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Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Travels in the Land of the Dragon, pt 4

Upstream to Chongqing

Moored in Shibaozhai overnight, the day was supposed to start with a walk to a temple on the waterfront.  As it was hot and humid, the decent walk followed by a climb of several flights of steep stairs inside the temple didn't have much appeal.  Jennie and I opted to chill on the sun deck for a couple of hours instead.

The photo below taken through a telephoto lens shows the temple.  It has 9 floors and was built in 1819. (without nails, I understand).  No charge for this rivetting information - pun intended!).  The wall in front of the temple was built to protect from the rise in water level above the Three Gorges Dam.  Depending on the season and water needs, the level can rise a further 10 metres or thereabouts compared with that in the photo.  Extensive walling and levees can be seen all along the Yangtze to compensate for varying water levels.

Shibaozhai Temple

Whilst we were chilling on the sundeck, we noticed that some of the town residents were doing their laundry in the traditional manner at the bottom of some steps where the ship's passengers disembarked.  We were a little puzzled as it was a good 800 metres to the start of town and presumably, the dwellings either had running water or there was a closer water source.  Most likely, it was a tradition and/or an occasion to socialise with friends.  We hoped they weren't contracted to do the passenger laundry given that the clothes were taking quite a beating on the stone steps!!

Laundry day - silt in the water replaces the need for starch

Covered scooters at the top of the steps - might take to the skies in a strong breeze!

Continuing upstream, it was interesting to see activity on the banks of the Yangtze and some of the new cities which had been built to house residents displaced by the power project.  The cities were mainly high density high rise buildings.  How the locals who previously had a more rural environment coped with the move is unknown and cultural differences between East and West might also affect perceptions.  The new cities, whilst not my style of living, looked well-designed.

One of the new cities along the Yangtze

Workboat beached at the high water mark

We couldn't tell whether the ship in the following photo was being built from scratch or whether it was being refurbished.  However, its position relative to the current water level gives some idea of the variation in levels upstream of the Three Gorges Dam. Maybe the vessel is in the backyard of someone called Noah.

We have a boat in our yard too but not not quite the size of this one!

Just outside one of the cities, I noticed 5 river cruise boats rafted up together which made for a reasonably arty shot.  They looked in poor condition so were either waiting for refurbishment or scrapping.  Amazing how the Yangtze reveals all sorts of interesting things along its length.

Anyone fancy a boat for a weekend cruise with the family and assorted hangers-on?

One careful owner, in need of a small tidy.  Offers welcomed....

Jennie, enjoying high tea on board - a genteel moment

Chongqing, where our Yangtze journey stops

Chongqing is where General "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell and Lee Chennault were based in WW2 with the Flying Tigers P40 squadron.  Famous for the sharks mouth painted on the engine cowling and much-copied later; it had personal significance for me.  This was because in my young teens, I still remember that a P40 in Flying Tigers livery was one of the first plastic model kits I ever made. How about that for a useless bit of trivia?
The photo below shows the floating pontoon which we used to disembark and begin the next stage of our vacation.  It was fascinating to watch the porters carry our luggage ashore.  Many had sturdy bamboo poles over one shoulder to which cases at each end were tied.  We had visions of both cases and porter disappearing into the water never to be seen again!

 Getting ready to disembark

Before our flight north, there was time to visit the zoo and see the world famous pandas.  Leaving early gave us time to see them before crowds built up and before it got too hot.  We were lucky to arrive at feeding time.

First time seeing one in the flesh

Awful cute and playful

Fascinating to watch them manipulate the bamboo

Gorgeous Red Panda

A White Tiger

A gaggle of 3-wheeler taxis

Beer at lunch - excellent throughout China

After lunch and before our next flight, we visited a local market which was quite a sight.  I'll spare the more squeamish readers seeing raw meat on hooks in high temperatures or live frogs waiting to be consumed.  However, the vegetables and spices made a nice display.

Veggies - some familiar, some not

Something to bring colour to your cheeks

Outside the market was a police kiosk, with what I took to be a small police electric vehicle.  Its low speed capability suggested that it was mainly used for issuing parking infringements or fining senior citizens with walking frames for impeding traffic.  Nevertheless, I took a photo as it was being diligently guarded by Officer Cat.  No doubt, produce from the market formed the remuneration for his diligence.

Police pursuit vehicle and the ever-diligent Officer Cat

We've come to the end of our Yangtze cruise and enjoyed every minute of it.  Fantastic sights, a new culture, making new friends, the exemplary service by the crew of Viking Emerald.  Hopefully, that's abundantly clear from remarks in the previous blog posts and it won't be forgotten in a hurry.  Now it's time to catch another internal flight to start the land-based part of our vacation.

Next Xi'an and the Terracotta Warriors

Monday, 17 June 2019

Travels in the Land of the Dragon, pt 3

The Three Gorges area

By way of a short introduction, the Three Gorges area covers about 240 km of spectacular limestone gorges.  The Three Gorges Dam itself became fully operational in 2011/12 and is the largest hydroelectric station in the world. Over the centuries, the Yangtze River has been subject to fairly regular severe flooding, particularly in the lower reaches.  This has caused considerable loss of life and major damage to towns and cities along the river.  The decision to build a massive dam to regulate water flow (and generate energy from a renewable resource) wasn't without controversy, particularly as it involved raising the water level upstream of the dam to some 170 metres above sea level.  The consequence was submerging numerous towns and villages as well as antiquities and adversely affecting the environment.  Relocating a substantial population would also require the construction of new cities to re-house them.  It seems to me to be a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't but being pragmatic, the Chinese went ahead which was likely the correct decision; even if not a straightforward one.  That's a difficult real world decision which had to be taken with some substantial downsides as well as positives.

Heading towards the gorges, we were taken by the elegance of the numerous bridges and here are some examples.

Elegant simplicity

Substantial cables add to the elegance

A bit of colour variation

In the lower reaches of this area, there was quite a bit of industry along the river banks.  In the example below, a shipyard blended surprisingly well with the local topography.

Industry and nature all in one photo

Entering the lock at the Gezhouba Dam

Passing through the gorges, various towns were encountered which were precariously perched on the hillside.

A picturesque town in the gorges

Installing solar panels on a riverside dwelling

Traditional junks at anchor

Hmmmm.... nothing that a small tube of silicone won't fix!

Base for the local water police

Before we reached the main dam, we were given an excellent on-board talk about its construction and operation.  I'm hesitant to help readers lose the will to live by giving too many facts prior to a few photos but here are just a few details to show the mind-bending scale of the project.

  • 1.4 million people relocated.  Submerged: 150,000 acres of land, 13 cities, 140 towns, 1500 villages, 1300 archaeological sites.
  • The dam used 27.2 million cubic metres of concrete, 463,000 tonnes of steel and moved around 103 million tonnes of earth.  The dam has an installed generating capacity of 22,500 MW

In other words, mind-blowingly BIG!

It has upstream and downstream locks for large vessels and a vertical elevator for lifting ships under 3000 tonnes, along with flotation water.

First sight of the staircase locks - each rising 22 metres - incredible!

Before passing through the locks which was to take some 3-4 hours, we were able to disembark and walk round parts of the dam which was an incredible experience.  Here are a few representative photos from the heap we took.

Entry to the locks from above

Large container ships in an upstream lock

Top end of the locks including the smaller boat elevator

Upriver side of the locks and dam.  It's 2.3km wide!

Soon, it was our turn to pass through the dam and locks.  Nothing can prepare you for the sheer scale of the project and you feel pretty insignificant when inside it. We shared each lock with several other large vessels, such was the size.  The journey started in daylight and finished in the dark which was a great way of seeing it.

Guarded by the military as a critical strategic project

Entering the lock with other large vessels

Gates opening (800 tonnes each) to allow progress

Some of the commercial vessels seemed to have whole families on board with nice decorative touches like pot plants and other items to turn it into a home.

Pot plants and what looked like herbs or vegetables being grown!

Exiting the last lock after dark

The following morning, we transferred to sampans run by locals for a trip up the Goddess Stream, a small tributary of the Yangtze. The narrow waterway and towering cliffs were overpowering to the senses - we were running out of superlatives!

Sampan on the Goddess Stream

Some impressive geological folding

Towering, vertical cliffs

Seriously steep landscape on a majestic scale

It's always a pointer with respect to how engaged people are with their surroundings - not much talking whilst we were travelling up and down Goddess Stream.  Again, words and photos can't do it justice.

I haven't commented much on shipboard life simply because of the attractions outside the vessel.  However, it can be summed up as outstanding.  Great company, magnificent food that catered for all tastes, top facilities and probably best of all, a crew who went above and beyond to ensure that we all had a great time.  I'm not really a cruise person but the balance between cruising and land-based activities was spot on.

Next - Upstream to Chongqing

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Travels in the Land of the Dragon, pt 2

Wuhan to Jingzhou and beyond

The internal flight from Shanghai to Wuhan was straightforward but our escort, Iowa, inadvertently caused much merriment.  Before the flight, he provided us with lunch boxes containing a sandwich, fruit and other things to eat on the plane .  He thought that we may not like the "warm milk" served on the plane.  A bit of head-scratching at that statement but we thought that it must be a local airline custom on short hauls.  When the food came round on the plane, it was clear that he actually meant "warm meal" and a good laugh was had by all!  He was right about the airline meal - flavoured noodles and not much else.

First stop after disembarking was to see some artifacts discovered in a tomb dating back to 433 BC. Of these, a set of 65 bells and chimes weighing 5.5 tonnes was the most spectacular.  These are shown below.

   Massive bell and chime set

After looking round the collection, we were treated to a performance on a replica set with other traditional instruments which was superb.  Here's a short video of one piece they played - you might recognise the tune.

Replica bell set

From there, it was to our ship, the Viking Emerald and shown to our nicely appointed stateroom which had an open air balcony.  Holding some 128 staterooms, it never seemed crowded.   The Yangtze is some 6300km long and although our cruise component was significantly less than that, it struck a perfect balance between water and shore-based activity.

As a bit of semi-irrelevant trivia, on arrival at Shanghai airport, the handle on my wheeled suitcase was found to be jammed in the closed position and I couldn't shift it.  Ended up walking like Quasimodo with it through the airport as I naturally had no tools to effect a fix.  However, once on board the Emerald, a quick word with one of their engineers saw it fixed and returned within 30 minutes - awesome service!

The Viking Emerald (file photo)

Casting off and leaving Wuhan late afternoon we were treated to in incredible moving light show projected onto waterfront buildings and bridges stretching several km at dusk and into full darkness.  It was mesmerising and we could have watched it for hours.

Ever-changing colours and shapes on a bridge

Waterfront lights starting to come on at dusk

This is part of the waterfront after dark.

Another of the many bridges

Wuhan waterfront

Wuhan waterfront

Wuhan waterfront

Illuminated pier of a river bridge

Meals and service on board the ship were outstanding and at dinner that evening, we were able to reconnect with two couples we had met in the hotel, Kathryn and Richard from Miami and Janet and Greg from South Dakota.  We all had the same cynical sense of humour and we were to become great friends.

Pre-dinner drinkies!  Kathryn and Richard passing by

Jennie soon discovered the on-board tailor and was promptly measured for an evening dress jacket in silk.

Instant measuring service

The result a few days later........

Hot chick in silk evening jacket

Wuhan also has a large coal-fired power plant and significant heavy industry on the outskirts.  There, pollution was noticeable as it left a burnt carbon smell in the nose and a metallic taste in the mouth.  In other locations whilst we were there, it wasn't really noticeable.  There was a haze in many places but I suspect most of this was due to humidity and temperature.

Next day, we tied up at Jingzhou and visited a school which Viking sponsors.  What an utter pleasure that turned out to be!  There was a festival going on in the school grounds to celebrate National Children's Day the following day.  There were lots of parents also present to watch the performances.  

A warm welcome from some drummers

Schoolkids taking part in the festival

Yours truly crammed into a minuscule classroom seat.  Our escort Iowa is up front.

As an ex-teacher, Jennie was in her element

Despite the obvious barriers, it's amazing how well you can communicate with a few Chinese words,hand gestures and drawings.  It was so much fun interacting with the children and one of our true highlights.  We also sang them a song in English and the same one in Chinese, having been coached by Iowa.  They probably didn't understand a single word of the Chinese version!  Returning to the ship later, a raffle was held which raised approximately US$6500 for the school!

Roadside barber and hairdressing salon

Before casting off. we also visited the ancient city walls which were well-preserved. It provided a great contrast to the rest of the modern city.

City gates

Part of wall with statue

Pretty substantial defences

Massive stone statue of poet Qu Yuan (340BC-278BC)

Travelling upstream, I was fascinated by the river traffic and the different types of boats.  Many of them seemed to be bulk carriers carrying civil construction materials for the massive projects along the Yangtze.  A lot of the boats seemed to have very little freeboard but maybe in relatively flat water, you don't need much!  Also, we both remarked on the fact that the same bulk loads were being shipped in both directions which was somewhat curious!

Certainly not a lot of freeboard here

A decent load of logs!

As a retired professional engineer (cue eye-rolling from Jennie when I mentioned what I'd seen), I  noticed something odd on quite a few vessels.  A lot of them had the bow bulb designed to reduce drag but some had strange protuberances on their anchor ports which caused their not inconsiderable anchors to drag (pun intended) through the water.  Bit of a conundrum which I may or may not follow up. Don't want to be accused of being totally anal!  Here's an example of what I saw: 

Weird bow anchor arrangement

Great scenery and attractions, interaction with the wonderful schoolchildren and logistics/engineering problems to ponder - what could be better? (said with an almost straight face).

Next - the Three Gorges area