J. Kenji López-Alt blah

Chongqing to Yichang: This is Not the Cruise You're Looking For


It's 5AM and I'm woken up by an earsplitting, crackling hiss, followed by pre-recorded message that sounds like an angry monk reading Vogon poetry over a New York subway PA system. It's not quite the last thing you want to hear in the morning, but it's close. The last thing you want to hear in the morning is what follows: a two minute excerpt of Kenny G's interpretation of The Girl From Ipanema, played in a loop over those same PA speakers.

I'm fairly certain that the best and brightest minds in China have been hard at work coming up with a series of sounds scientifically proven to be the most efficient way to deprive innocent ship passengers of sleep. If hell had a waiting room, this would be the soundtrack.

This, by the way, is the same noise I awoke to yesterday morning at 5AM. It was on a repeated loop that played continuously until 7, when it finally gave way to China's normal soundtrack: loogie hocking, coughing, and the dramatically-loud pitter patter of unrestrained children, no doubt looking for corner to pee in. I'm fairly certain it's going to happen again today. The only upside is that it drowns out the noise of the air conditioning unit, which does nothing but cycle the same wet air around the room, occasionally giving out a little gurgling groan to let you know that it's still alive and you better not unplug it or you'll be cut out of the will.

Waking up at 5AM wouldn't be so bad if it happened to be after a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed to the smell of a hot breakfast being prepared. Instead, everything is damp. And I mean everything. The bed is damp. The sheets are damp and moldy-smelling. The pillows are damp. My hair is damp (and I don't even have hair right now). The carpet, coated in decades of grime and spit, are damp. The dried spicy shredded squid I bought as a snack packed in a sealed plastic pouch with a packet of silicone desiccant is damp. Even the ultra-fast-drying synthetic fiber clothes, which we were assured would have to break the basic laws of thermodynamics in order to get damp, are damp.


Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard the pride of the Yangtzi, and your home away from home for the next three days.

I'm not normally a "cruise" kind of guy. I've taken one cruise in my life, but after a hectic week in Beijing, followed by some heavy hiking on Emei Shan (complete with asshole monkeys), and a few more hectic days in Sichuan and Chongqing, a slow, lazy, romantic cruise on the Yangzi river, surrounded by the famous Three Gorges sounded pretty heavenly, and we decided to go full-immersion by skipping the International cruise lines and opting for an operator that caters to Chinese tourists. Apart from a sweet young Swiss girl traveling alone, we were the only non-Chinese tourist on the trip.

As we were herded aboard our ship via a long concrete staircase (the funicular next to the stairs looked like it hadn't moved up or down its rusted tracks for decades), the first thing we noticed was the smell. Water-bound vessels always have some kind of pungent aroma. That comes with the territory. But this was something different. After locating the source of the stench—which I'll get to—we seriously considered eating the cost of the tickets and stepping off before we even left port. In retrospect, I kinda wish we had.

The ship itself was a sort of floating time machine. The interior, with its wall-to-wall carpeting complete with cigarette burns and the stains of every bodily fluid you can name and a few you can't, looked like a dim sum restaurant that hasn't been cleaned or redecorated since 1972. The main lounge had two wooden benches (also burned with cigarettes), a chandelier with 16 lights (only three worked), a refrigerator full of warm beer and red bull, and a counter that sold dried squid, baiju (Chinese firewater) and instant noodles.

The warm beer and baiju would become my best friends for the next coupe of days.

Through the smoke-filled haze that had already permeated the room, I could barely make out a "no smoking" sign above one of the benches. It was right next to a sign that said "No spitting." In case that sign wasn't specific enough, there was a third sign on the wall that said "No spitting ANYWHERE."


There must have been a fourth sign posted somewhere that read "Please disregard all posted signs," perhaps stuck somewhere on the dingy carpet where it was obscured by gobs of spit and dicarded cigarette butts.

Walking up the curved staircase to the second level of the lounge, I saw a long line of tourists, each one carrying a large thermos in their hand. Ah, that door down there must be where you fill up your hot water bottle for instant noodles and tea, I though.

I was correct, but it's not all the room was. It was also the lone public restroom on the boat, and the source of the offensive odors. Why did it smell so bad, you ask? Because already, before we had even left port, the squat toilet had been clogged. A layer of brown, streaky piss was slicked across the floor*—you had to step into it to get at the hot water dispenser. The clog was so severe that murky brown water was backing up into the sink. Folks were standing in piss, holding their thermoses inches above raw sewage in order to fill them with the water that they'd be cooking with and drinking from for the next three days.

*If there's one advantage to the Chinese' steadfast refusal to supply toilet paper to the public, it's that at least when bathroom floor are covered in piss or worse, you don't get any of those disgusting pulpy masses of paper that come along with it.

It's OK, I said to Adri as I saw her eyes widening in horror, her body instinctively drifting towards the nearest exit. We'll just avoid public spaces. So long as we have safe refuge in our First Class, Air-conditioned cabin, complete with Western toilet and in-room shower, we'll be able to relax, right? I said to her as the ship finally pulled out into the brown, muddy water of the Yangzi.

We found our cabin and unlocked it.

"The horror! The horror!" I whispered weakly as the door creaked open.


I suppose this does qualify as a Western toilet, though it may as well have been a squat, because there's no way in hell my any part of my body was getting anywhere near that thing. It's normal in China for showers to be a simple hose-and-nozzle situation attached to the wall in the bathroom. In this particular case, you had to stand or sit on that toilet in order to use the shower.

Well, I thought, so long as we can use the sink, at least we can stay mildly clean.

I turned on the tap. As soon as water started circling down, a wave of raw sewage odors shot up out of the drain. I quickly glanced under the sink and saw the problem: it was a straight PVC tube going down to the floor. No U-bend, no valve, literally nothing separating the river of sewage that ran under our room from every other toilet on the same floor and the drain in our sink. We slammed the door shut, mentally slapping an "Open in case of emergencies only" sticker across it.*

*An emergency situation actually did arise the next day, no doubt after I, in a state of famished desperation, risked using the on-board hot water to cook a pot of instant noodles. Big mistake.

We went for a wander to the upper observation deck, and nearly burst out laughing when we found that the "shaded observation area" had already been strung up end to end with underwear, pajamas, and t-shirts attempting to dry in the evening mist.


We laughed even harder when we realized that it had only been 20 minutes since we boarded, which meant that folks must have come onto the ship fully prepared to wash their clothes immediately in order to get at the prime drying spots before anyone else. That laundry stayed up there for the remainder of the trip.


There were some upsides, but they were few and far between. The "towns" you stop to visit are either strings of shops selling tourist knick knacks, or large, industrial, concrete numbers (sometimes both). The Three Gorges themselves are relatively impressive, though I hear that they are far less so after the construction of the Three Gorges dam.

The Smaller Three Gorges, which you reach via a day trip on a mid-sized boat followed by a small wooden skiff were even nicer than the actual Three Gorges.


The mid-sized boat you take to access the Smaller Three Gorges has an upper-upper deck where you can pay 30 Yuan for a cup of tea, which then allows you to sit up there for the remainder of the 6 hour trip. This, at least, saves you from being shoved mercilessly by umbrella-toting grannies.

I have never been shoved around as much as I have been for the last couple weeks in China. People will literally hold you back with their hand as they cut into a line just as you're about to start talking to a cashier or ticket-seller without even offering a bit of eye contact by way of an "excuse me." The only upside to it is that nobody seems to care if you call them out on it and shove them right back out. And the shoving seems to know no age, gender, or class borders either. You're just as likely to get shoved by a young, well-dressed young girl in high heels as by a disheveled grandmother with a pushcart or a man in a business suit.

Like countries that have a haggling culture, it's a part of every day life that I just find extremely unpleasant.


It also ensures that you won't accidentally get hit by one of the cigarette butts, banana peels, or half-eaten corn cobs wrapped in plastic bags that get chucked willy-nilly into what were undoubtedly once clean waters.

It's kind of depressing to be taken on a nature-baed cruise and watch as it is literally polluted right before your eyes.


China is a wonderful country to visit with incredible food, gorgeous scenery, and a rich history, but I can't with any sort of sincerity recommend visiting the Three Gorges on a cruise. Do yourself a favor: if you're on your way from Chongqing to Shanghai, skip the boat and jump straight on a flight. There are far better things to see (and more importantly, tastier things to eat) once you get there.

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