just before the dam. The tickets are 77 Y each. We buy noodles, rice soup and oranges for the trip for a total of 14 Y. The tickets we have bought do not take us all the way to Yichang, just to Maoping. Our plan is to hire a car/taxi in Maoping with the proper “pass” to take us near the dam and YiChang. We’ll see.

4:00: Arrive at Maoping on the north bank. We were told that some hydrofoils stop on the south bank. We take the funicular up to the station. After some negotiation we hire a very small van for 120 Y to take us to see the dam and the remaining 40 km to YC.

The Three Gorges Dam (Sanxia Daba) is very impressive. Our first vantage point is at an official viewing site on the north bank just west (upstream) of the locks. We see one ship, loaded with new cars, waiting to go in the locks. It is very hazy (extremely hazy) and we can only see part of the dam beyond. The driver then takes us down through a small village, past a security check point, to another official viewing point, this one at the eastern entrance to the locks below the dam. There is an information center from which it looks like one can arrange tours of the power generation facilities. We don’t have time for that, and just admire the locks – there are 2 sets of 5 locks. One set for upstream travel and one set for downstream.

Ship waiting go downstrean with the dam behind.
Three Gorges Dam - Hubei, China

The Locks
Locks - Three Gorges Dam - Hubei, China

We then drive downstream along the north bank and cross a new bridge over to the south bank were we drive upstream for a few minutes for a better look at the dam. However it is still very cloudy and we can barely make out the water gushing out of the bottom of the dam through the turbines.

View from south bank.
Three Gorges Dam - Hubei, China

6:00: We are in Yichang after a nice drive along the river including several very long tunnels and a drive through much of Yichang in rush hour traffic. The local travel agent who we called yesterday to arrange our flight is in her office and helps us change money (8.21 Y to $1 US) so we can pay her for the tickets as the nearby ATMs do not like our out-of-town Plus card. She also gets us a 40% discount a the nearby 4-star Yichang International Hotel were we spend 283 Y for room #1205 which has a river view, TV, hot water, and a free condom.

There is a Restaurant Row on the first main street away from and parallel to the river. Dinner is a large bowl of noodle soup with an egg and one large bowl of fried noodles with an egg, all for 11 Y. It’s a Muslim-owned restaurant with 4 tables. They make the noodles fresh for each bowl using the pull-and-doubleover method.

Noodle Guy - Yichang, Hubei, China

26 Oct 2005

For breakfast we strolled up and down the food stalls on Restaurant Row buying, trying and demolishing whatever looked good. Spent a total of 15Y. Took a 70Y taxi to the airport. Caught our flight which left on time at 11:40 and arrived in Shanghai at 13:00. Took the airport bus for 4 Y each to Nangjing Xi Lu. End of Yangtze River trip.
Summary: A fantastic trip Down the Yangtze River. (Expenses in Chinese Yuan: 8.3 Y = $1US in October 2004)
Expenses in Chinese Yuan (8.3 Y = $1US -- Oct 2004)
Onward Boat
70(taxi to town)
70 (taxi to airport)

Legend: BD--Badong, CQ--Chongqing, FJ--Fengjie, YC—Yichang

Click here to see all the photos on flickr. 

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