Friday, November 30, 2007

China Odyssey, Day 16 - Yangtze River Cruise

Day 16 - Yangtze River Cruise
Friday November 30
Daning River Canyon Excursion

We tied up to a barge last night, just downstream of the middle of the three gorges, the Wuxia Gorge. We were up at 5am to do laundry, as we have a lovely balcony to string up our clothes line. About 7 am we entered the Wuxia Gorge, said to be the most beautiful of the three. The weather is so hazy and foggy that it was difficult to see the mountain tops. As we continued upstream we saw many beautiful side canyons. Keith was up early to catch the sunrise over the Yangtze.

Sunrise over the Yangtze

After breakfast we boarded a small excursion boat that took us on a 4 hour tour of the Daning River gorge (sound familiar you Gilligan fans?). The Daning is a tributary of the Yangtze. For 90 minutes we sailed up the Daning through the Dragon Gate , Misty and Emerald Gorges. Each was more beautiful than the next. We saw troops of wild monkeys playing along the shore.

Daning River Excursion Boat

Crumbling Infrastructure over the Daning River

A New Bridge is Under Construction

Proceeding Up the Gorge

Wild Monkeys

Terrace Farming Along the Danning

These gorges are also famous for Ba caskets, which are said to be more than 3,000 years old. They are perched high up in the caves along the gorges. No one has been able to discover why the wood has not deteriorated, or how the primitive Ba were able to raise the caskets up the sheer cliffs. (Art Bell would suggest alien intervention, but Keith thinks that stuff is hooey.) The Ba people who lived in the gorge believed that the higher you placed these coffins, the more the gods would favor you.

Ba Casket

About 90 minutes into the trip, we changed boats and found ourselves sailing in a much smaller, and very tender vessel. We had a guide and a boatman with us. They took us even deeper into the narrowing gorge.

Tippy Tourboat

Before the Three Gorges Dam was built, boats in this part of the river were pulled by men called trackers. They wore no clothes because of the high humidity. Our boatman was a former tracker. On our trip he wore clothing (a ritual cape and hat). He sang several old local songs as we continued up the river. On the trip back downriver, he pulled out his cell phone to place a call. It seemed almost anachronistic.

Poster Showing Trackers Hauling Boats Up the Daning Prior to Flooding

Re-Trained Tracker

On our return trip Keith, who had been nervous about the tippiness of the boat, asked the guide, " “do these boats ever tip over?" "Oh yes"' she replied with a broad smile. All of us in the boat were glad Keith saved his question for the end of our ride.

Back on the larger excursion boat, we made the return trip to our cruise ship.

The scenery as we cruised through the rest of the Wuxia Gorge is spectacular! Although it is late fall, there is still a lot of greenery. We spotted a herd of water buffalo and goats are said to be very common along the waterway.

Keith is developing a cold. Bummer!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

China Odyssey, Day 15 - Yangtze River Cruise

Day 15 - Yangtze River Cruise
Thursday November 29
Three Gorges Dam

After dinner Wednesday we proceeded to the boat dock to board our cruise boat “Katarina” of the Victoria Cruise Lines. As we walked up the gangplank we were greeted by a Chinese band playing “Suwannee River”, or as it is commonly known “Old Folks at Home”. Our rooms are very nice. Every room has a private balcony where we can sit and watch the view, or hang our laundry. Our room is on the 2nd of 4 levels. There are no elevators. In China unless a structure is more than 10 stories tall they are not required to have an elevator. The ship can accommodate 200 passengers. On our cruise there are 50 Americans and 100 Orientals.

Victoria Katarina (in background)

There is a lot of river traffic and it is non-stop. Keith and I enjoy listening to the passing river barges, tankers and fishing boats through the night.

This cruise, and the Three Gorges Dam, is the highlight of the trip for Keith! (He who writes the daily journal entry calls the ratings for the day.)

Our room was something of a surprise, of the good kind. It is definitely more than we expected; better than Holland American. The only bummer is twin beds. They could be shoved together, but that would block the door the balcony, and then where would we hang our laundry? All room lights are controlled from the bed There is the usual doorway key holder that disables all electricity in the room, including the camera battery charger plugged into the wall outlet. We saw the bellboy use a piece of plastic in the card switch. We know that trick! There is enough room for all our suitcases (which are reproducing), TV, refrigerator, nice size closet opposite a compact but perfectly functional bathroom. There is plenty of hot water and also a sink for shaving, brushing teeth, and doing laundry.

Typical Standard Stateroom

Victoria Katarina Dining Room

Our departure city was just downstream of the first, and longest of the three gorges. We remained tied up at the dock the night of boarding, then departed early the next morning. Our first pause was to lock through the Gezhouba dam, about one quarter the size of the Three Gorges dam, and built in the late 1980’s as practice.

Early Morning in the Gezhouba Dam Lock

Exiting the Gezhouba Dam Lock

Shortly after locking through, we approached the Xiling gorge, site of the three gorges dam. The dam was built here because of a granite outcropping, which provided a secure foundation. Most of the area is limestone, which is to porous, permeable, and soft to provide a secure footing for such a gigantic structure.

Before transiting the Three Gorges dam, we docked downstream for a two hour tour of the dam. We viewed the dam and locks from strategically located viewpoints, but were not permitted on or structure, as can be done at Hoover (Boulder) Dam. The security check was a sham. Exit the bus, go through security, then back on the bus. Leave everything on the bus. What’s wrong with this picture?

Three Gorges Dam Diorama

Three Gorges Dam Fog

The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world, behind the Nile and the Amazon. Three Gorges is said to be the largest dam in the world, based on concrete volume. It impounds the third largest reservoir. Whatever the numbers, the dam is an impressive structure.

We were told the dam was built primarily for flood control, but it also generates gobs of electricity. The reservoir is about 80% filled. When filled completely, the depth of water at the foot of the dam will be 574ft. There are five locks, the uppermost of which is not yet in use because the reservoir is not full. It took us about 2 hours to lock through. Unfortunately, our photo opportunities at the dam were hampered by fog. The fog persisted off an on throughout our voyage. The fog did not diminish the awesomeness of the canyon scenery, but it did diminish the brilliance of our photos.

Three Gorges Locks Display Poster

Three Gorges Locks Foggy Reality

Three Gorges Dam Fourth Lock

Coal Is Mined Along the Yangtze

The balance of the first gorge, above the dam, is more impressive than the lower part, despite the elevated water level. Inundation has done nothing to diminish the natural beauty. There are steep, rugged mountains on both sides. This area reminds Keith of Gates of the Mountains area on the Missouri River in Montana, except for the heavily populated mountainsides. Keith would like to have seen the river before the dam was built, but boat navigation was very dangerous then, with many shoals, rapids, and rocks. It is much nicer now. Some riverside photos follow.

Yangtze Riverside Homes

Terraced Farming along the Yangtze

Steep Hillside Farming on the Yangtze

Shipbuilding on the Yangtze

Food on the boat is sort of Chinese and sort of American. The boat is owned by an American company, and caters to both western and oriental tastes. Lunch was followed by an afternoon on the internet. Internet on the boat costs 100 Yuan (about $15) to rent an air card for the entire trip. It is surprising how well the air card works in this remote (but heavily populated) area. Very slow, and somewhat glitchy, but it’s there. George (our tour guide) says China Telcom is the largest cell phone provider in the world, with over 400 million customers. Everybody seems to have cell phones, including the poorest appearing peasants.

We attended a 4:30pm lecture on the Yangtze River. It was a slick Power Point presentation by a slick young Chinese lady, who spoke barely understandable Chinglish. The lecture stressed the flood control benefits of the dam. We were told that the number of people displaced by the rising waters is less than the number killed in the disastrous 1954 and 1998 floods of the lower Yangtze. According to Wikipedia, over 33,00 people were killed in the 1954 floods.

Keith crashed late in the lecture and went up to the room for a nap before dinner. Keith is coming down with a cold. We have had only one seriously ill member of our tour group. She had a very bad stomach ache for about two days, but she is feeling better now.

6:15 pm was a captain’s reception, where we met a delightful couple from Mississippi , just north of Biloxi . He was a QC engineer at the local shipyard, so he and Keith swapped shop talk for awhile. We also spoke about how much we enjoyed the nearby Alabama Gulf Coast.

Dinner was at 7, followed by a fashion show of ancient and modern Chinese fashions, which we skipped in favor of early retirement. We were docked every night, so we didn't miss any of the spectacular scenery in the dark. We were usally rafted with othe boats. Sometimes our room was on the outside, facing the open river, and sometmes it faced a freighter. We were told to lock our balcony door the nights we faced workboats.

Typical Docking Facilities

Here are a couple of random observations. The Chinese buoy system is different from US. Forget red right returning. In China , red markers are on the south side of the river, white on the north. Both day marks and floating buoys are used. Floating buoys are placed on a small sampan, and are shaped like a pyramid about 4 feet in height. Red marks are lighted red at night, white are lighted green. Keith has seen no ranges, but then he hasn’t been looking all that carefully. Numerous small fishing boats ply the river at night with no lights. Scary!

Red to the South, White to the North Bank

A word about corruption. As observed by the recently appointed Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, corruption is one of the no. 1 problems in China . Chinese call many construction projects “tofu construction”, to denote the very poor construction quality.

Another no. 1 problem is pollution, which is everywhere. Air quality in the cities sucks. Most heating and power generation uses coal. This is one of the reasons for the strong emphasis on hydro, as a solution to coal fired power. As seen in many of our photographs, smog is everywhere in China. Keith asked our Shanghai tour guide why there isn’t more emphasis on nuclear power, to cut pollution. The guide replied that they don’t have the technology. Keith then asked why they don’t buy it from the French, who seem to have mastered nuclear power. The guide shrugged his shoulders.

Tomorrow we debark for a four hour tour of a side canyon. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

China Odyssey, Day 14 - Xian to Yichang

Day 14 - Xian-Wuhan-Yichang
Wednesday November 28
Travel Day Xian - Wuhan - Yichang

On Wednesday morning we drove from Dong Ha village to Xian Airport . The flight from Xian to Wuhan was run like a well-oiled machine. We flew on Xianmen Airlines. During the 50 minute on time flight we were served two drinks and dinner. The Chinese food was quite good.

When we went to baggage claim to retrieve our luggage, we were surprised to discover one of our suitcases had been damaged. The plastic stand on the bottom had been broken off. No problem! In a matter of ten minutes after filling out forms we had a new suitcase thanks to George, our tour guide. This was a stroke of good luck as far as Kathy was concerned, because it gives her more room to bring back more souvenirs without going over the weight limit. Her favorite souvenir so far is the pashima scarf.

It was a 4 hour bus ride from Wuhan Airport to Yichang. The highway passes through the western portion of the Yangtze River Plain. This alluvial plain stretches from the Three Gorges to the China Sea at Shanghai. With a relatively small area of about 7,000 square miles (slightly smaller than Massachusetts) the plain is home to about 440 million people (one-third of the total Chinese population). For comparison, the population of Massachusetts is about 6.4 million, with roughly similar area. Being built on alluvial soil, contributed by the Zangtze River over millions of years of flood cycles, the Yangtze River Plain is rich farm country,. While nourishing to the soil, these floods have been devastating to the population and infrastructure. Over 30 million people died in a devastating 1954 flood. Control of this devastating flooding was the primary motivation for construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

The bus ride was in some respects one of the most interesting of our tour experiences, because it gave us an excellent view of the heavily populated Chinese countryside. The highway was comparable to a US Interstate. Along the way, we saw many local farmers plowing their fields with water buffaloes. We also passed may fish ponds. We stopped at a modern looking Travel Plaza, which included a restaurant and travel store. There was little stock in the store, and less service. Sanitary facilities were tolerable. There were many trucks in the plaza, and many more lined up along the side of the highway to enter.

Typical Chinese Countryside in the Yangtze River Plain

Travel Plaza

The Truck Zone

Once we were in the city of Yichang it was slow going with heavy traffic. An interesting note; there are no seat belt laws in China restricting children. A lot of children we see in cars are riding in the front seat.

Yichang is riverside city is on the north bank of the Yangtze River, just downstream of the three gorges. Yichang is known as Electricity City, presumably because of the electrical generating capacity of the nearby Gezhouba and Three Gorges Dams.

We had a pretty good Chinese dinner at the Shangri-La Hotel in Yichang. In fact a couple of new additions were fried lotus root sandwiches and a soup likened to borsch. Both were excellent!

Tonight we board our riverboat for a cruise through the Three Gorges, including a tour of the Three Gorges Dam. Keith is anticipating this cruise with great expectations (excitement even, which is unusual for jaded Keith).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

China Odyssey, Day 13 - Xian

Day 13 – Xian
Tuesday November 27
City Wall, Jade Factory, Farmer’s Village, School Visit, and Overnight Home Stay

Our first stop this morning was the city wall of Xian. Unlike most Chinese cities, the original Xian city wall remains intact and surrounds the ancient city for 8 miles. Most city walls, including Beijing, were demolished either during the cultural revolution or the subsequent redevelopment era. The Xian is 600 years old, and in remarkable condition. There are 12 gates, and each is protected by one of the signs of the Chinese Zodiac. We entered by the Gate of the Tiger, which is the western gate. The encryption over the gate reads “Eternal Life”. As you head out of the gate, you are embarking on the beginning of the Silk Road. The silk Road is an ancient trade corridor, which winds from Xian to eastern Europe. We hope someday to tour the this corridor. However, we are concerned regarding the political stability of some of the states which it traverses, such as Afghanistan.

Western Gate of the Xian City Wall

Intrepid City Wall Defenders

Our next stop was the jade Factory. Here we learned about 3 types of jade and jadeite. Jadeite is monoclinic sodium aluminum silicate (NaAlSi2O6), often with some calcium and iron (from the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals – isn’t it wonderful traveling with a Materials Engineer!). Jadeite is the hardest mineral in the jade family. It comes in 4 colors - white, green, lavender and black. Local jade is softer comes in a variety of colors. The prices here were very high. Kathy is glad she purchased her jade at the museum shop.

Monoclinic Sodium Aluminum Silicate Craftsman

After lunch at the hotel, we set out for the farmer’s village, where we will stay overnight in the home of a local family. The village is named Dong Ha, and is about 1 hour from Xian. Dong Ha is larger than we expected for a “village”. Recall that in China, a village is any political subdivision of up to 50,000 people. Westerners would call it a large town, or a small a city.

Our first stop was a local school, which receives subsidies from out tour company, Overseas Adventure Travel. School starts at 8:00 am and goes to 11:25am. After a lunch break, school starts again at 2pm and ends at 5pm. In the morning students study Chinese literature, math and English; in the afternoon there are science, music, art and physical education classes. We arrived during afternoon recess and observed happy children playing tag, skipping rope and just running around. Many were very interested in us and came up to say ne-how (hi) and shake our hands.

We visited two classes. The first was an art class of 5th graders who were practicing paper cutting. The second class was a music class of 8 year olds who were singing and dancing. This school is a standard stop on the OAT tour circuit, and the children seemed well adapted to and well rehearsed for western visitors.

A Happy Chinese Schoolroom

Student Artist

It was a very pleasant experience but it was also very disturbing. There is no heat in the school, so students remain bundled up all day. The rooms are dark, the lighting poor, and many children were coughing. Keith used the teacher’s sanitary facility, and found it disgusting.

Teacher’s Sanitary Facility

Next we walked through the old village, which is being gradually redeveloped by the government. It is very hard to describe the abject poverty that we witnessed in the old village. We visited a household which consisted of an enclosed bedroom/living room, with attached open air sheds containing food preparation facilities. There is no indoor heating or plumbing, but there is a television. The bed is very hard, and the pillows are bricks (literally). These dwellings often house multiple generations in the single living/sleeping accommodation. It must be emphasized that these are not slums. They are traditional Chinese peasant accommodations housing respectable, hard working, but poor villagers.

The Old Village

Hand Made Coal Briquettes, Used for Cooking

Questionable Electrical Wiring Seen in the Old Village

Family Residence in the Old Village

Traditional Chinese Pillow

Outdoor Food Preparation Shed

George Demonstrates His Childhood
Early Morning Cook Stove Lighting Responsibilities

The Kitchen Sink

The adjacent new redevelopment village is much nicer, and eventually the 20 families that remain in the old village will be relocated to the new village. Despite the quantum improvements, some of the older residents cling to the traditional accommodations, and are reluctant to move.

New Village

The location of our overnight stay was a new two story home. The owner was some sort of official (we think it was Director of Tourism or some such) in the village government. The guest rooms where we slept were heated. The rest of the house, including the bathroom, was not. Bathroom facilities were Western style, including paper, which was to be deposited in an adjacent basket after use.

Food was simple, but tasty. The fried bread was excellent. The entire operation was very much like a Western bed-and-breakfast. It was not a bad experience, but we were uncomfortable, and felt it was something we could have done without. Too much cultural immersion!

Venue of Our Home Stay in the New Village

The Living Room

Our Host’s Mother Prepares Dinner

Our Home Stay Sleeping Quarters

In the morning after breakfast we went to a local painter’s studio. He was one of the men responsible for starting the peasant painter’s movement in the 1970’s. Kathy bought a painting of ducks swimming under mushrooms, which she thinks will look well in our Massachusetts Condominium.