THE ESSENCE OF CHINA: GORGING ON THE GORGES
If you have been reading the blog carefully (and if not, why not?) you will probably be gaining the impression that I was finding China a bit of a challenge and, you would be absolutely right.
Matters were not improved as we trudged aboard our boat, after our train journey, for a three night cruise up the Yangtze river and through the Three Gorges and saw our “deluxe” rooms which featured black stained carpets and a slimy wet room with a funky smell which combined diesel and urine to beguiling effect.
The Chinese government allocate different tour groups to different boats and it is, apparently, a lucky dip to decide if you get a boat which is considered good, medium or bad. Ours, by all accounts was Medium which makes me shudder to think what the bad boats may have been like. Ours was, to all intents and purposes, a floating sewer.
Added to which, I had not read my trip notes carefully enough (my fault, no one else’s) and had not remembered to purchase a towel which were not provided by the boat and so had to buy a fetching yellow one from the small shop in the lobby which was about the size of a small postage stamp.
We were the only westerners on board and we barely had time to settle in and wash some of the grime of the journey from our bodies before we were told that it was our turn to head to the small dining room.
Well, here is when things picked up remarkably.
China may well have been a challenge, but the food anywhere and everywhere, was phenomenal. Often simple and plain but, just about always, delicious. Here, on this floating prison, it was no different. The kitchen was tiny and the choice limited, but every dish that came out was fresh, fresh tasting and delicious and we devoured every mouthful almost as soon as it hit the table. Cabbage cooked quickly and doused in a savoury gravy, pork cooked until crispy and covered with sauce thick with Sichuan chilli, crunchy beans with Chinese sausage and enough rice ( at the end of the meal, of course) to make sure that we all rolled away from the table a good deal happier than when we arrived.
As I have mentioned before, the Chinese can make very interesting travelling companions, particularly the men. The spitting is one thing and here, the early evening peace and quiet was shattered at regular intervals by the impassioned hocking up of our fellow travellers. On top of which, Chinese men seem to have developed a unique way to keep their often hefty bodies cool in the blazing heat. It involves rolling up their shirts or t-shirts until they are at the level of their man boobs revealing their ample bellies to the world. They do this everywhere, on the streets, in restaurants, in shops and here on the boat, the deck looked like a colony of plump seals flopped out on the plastic chairs provided while they snorted up their guts at regular intervals.
Added to which, some of them were already using the deck as an impromptu laundromat and had fashioned rudimentary drying lines on which they were already drying a procession of greying, baggy smalls. Just imagine that on The Cunard line.
Still, with a good meal inside me and a couple of beers to follow, I began to mellow out a bit and enjoy the slow, constant movement of the boat, the chugging of the engine and the cloudless sky which was rapidly filling with stars.
Tourism for the Chinese is still a relatively new thing both for visitors from The West and particularly for visitors from within the Chinese mainland. And, watching them in action is a fascinating part of the journey in itself. The next morning we took the opportunity to join the majority of travellers on our boat as they were ferried off to experience the traditions of the local Tujia minority who make their living fishing in the shallows of the river.
For the Chinese, tourism means groups and it means being told what to do, where to go. This is taken to degrees that would make people in the West, more used to independent travel, rebel and string a tour leader up from the mast. But, for the Chinese, it is taken with an acceptance that comes, I guess from nearly a century of being told what to do and think.
So, the larger groups were split into sub groups to which were allocated a guide with a megaphone. The guide would provide a constant commentary which would also include instructions on what to photograph and when. So much of Chinese culture involves face, and the idea of unilaterally taking a picture of something or other without the instruction from a guide seems to be out of the question, just in case the picture you take was not considered worthy of the shutter click.
When I commented on the fact that every picture the locals seemed to be taking included one of their number flashing a V for victory sign against what ever the back ground was, she explained that it was more important for the Chinese to be able to show their relatives that they were happy and enjoying themselves rather than just show a picture of scenery. It makes a great deal of sense, I guess, but the constant stream of people jostling to get into prime position to flash the fingers is another challenge that you face when travelling through the country.
After a fun morning of watching local fishermen tug heavy boats over weirs and reefs, we headed back on a ferry to our boat. The Chinese travellers had been told that there was nothing of interest to photograph on the way back so all sat obediently inside as we took the opportunity to catch up on all the photographs we had not been able to take on the way out.
A free afternoon followed in which many of my companions decided to head to the games room to play Ma jong. I decided just to have some R&R and sat for three happy hours on the deck reading the book until the early evening where our boat pulled into the small town of Famjie for an extended stay.
Famjie is a remarkable place. Not that it is in anyway attractive. It is not being a monstrous concoction of concrete and iron. It is remarkable primarily for the fact that it has been entirely constructed in the last two years to replace the original town which was drowned by the raising waters caused by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.
The fact that we were deep into Sichuan province by now was in evidence thanks to the mounds of red chillies drying in the evening sun and the use of the same in just about every meal.
After a walk around a local market, I met up with my friends for supper at a small local restaurant which again, as on the boat, managed to provide an extra ordinary feast from a tiny kitchen which included a dish of candied aubergine which was one of the highlights of my trip. Deeply savoury with a sweet note and that lip numbing after taste which typifies so much Sichuan cooking.
An early night on the boat saw us all in a much fresher state and ready for the next stage of the journey which would see us take in Chungching, the third biggest city in the world (and probably the most polluted) and Chengdu, the home of the hot pot and the Sichuan Tea House.
But first, just in case we were being lulled into any false sense of complacency, another glorious piece of Chinglish to remind us that, just when you think you are getting to grips with China, it will always surprise you.