The sign above the reception desk on the boarding deck of the ferry said that we were on a designated three-star tourist boat. Once we had settled into our first class rooms and walked around a bit, it was evident that some serious bribes must have been paid for at least two of those stars. I began to understand why everyone had tried to steer us away from this mode of travel. The problem was not that there were Chinese people on the boat (they were all very friendly and kind), but that it was a run-down boat – way past its glory days of being a primary mode of transportation up and down the river. I have to say that the ferry that I had been on in 1985 was much nicer than this one. Then again, this one was probably much nicer in 1985 as well!
Our journey actually began at the long distance bus station in Yichang. Since the building of the Three Gorges Dam, ferries now set off from a pier above the dam rather than taking the time to traverse the locks. We boarded a bus in Yichang for the hour long ride to the pier above the dam. As you can imagine, the presence of two foreigners on the bus caused quite a stir among the others who had also booked passage on this boat. One ruddy-cheeked peasant in a bright yellow coat took it upon herself to make sure we got our bags put in the right place and found seats on the bus. And every so often, she would turn around and smile at us and give us the “thumbs up” sign. We knew we were in good hands.
Once on board the ferry, we filled out the FOREIGNERS ARE SLEEPING HERE TONIGHT papers required by the Public Security Bureau, collected our cabin key (after paying a 40 kuai deposit) and climbed the 2 flights of stairs to the first class deck.
At the end of our hallway was a door leading out onto a deck in the front of the boat. We bundled up and stood out there as the boat pulled away at about 6pm. Through the fog, we could barely make out the new dam. We were in the reservoir just behind it. Our first stop was a pier on the other side of the river, and then we were on our way. Unfortunately, night fell just as we were entering the gorges.
Our cabin was a little room with a private toilet. Actually, it was what some foreigners not-so-lovingly refer to as a ‘shoilet’ — a squat toilet with a shower head positioned directly above. I will admit that when I entered the cabin, I wasn’t phased by the filthy carpet or the dingy bedding; what made my heart sink was the ‘squat pot.’ With three screws firmly embedded in my right leg just below the knees, squatting is really no longer an option. I’ll spare you any more details…..
Since the cabin wasn’t heated, we pretty much put on everything we had along (well, I did anyway) before climbing under the y cotton quilt to sleep. We decided that what we were doing was camping!
For food, we had 2 options: eat the snacks we had brought along (bread, peanut butter, fruit, OREO’s, peanuts, etc.) or go down to the dining hall. We opted for the dining hall food, but preferred to eat in the cabin, so I went down to get it and bring it back. It was typical “shi-tang” (dining hall) food – heaps of rice with mysterious veggies and meat piled on – all for 10 kuai (about $1.50). I asked the ‘chef’ who was serving it up if I could take the bowl to my room. He said yes, but I’d have to leave a 10 kuai security deposit. “When you bring the bowl back, I’ll give you 10 kuai back.” Fair enough. This is what we did for supper the first night and lunch the second day. For supper that second day, we decided to actually eat in the dining hall. One nice young man who we had been chatting with earlier sat at the table with us, mostly just to watch – to see if the foreigners knew how to use chopsticks! After watching us for a few minutes, he rendered his verdict. Looking at me, he said “You use chopsticks better than she does.” “Well,” I said, “I’ve been here 28 years and she’s been here 4 days!” He chuckled.
At the other end of the hall from our cabin was the first class lounge, which we, of course, had access to since we were paying first class passengers. It’s hard to find a word to describe the décor, so I’ll just let the photo do the talking. We were particularly interested in the sofa sitting on top of the mattress!
For a couple of hours on Tuesday afternoon, we sat out on the back deck of the boat (out of the wind), pecking away on our computers and jumping up to take pictures of the interesting things we spotted along the way. Every so often the boat would pull up to a pier in a town and people would get on and off.
On the first evening, as we were sitting in our cabin reviewing old letters and photos, Noel came across this account that Esther had written of one of her boat trips up the Yangtze in 1933. Sailing from Yichang (where we had set out), she too found herself in a first class cabin on a Chinese boat, despite being warned not to take it:
“We found 2 Yangtze River steamers in and one to leave the next morning for Chungking. But this line was the one which had been having so much trouble and which we had been advised by all not to travel on. Then, too, there was a British boat coming in from Chungking and would leave for up river in a few days. This boat had British marines on as guards. This boat soon steamed in, and a good-looking boat it was. Well, which steamer now would the men choose for our travel? I was surprised when they came and said they would go on the I-Chang, the Yangtze River steamer (the Chinese boat), and they would go first class Chinese. Of course, I had the privilege of choosing anything I wished if I did not prefer to go along with them. But I had a great deal of faith in Mr. Warren’s judgment, and I felt that if they, with 5 small children, could go, why not? So I said I would go along. We moved over that same afternoon and I will say it did not seem so very pleasant in these quarters as we had had very good cabins thus far.”
When Noel read that to me, we both laughed out loud. Other accounts of other journeys that Esther made up and down the river included sleeping on the floor and being shot at by bandits.
In light of all that, our dumpy little boat seemed like a luxury cruise.