One of the more intriguing aspects of independent travel is that one never quite knows what’s around the corner…
Upon arrival at Chongqing railway station we were presented with a glossy brochure at a travel bureau portraying some of the more charming aspects of a 3 day, Three Gorges Yangtze river cruise. The featured ship was of a reasonable size, rather quant in a Chinese sort of way, seemingly well maintained with clean and comfortable cabins. We booked the cruise sight unseen, perhaps a little naive on our part. Our expectations were immediately quashed upon boarding following a two hour bus ride and a long wait in Changshou, a city downriver from Chonqing. It’s good to have a sense of humour at times, and this occasion called for just that.
The Chinese are at their best when holidaying, our spirits were lifted somewhat by a group of passengers on the upper deck performing a Tai Chi inspired dance routine, generally frolicking about and enjoying themselves, albeit in a weird sort of way. The music they were getting animated to would have been perfectly suited to a day spent scrapping barnacles off the hull of a boat, a task I recall performing in my younger years which left me feeling rather agitated. We made our way through to the spacious foyer. While checking in I noted the absence of any sort of charm in this rather large featureless common room; charm is often left off the list of architectural priorities in China so at the time I don’t recall this being too much of a concern, everything is relative, as they say. The tiled floor featured an outstandingly high degree of polish which suggested cleanliness, proud and fastidiousness crew members. However the surrounding walls would have benefited from the attention of a high pressure hose, disinfectant and a scrubbing brush. In the corner stood a stack of flimsy plastic stools, no doubt in answer to the more comfortable deck chairs one might expect to find on other luxury cruise ships. In the other corner there was what appeared to be a reading room, at least that’s what the sign said in Pinyin, this was partitioned at waist height by a flimsy hardwood frame and transparent Perspex, furnished by a few worn mattresses and adorned by crates of empty beer bottles. Perhaps understandably there was no spa, no sauna, nightclub, casino, or glass elevator one might expect. There was however a carpeted companionway leading up to the mid deck level and beyond, rather oily and blackened under foot from much use over the years. There was also a smokey and rather rank games room on the upper deck, aft of the smokestack and a dining room, purely practical, not necessarily a space to linger. The bulwark on the starboard side leading to our cabin was rather rusty, keeping in with the general finish of the rest of the vessel, not a particularly good sign I might add. But (one should never start a sentence with the word). BUT it wasn’t until we entered our 5 berth cabin when reality hit. This rank smokey little bunk room smelt like a toilet, not altogether surprising as it reassembled one also. The aforementioned glossy travel brochure made no mention of this. Call me pedantic and perhaps a little ungrateful but the smell of toilet permeating through one’s cabin doesn’t quite reach my expectation of the luxury cruise. This unwelcome fragrance was largely due to the rank little toilet cubicle attached to our cabin, we decided on keeping the door firmly closed leaving this evil little room to fester of it’s own accord while we unpacked our bags, settled in and became acquainted with our cabin mates; a couple of good natured middle aged Chinese men who sat on their bunks smoking and offering us shots of rice wine. What better way I might add of lifting ones sprits and disinfecting one system. Shortly after boarding the engines roared to life, deck hands cast off the rusty mooring lines, we settled in to our hard bunks with equally hard pillows and attempted to sleep, ear plugs fitted, tiger balm carefully applied to the nostrils. Within minutes our companions were sleeping soundly, snoring loudly, in unison. I’d always dreamed of taking my wife on a luxury cruise in some foreign land. Dreams often come true, eventually, provided one applies the power of positive thought.
We woke early the following morning to rather loud, but soothing Chinese music broadcast through the intercom system, a female voice singing perhaps a few octaves higher than one might consider normal, no doubt poetically expanding on the wonderment of the gorges we were sailing through. Lofty slopes, sparse vegetation, not a bird in sight, a waterline and hill sides which didn’t quite look natural to the eye, never the less impressively steep. After a few stops, disembarking for a walk, photographs taken, harangued by trinket salesmen and women, some bad food, strange little towns and a side trip up a narrow gorge on a smaller vessel we found ourselves settling in. Well, not really settling in but at least having fun. By mid-afternoon I decided to deal with the problem at hand, confronted the one crew member who appeared to be the most astute, standing my ground I got an upgrade to another cabin, mid deck, port side. Slightly cleaner, the smell of which was still not quite right but as close to neutrality as one could have hoped for.