Thursday, January 6, 2011

Yangtze River Cruise: Part 1

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My last stop in China was a 3-day river cruise down the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Yichang. When I booked it I had visions of small fishing villages and rural towns lining the river banks with monkeys and birds playing in the trees along the shore. However, what I encountered was extremely different. Since the Three Gorges Damn was built in 2003 the entire landscape has changed and the romantic ideas of small rural Chinese towns with fisherman, birds and monkeys just don't exist anymore. Instead we found big ugly generic apartment buildings and some factories along the river. The cruise was three days and visited Fengdu Ghost City, The Three Gorges, and The Three Gorges Dam. I was on the ship the Victoria Jenna, which is run by the American company Victoria Cruises. The ship was wonderful and since there were only 15 English speakers on board they upgraded us all to executive suites on the 5th floor so we were all in the same area together. Some of the scenery was very beautiful consisting of gorgeous cliffs and beautiful fall foliage, but the whole experience felt a bit overcrowded and touristy- something I have sound countless times in my experiences in China. There were always other riverboats and when we docked we would literally dock next to another boat and climb through that boat to get to shore.
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The first excursion was in the ancient city of Fengdu, known as the Ghost City. The city is over 1800 years old built atop Ming Mountain. However, it is not really much of a city and the only thing there that is 1800 years old is the mountain itself. Every other structure on it was rebuilt in the 1980’s and just feels tacky and touristy. The city gets its name from two officials of the imperial court Yin and Wang who went to Fengdu t study Taoism and supposedly became immortal there. In Chinese Yin and Wang sounds like “King of Hell” so the people began calling the area the “Ghost City.” The temples in the city depict different punishments for different sins and the Chinese people used to believe actual ghosts resided in the city. In the 1950’s when boats docked by Fengdu they would often anchor midstream rather than on Fengdu’s shores to ensure ghosts would not follow them back. On the mountain are three tests that you take to judge if you are a good person or bad- determining where you go when you die. The second test is walking over a bridge and they have men in costumes dressed up in ancient garb on either side of the bridge who you can take photos with and then purchase them. It felt so inauthentic and a lot like a theme park. There are a few ancient sculptures scattered around depicting various demons and man’s vices. I enjoyed looking at these because it reminded me how similar all ancient religions are- many of the symbols and figures like the two judges one for heaven and one for hell or the drunk Bacchus like sculpture can be found in many ancient religions.
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Stay tuned for the review of the second half of the cruise to be posted on Saturday.

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