The Four Hour City

The last stop for our Yangtze river cruise was the city of Chongqing (重庆).

According to our Chinese travel guide, Chongqing is famous for three things:

1) The night time scenery (ok…..)
2) The hottest hot pot in the entire world
3) The prettiest girls in China (a city that claims, I shit you not, you can see a Bridgette Lin every three steps and a Maggie Cheung every five steps) (三步一个林青霞,五步一个张曼玉)

In spite of Jo’s whining that she would need to survive on a diet of bread and fruits for the next few days, I was pretty excited stepping off the ship (see point 3). I wanted to check into a hostel immediately and start exploring the presumably lovely city of Chongqing (again, see point 3)

We first realized that all was not quite right in Chongqing as we were making our way to the hostel recommended by Lonely Planet. We know that Chongqing is VERY hilly and because of the mountains surrounding the city, it is almost perpetually shrouded in fog, mist and… pollutants.

We’ve read about this, yet somehow I don’t think we truly appreciated how potent a combination these two factors make. We know we’ve been pampering ourselves silly the past week or so, but panting madly after a flight of stairs is just… wrong. It doesn’t help that the phlegm we coughed out was kind of grayish. (I know, TMI, but I’m trying to make a point here).

(Un?)fortunately, the hostel (which we did not pre-book) was out of rooms. There were dingy dorms available, but I figured that after a week of cruising, we really need to ease slowly into the whole “roughing it out” routine again. When I say “we”, of course I meant “I”.

The next available hostel is a dizzying 400 metres climb up a hill.

Believe it or not, at this point, we were still willing to give Chongqing a chance, but the straw that finally broke the proverbial camel’s back was a billboard we saw on the way to the other hostel.

It read (in bold) “Chongqing: A Liveable City”.

At first, we thought it was one of those things that got “lost in translation”, but the Chinese sign actually read: “重庆:宜居的都市“ (literally, Chongqing: A Liveable City)

I think you are pretty much scraping the bottom of the barrel when the best adjective you can think of to promote your city is “liveable”. Note to the governor of Chongqing: you really should think about sacking your tourism department.

We booked the first train out of the city.

And that’s the story of how we went in and out of a city in four hours.

We did not even stop to take a photo.

Ok, we took one. The famous night scene of Chongqing which we took from the Queen Victoria the night before.

I know... not that great a photo. We really thought we would be able to take more photos once we get into the city

But what about point 3???

Well, let’s just say that I left the city WILLINGLY.

If you’re going through Hell, keep going

Excursions are funny things.

If you were to mention school excursions, most people would be able to conjure up fond childhood memories of giving hi-fives to anthropomorphic rodents/ducks/dogs in a park and stuffing their faces with all sorts of sugary junk.

If you are a child of the 80s living in Singapore (like me), there is a very high chance that the first images that slip into your mind would probably be of rats chewing on the innards of a disembowelled prisoner or watching someone getting their faces (and other less savoury body parts) cut off by demons.

Yes. Demons.

You see, we have a “theme park” in Singapore called Haw Par Villa. To be honest, Haw Par Villa is more of a sculpture garden than a theme park.  The former residence of two Singaporean tycoons, it is now a large area littered with statues which are supposed to graphically illustrate significant scenes from Chinese mythology and other stories of virtue. To a eight year old me, the only thing it graphically displayed was the content of my bladder on my bed at night.

The last excursion in the itinerary for our Yangtze River Cruise was to a place called Fengdu Ghost City (丰都鬼城). It is billed as a “Necropolis leading into the Gates of Hell where ghosts and demons abound”.

I was suitably excited. Jo… decidedly less so.

The Queen Victoria dropped us at a pier leading to the Ghost City. A county within the municipality of Chongqing, Fengdu (丰都县) and much of the Ghost City had been submerged since the completion of the Three Gorges project.

The Queen Victoria and us

From the pier, we took a leisurely golf cart ride (400 metres) up a hill (did I mention we’ve been travelling in style since we got on the cruise ship?) to the Gates of Hell. Along the way, we passed this weird structure that had been carved into the side of a hill.

The King of Hell (阎罗王) would flip in his... ermm... grave...

It’s supposed to be an uncompleted five star hotel (really!) carved in the likeness of (why not?) the King of Hell (阎罗王). The concept is that the King of Hell stands watch over all of Fengdu….

We passed by a few smaller temples before reaching the entrance to the Gates of Hell which is guarded by 18 Ghosts (each representing a different vice)

The Ghosts guarding the gates of hell. The Hungry Ghost (贪吃鬼), the Ghost of Lust (色鬼) and the most heinous vice of them all, the ermm... Wreath Eating Ghost (食蔓鬼) (?????) that has a goat nursing on her breast....

And my favourite…

Sharing a drink with the drunken ghost (酒鬼)

The Gates of Hell

We then passed through the Courts of Hell that are apparently run by a group of (dusty) demi-gods and ermm.. bureaucrats.

Demons... and some of the milder images in Fengdu

The highlight of the excursion was a diorama of the Chinese Eighteen Levels of Hell, that GRAPHICALLY depict the punishments evil (and some not so evil) doers go through after death.

Due to the graphic nature of the dioramas (and also us not taking enough pictures), I shall only give a small preview of what we saw that afternoon…

** WARNING: GRAPHIC GORE COMING UP NEXT **

Hell, yeah!

l think it speaks volumes of my upbringing when this image makes me nostalgic about my childhood.

Gorge-ous Gorges

I can’t help the pun.

The highlight of the Three Gorges Yangtze(长江三峡)River Cruise is the… drum roll…. Three Gorges (surprise!!) – at least that’s what the cruise liners all advertise on their flyers.

Jo, doing the "Titanic" as we sail through the Gorges. We were on a cruise ship. Someone HAD to do it!

To be honest, Jo and I were a bit mountain-fatigued coming into this leg of the trip, so we were really just here for five days of hard core pampering. (when I say “Jo and I” and “we”, I really meant “I”) (Don’t judge! I estimate we have been climbing an average of 1000000000000000000000 flights of stairs a day prior to the cruise… give or take). But like always, in one way or another, China has a way of hitting you in the guts and taking your breath away.

We passed through Xilin Gorge (西陵峡), the first of the Three Gorges at 6.30 in the morning. Maybe it’s just me, but I personally think that anything that can awe Jo awake at 6.30 am to do this… must be doing something right.

For me, all is good in the world when you can see gorgeous mountain sceneries without needing to climb a single step.

In a weird “Inception” – like moment, Victoria Cruises even arranged to transfer us from the cruise liner to a small ferry to an even smaller sampan for our “shore” excursions to the Little Three Gorges (小三峡) and then the (really!) Little Little Three Gorges (小小三峡) There’s something serene about drifting along a river, sipping a beer and watching the idyllic townships float by.

We saw quaint little villages along the river. The vertical lines were apparently cut into the cliffs decades ago when the only way for boats to transit along the (then) shallow tributaries was by, I kid you not... (naked) men pulling them along with ropes. We were then transferred onto a small sampan - like one of those Russian dolls which you open up to reveal smaller and smaller dolls

At the back of my mind, I know it is all very “touristy” and that many of this townships are shadows of their former selves. It’s just hard not to “feel it” when you have a ferry man decked out in his best wuxia novel boat man outfit (complete with long bamboo pole) (and jeans). Mr Boatman completed the picture by singing us traditional folk songs that reverberated around the cliffs that surround us.

Our Funky Boatman

The cruise was made all the more surreal by the colonies of monkeys that scamper along the river edge and ermm.. hanging coffins (悬棺).

The hanging coffins of Sichuan. If you stare (squint) really hard, you can even see the coffins within the caves. The coffins were driven into the cliffs about 2500 years ago by the Bo people, but to this day, no one knows why they did it, or even how they did it. Bear in mind that the water level was 185 metres lower back in the day... which means the coffins were much higher above the waterline

It’s a thing.

All in all, it was a good day excursion before we were transferred back to the mother ship. We spent the rest of the day (and night) sailing through the Wu Gorge (巫峡) and the Qutang Gorge (瞿塘峡)

By “we”, of course I meant the captain of the ship. Jo and I? We spent the rest of the day eating, napping, eating, eating, sleeping and eating again.

Eat Sleep Eat Eat Eat Sleep

We’ve been backpacking for almost two months now, and while we’re enjoying the lifestyle (most of the time, anyway), we felt that it was time to pamper ourselves for…just a little bit.

According to our copy of Lonely Planet, one of the quintessential China experiences is a river cruise down the Yangtze River (长江).

Some background: most Chang Jiang cruises transit between two points – going upstream from Yichang (宜昌) or cruising downstream from Chongqing (重庆). An upstream cruise typically takes four nights and downstream cruise, three. There are many cruise operators at the two terminal cities offering transportation as varied as a 200 RMB catamaran ride to a 1800 RMB cruise on a internationally-run cruise liner (read: they actually give a shit about minor details such as “standing space” for all “passengers”).

Seeing that we’ve been pretty frugal so far, and that our decision will highly likely affect our mental health for the next five days, we chose the most expensive option.

On hindsight, I can only say…

Best.Decision.Ever.

The first thing that greeted us as we approached the Queen Victoria 2 was, I kid you not, a fully costumed marching band playing us a musical fanfare.

What they lack in number, they make up for in loudness. No. Seriously. The fanfare for every guest thing was not as funny when guests keep arriving till 1am in the morning

We were then shown our room. I’ll be honest, having had a taste of first class transport accommodation during our train ride to Lhasa, we did not really have very high expectations. So, we were quite surprised (actually I think “shocked” would be a more accurate word) when we were shown a VERY clean room with the most comfortable bedding we’ve had in a while. We also had our own (rather large) attached shower, a plasma TV and, most awesome of all, a river view balcony with deck chairs from which we could sip the bottle of Kahlua we’d smuggled onboard (we were on a SHIP! It’s only right that we do at least one pirate-y thing)

View from our balcony... some of the time...

Over the next couple of days, we engaged in many traditional Yangtze cruise ship activities such as having morning teas, eating buffet breakfasts, going for short (non-climbing) shore excursions, stuffing our faces at the buffet lunch, gobbling down afternoon tea, afternoon napping, devouring buffet dinners and passing out right after we ran out of verbs to describe the process of putting food in the body.

To be fair, the cruise director actually included activities like Introduction to Taiji in the program. The only problems: the lesson was at 6am in the morning and also it was physically demanding (do you know that even a little force applied on the correct spot with the correct circular motion can cause you to sweat… a lot?).

The cruise was exactly what we needed to recharge our batteries. (We have food with cleanliness that we did not really have to worry about) (lots of food)

Throughout our five days on the Queen Victoria, the only time we felt kind of stressed was right after dinner when we walked by the reception area. You see, international cruise laws dictate that on every cruise ship, there needs to be at least ten photographers with BRIGHT FLASHES camouflage themselves throughout the ship and in bushes during shore excursions to catch you at your most “candid” moments. And at night, right after dinner, the photos will be displayed on a HUGE ASS plasma screen in the grand foyer just outside the restaurant in the hope that some passengers will find these photos nice enough to purchase as “souvenirs”. And because cruise ship etiquette requires all passengers to behave like, for lack of a better word, Lemmings, we would invariably join the hoard of tourists standing in front of the plasma screen, trying to find a non non-flattering shot of ourselves. Then suddenly, flashed on the giant screen in front of all the guests, two misshapen blobs made pasty by too much time away from the sun – Mr and Mrs Marshmallow Man.

I blame flash photography.

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Sidenote: hee hee hee

Nope. The Chinese have no problems with authority.