Saturday, May 23, 2015

China 2015 Installment #4: Chongqing

After eating one final breakfast on the Victoria Jenna and saying goodbye to all of our new friends, we checked out of our cabin. Our guide, the lovely young Mia, met us in the lobby. She hired a porter to carry our bags up the long flights of stairs which led from the Yangtze River up to the streets of Chongqing.
Lesser (red) panda at Chongqing Zoo
We got into our nice big clean comfy van, and our driver braved rush hour traffic to get us to the Chongqing Zoo, where we would get our first glimpse at some real live pandas! Pandas are active in the early morning and early evening, so this was the perfect time to visit.  The zoo has 8 giant pandas,  as well as some lesser (red) pandas. We encountered the red pandas first. They look like a cross between an American raccoon and a red fox, and are quite cute. We know that they live in the wild in Bhutan, but they are very rare and we never got the chance to see them when we were there. Here there were several in an enclosure. One came right to the front of the enclosure and looked up at us hopefully, as if he thought that we had food for him.

Next, we arrived at the giant panda enclosures in time to observe little Sishun, a lovely juvenile female who made her public debut on May 1, 2014. She was lying back on a raised platform, and enjoying her bamboo breakfast, double fisting at times.  She was very content as bamboo detritus accumulated on her belly. She was so cute! Her mom Ya Ya was in the next pen over and we could see her walking by in the background.

Sishun eating bamboo while her mom Ya Ya walks by at the Chongqing Zoo
Craig, Sishun, and Steph at the Chongqing Zoo
Panda yoga with Liang Liang at the Chongqing Zoo (supported forward fold)

The zoo was really beautiful. It was an oasis in the middle of the city. There were lots of plants and trees that were very well manicured. Everything was very clean, and the animals had indoor as well as outdoor enclosures. People were practicing tai chi and it was all very peaceful. There were many families there. As it was a school day, the only children there were very young. A few parents asked us to pose for pictures with their kids, which we gladly did. The kids were adorable, if sometimes terrified of us.

We moved on to the enclosures of the other giant pandas, and saw Sishun's father Ling Ling. It was a very hot day, and Ling Ling was more interested in trying to get inside to air conditioned comfort than playing on his jungle gym and slide. Another panda (Liang Liang) did a forward fold onto a cool stone and just sat there contentedly. So Craig joined in on the panda yoga and did a supported forward fold of his own. We had to get a picture for Jenny, our yoga instructor back home.

We really enjoyed getting to see the pandas, and it really whet our appetite for our upcoming volunteer work at a panda health center in Chengdu. We tore ourselves away from the pandas to enjoy the other exhibits.

There were enormous hippos, rhinos, pigs, and porcupines. Then we reached the primate area. There were so many different types of monkeys, each species in their own enclosure (though a handful of species shared space).

The zookeeper went into the squirrel monkey enclosure to fetch their food bowls. When he left, they were trying to figure out how to open the door to follow him. They held on to the little window in the door and peered through.

There was a mandrill who looked like a Beijing opera star, who stuck out his tongue at us.  The colorful markings on his face and chest were gorgeous. The glare from the glass (and my substitute camera) made photographing these monkeys very difficult.

Mandrill at the Chongqing Zoo

We went to one glassed-in monkey enclosure which had various tire swings and ropes hanging from the ceiling. It was dark inside and the enclosure appeared to be empty. Then some kids went over and were obviously looking at something. We went to the front of the enclosure and were surprised to find a large ape with a furrowed brow, sitting at the very front of the enclosure, with his face very close to the glass.  The placard said that he was an orangutan, but his fur was black rather than orange.

Steph's buddy the orangutan at the Chongqing Zoo
Kids tapped on the window at him, but we just stood quietly looking at him. When the kids went away, I was able to get face-to-face with him. He had a contented look and he stared right into my eyes. He seemed so empathic and intelligent. And human. After a few minutes, when my attention wandered, he pounded the glass lightly with his fist and then put his palm up to the glass as if to get my attention. It was very humbling. I repeated his gesture, and we stared into one another's eyes once again. We shared a very special moment. It was amazing.

The zookeeper came back to feed the squirrel monkeys and they went crazy. There were many choices (apples, oranges, and nuts) but, as is the cliche, they preferred the bananas. A rat ran across the enclosure and tried to scavenge from them, but they chased him away. We also saw birds, pigs, porcupines, tigers (the white tigers were absolutely gorgeous), and lions.

After spending several very enjoyable hours at the zoo, we had a lovely lunch at the Paradise Club restaurant overlooking the Yangtze River.

Our lovely guide Mia
Huguang Guild Hall

Then we went to Huguang Guild Hall, a former family association complex in Chongqing. During a time of plague and famine, only 100 families survived in all of Chongqing. Immigration from other provinces was encouraged to increase the population. The first building of this complex was built in 1759. The complex was used as a gathering place for villagers who had moved to Chongqing. They lived communally, helping one another through difficult periods.

Mia bought our tickets and we went up a flight of stairs to see a beautiful ancient style building.We met Bella, who would be our guide at the site.

We went into a room called Emperor Yu's Palace. Da Yu was the "Hero of Water Control." The families built a shrine to him here, to pray for good weather so that the Yangtze would not flood. The large bronze statue of Da Yu was a reproduction of the original, which was damaged. As prayers/wishes, people tied colorful strings around the shrine, and also hung little red wooden plaques with tassels and Chinese knots. On one side of the plaque was  a Chinese character which symbolized the wish: prosperity, longevity, etc. On the back, the person would write their name (and sometimes even their address, since many Chinese people share the same names and they want to ensure that their good luck is delivered to the proper person).

Traditional roof, featuring dragon fish and "constipated dragons" at Huguang Guild Hall

Opera stage, Huguang Guild Hall
Bella explained all of the architectural elements of the building complex, including the fact that dragonfish on the end of roof beams meant that the person living there had earned a Ph.D., and that so-called "constipated dragons" were placed facing outwards on roofs for prosperity (the dragon ingests money and "holds onto it" because he is "constipated"). Some buildings were decorated with gold leaf. If you used gold leaf without the Emperor's permission, you would be killed.

There were two opera stages here, an outdoor one for the masses, and an indoor one for the elite.We saw several tableaux depicting life at the Guild Hall, including celebrations, arranged marriages, and charity works.

We had Bella all to ourselves, and she said that it was smart to come around lunchtime. In the early mornings they can have up to 3500 visitors. After leading us through the various buildings, she brought us to the immigration museum and gallery / gift shop.

Many other ancient neighborhoods which bordered this complex are in the process of being torn down to make room for the modern. The contrast is stark. From here we could see the brand new Dongshuimen Yangtze River Bridge, a  beautiful partially cable-supported girder bridge which supports automobile traffic as well as a monorail.

Craig with Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault at the Flying Tigers Exhibition Hall
Painting of Chongqing during WWII, and painting of Flying Tiger planes, Flying Tigers Exhibition Hall
After that, we ventured just outside of the city on hilly streets to the Flying Tigers Exhibition Hall. It is a very low-key, unassuming museum, but very interesting.  A woman gave us an introductory lecture about the history of the Flying Tigers and the cooperation between the Americans and the Chinese which ultimately saved Chonqing from Japanese control in World War II. We don't usually have much interest in war and military history, but this was fascinating. It brought tears to our eyes as we saw photographs and read placards about Claire Lee Chennault and his band of American volunteer pilots who helped the Chinese, and the resulting admiration that the Chinese had for them (which is still evident in their attitude toward Americans to this day). Lt. Gen. Chennault married a Chinese woman named Anna Chang, 30 years his junior.  Chennault passed away in 1958, but Madame Anna Chennault just celebrated her 90th birthday and lives in Washington, D.C.

One of the more heart-tugging moments for us was seeing photos of a three and a half year old Chinese boy who was adopted by the Flying Tigers. He was ceremonially inducted into the Air Force and was known as Little Tiger Joe. He was pictured in uniform next to the airmen, and it made us emotional.

It was obviously a low-budget museum, but it was very informative. We bought a nice book about the Flying Tigers and a commemorative postage stamp set honoring the Chennaults as a way of showing our support. As we left the museum, the employees locked up. We think they had been open only for us. Now we were even more glad that we bought something!
Banner expressing Chinese gratitude to the Flying Tigers 
Wang Jun called Mia while we were visiting the museum. We spoke to him and he asked if we had spoken to Mia about our need to purchase a camera battery charger. We hadn't, as we had been on the go all day and didn't want to interrupt the itinerary. Wang Jun spoke to Mia and explained our predicament. Mia said that the only other thing on our agenda was dinner, and she kindly offered to take us shopping to try to find a charger before dinner. We were so grateful!

We drove to the hotel, the Chongqing Hilton, and checked into room 2719. It was a very nice room.  We met Mia in the lobby. She asked if we would mind taking the subway, as it was rush hour and she didn't want the driver to get stuck in traffic. We had never taken the subway in China before, so we were eager for the new experience. Like most other things in China that are not thousands of years old, the station was very new, modern, and clean. We took Line #1, which had opened within the past year (Mia and her friends had taken an inaugural ride). We took the immaculately clean subway train for three stops.

Mia and Craig on Line #1, Chongqing Subway
We emerged in Jiefangbei Square, a shopping district filled with high rise buildings. We saw the People's Liberation Monument, a clock tower built in 1945 to commemorate the victory over the Japanese in WWII. Sixty years ago, it was the tallest building in Chongqing. Now it is dwarfed by all of the skyscrapers and luxury stores surrounding it.

People's Liberation Monument is dwarfed by skyscrapers, Jeifangbei Square, Chongqing
Art museum, Jeifangbei Square, Chongqing
We went into Suning, a large appliance and electronics chain store. As we ascended the escalator, I could see the Olympus logo on the wall. I held my breath and hoped that they might be able to help us. Mia talked to some employees, and we showed them our broken charger. They made a few calls, and said that they didn't have one in stock, but they could have one sent to the store. Since we were leaving the following morning at 8:30 a.m., this seemed impossible, and our hearts sank. But then they asked if we could come back in a couple of hours to pick it up, and we were thrilled! Mia said that we could do a little more sightseeing and then eat dinner in the area while we waited.

Hongya Dong, Chongqing
Craig at Hongya Dong, Chongqing
So with a spring in our step, we walked over to Hongya Dong, an eclectic shopping / dining / tourism / park complex built into the side of a cliff. The building is built in Ba Yu architectural style, as an 11-story stilt building. We started off on the ground floor, where there was a nice water feature in the park. Then we took an elevator to the 4th floor, which housed hawkers of savory snacks. We watched a man make potato noodles from scratch.  He mixed the potato up into a slurry, then put it through a strainer to shape the noodles, which oozed out of the holes looking like lavender worms.  He then fried them in oil and tossed them high into the air to dry them. They looked delicious. Another man pounding rice into rice cakes. There were lots of chilis everywhere, and the fragrances made our mouths water. Another level of the complex housed many bars. There were Irish pubs, a Tex Mex bar, etc. It all looked rather incongruous. (Though we did take a quick look around for Birgit and Stephan, since they always seek out bar culture and this would certainly be an experience!) We then took the elevator to the 11th floor roof deck, which is actually at street level on the next parallel street. There is a nice view of the brand new Qianximen Jialing River Bridge, the twin of the Dongshuimen Yangtze River Bridge which we had seen earlier in the day. There were some interesting statues here, including a huge pirate ship with pirates.

Qianximen Jialing River Bridge viewed from Hongya Dong, Chongqing

Next we walked to the Wan Yue restaurant for dinner.  While Craig was in the restroom, a large group entered the restaurant, and I was thrilled to discover that it was the Singaporean group from our  Yangtze River cruise! In a city of 30 million, what are the chances that we would run into them? And if we hadn't been in the area waiting for the battery charger to be delivered, we would have eaten somewhere else entirely! We were happy to see them and to compare notes about how we had spent the day. After enjoying our dinner, we stopped at their table to get a group photo and wish them a happy journey. They were so sweet!

Reunited with our Singaporean friends from the Yangtze River Cruise, Wan Yue Rsstaurant, Chongqing
We left at around 6:45 p.m. for the store. We were afraid to be hopeful. If we tried something like this at a store at home, we would probably go back to find that the employee we talked to went on break and nobody else knew what we were talking about. But fear not, as we walked into the camera department, the employee nodded at us and went into the back and emerged with a brand new charger. It looked right, but he didn't want to take chances. He opened the package, inserted my battery, and told us to wait a few minutes while he plugged it in to make sure that it worked. We were so happy! We waited patiently and after a few minutes I tried the battery in the camera and it had indeed charged.  It was the best 130 yuan ($21) we ever spent! Now we would be able to use our good camera for the remainder of the trip, including the pandas! We were walking on air on our way back to the subway. We are so grateful for Mia's willingness to help us. She really went above and beyond to help us out!

Our hero! Suning employee who procured our battery charger!
Jeifangbei Square, Chongqing - it's nice to have the good camera back!
We took the subway back to the hotel, arriving shortly before 8 o'clock. We had managed to do all of our sightseeing, get the charger replaced, and we were still home at a reasonable time! We got three batteries charged overnight, so we were well-prepared for the next leg of our trip. On to Chengdu and volunteering with the pandas!

Saying farewell to Mia

Sunday, May 17, 2015

China 2015 Installment #3: Three Gorges Yangtze River Cruise from Yi Chang to Chonqing on the Victoria Jenna

Air China from Xi'an to Wuhan
The next portion of the trip was a river cruise on the Yangtze.  This started with a travel day involving planes, trains, and automobiles (and of course the boat itself). We woke up at 5 a.m. to enjoy the hotel breakfast before leaving for the Xi'an airport at 7:30. Our Air China flight to Wuhan took off on time at 10:10, arriving at 11:40.

Sharp at the Tibetan Restaurant
We were met by Sharp, a very personable guide and driver who drove us from the airport into Wuhan city for lunch at a Tibetan restaurant. We enjoyed chatting with him and getting to know him on the ride and at lunch. After we were finished eating, he drove us to the train station to catch our bullet train to Yi Chang. The station was enormous and immaculately clean.

Wuhan railway station
Bullet train from Wuhan to Yi Chang

Sharp waited with us until it was time to board the train, and he helped us to get seated in our very comfortable 2nd class seats in car 11. The train was very clean and modern. We left on time at 3:16. The train reached a maximum speed of 199 km/hr (though we hear it makes 450 on other routes), and the ride was very smooth and quiet. I had ridden the commuter rail in Boston a week prior, and the difference was astounding. As we got further away from the city, we enjoyed the rural scenery - rice paddies and farmland. Every station was announced several times in English and Chinese, and there was a sign which told speed, indoor and outdoor temperature, and the next station.

Wen and Craig in Yi Chang
We arrived at Yi Chang at 5:17 p.m. We were picked up by Wen, a cheerful guide who had spent 5 years working in tourism in Taiwan, but came home to Yi Chang a year ago. He was very friendly. We drove about 25 minutes to a restaurant, where we enjoyed a nice dinner in a small private dining room.

After dinner, we drove around 30 minutes to the boat: Victoria Jenna.  It was getting dark and we saw the lights of a 6-deck river cruise ship with capacity for just under 400 guests. We embarked through the lobby on deck 2. The lobby was quite stylish, and we could tell that this was going to be a very comfortable few days.

Embarking on a Yangtze River cruise on the Victoria Jenna
As we checked in, the cheerful staff offered us an upgrade from our standard cabin to a junior suite. We are always wary of the upsell, but we decided to take a look at the two cabins and then decide. We took the glass elevators to each cabin. Both had twin beds, a balcony, and an en suite bathroom, and would have fit our needs fine. But the junior suite was amazing. It had high ceilings, 2 beds, a love seat, desk and chair, large flat screen TV, and plenty of closet / storage space for luggage. It was the same size as a normal hotel room, and even had a full-sized bathtub in the bathroom. Not what I would normally expect on a ship! We decided to upgrade, as the price was very reasonable, especially given that we would be spending four nights on the boat. We were on the 5th deck (only one deck above us)), down the hall from the bar and lounge. We were quite happy with our new space, and it was nice that we would be in one place long enough to spread out a bit.
Our junior suite, #504, as taken in 2 photographs from out balcony

We had expected the cruise to be mainly comprised of western tourists, but it was actually a majority of Chinese tourists. This was nice to see. The boat was not setting sail until the next morning, so we got settled into the room and went to sleep.

We woke up before our alarm at 6 a.m. The boat started to move at 6:45, and we went out onto our balcony in our ship-supplied terry cloth robes to watch as the boat glided through limestone karst-lined gorges, past miniature lighthouses to keep ships at a safe distance. The air was pleasantly crisp and cool with a little breeze. It was very comfortable.
The view from our balcony, Qiling Gorge
We went to breakfast at 7:30, in the dining room on the top deck. We had table assignments, and we really liked our tablemates immediately: Birgit and Stephan from Norway, and Korean-American couple Jang and Yung and their adult son Brian. Jang had lived in Massachusetts for a while, and Brian had studied in Oslo. And yet we all met in China. What a small world!

After enjoying our buffet breakfast while getting to know our new friends, we all went to the English cruise orientation. The American cruise director was quite funny, and obviously adored his Chinese crew. He clearly is a good mentor for teaching the younger employees good hospitality skills. He explained everything and was quite entertaining.  Afterwards, we wandered the decks and went up to the observation deck. There were lots of Chinese tourists sitting up there, and it was like a middle school dance. Men on one side of the boat and women on the other.  A man was playing a 3-stringed instrument while his friends sang and tapped their feet. On deck 5, women played mah jong and men played poker.
Chinese tourists provide musical entertainment on the observation deck
There was an optional shore excursion this morning, but we decided not to participate. We would be going to the Three Gorges Dam this afternoon and through the locks tonight. Part of the point of this cruise was to relax and unwind a bit, so we didn't want to overschedule ourselves. Instead, we went to something much more low-key: a Chinese medicine lecture with the ship's doctor, Dr. Lee. He gave a lecture focusing on acupuncture / acupressure as well as touching on other treatments. This was to be his last voyage on the ship after 5 years of service, and he was offering free treatments for 10 passengers per day, first come first served.

After the lecture we were the first to sign up. Since Craig's MS diagnosis, he has been very open-minded about treatments, and is willing to try anything that is offered to him. He had never tried acupuncture before, and was eager to give it a try. Dr. Lee saw us immediately. We discussed Craig's MS. He said that although the Chinese don't have this disease, he can try to treat the symptoms. After about 20 minutes of interview about Craig's current condition, he said that he thought that Craig's liver and kidneys were weak, so he did acupuncture mainly on Craig's liver and kidney lines (top of feet, inner calf, inner forearm, chest, etc.) He left Craig with the needles in for a while, then removed them and added a few more for shorter time. Craig could barely feel the needles, and they weren't uncomfortable at all until Dr. Lee tweaked the needles a bit, and it caused some brief minor pain.  He then gave him some herbal pills and gave him instruction to take them before every meal. He said to book a follow up appointment tomorrow; he wants to know how Craig feels. He likes challenges and learning about conditions that are unknown to him.
Dr. Lee performs acupuncture on Craig
When we got back to our cabin, the front desk called to say that we had a phone call. A phone call? For us? We hope everything is ok. We went down to the lobby and took the call. It was Wang Jun! It was so nice to hear his voice! He was checking up on how the trip was going so far, and telling us that he and his whole family were looking forward to our arrival in Guiyang in 2 weeks. We were just as excited!

After a lunch buffet with our tablemates (we found out that Birgit and Stephan were in the cabin next to ours), we met on Deck 2 for our excursion to the Three Gorges Dam. We were split into small groups, and ours included Birgit and Stephan, as well as a group of Singaporean tourists who were very friendly. We got off of the boat and took a bus for a short ride to the visitor's center via the Xiling Yangtze Suspension Bridge. At the visitor's center, both the tourists and the bus itself were screened before letting us through to the dam site. First we saw a scale model of the whole project, complete with flowing water. It really gave us a sense of the overall scope of the project. Despite all of the pros and cons of dams, there was no denying that this was a very impressive feat of engineering!
Three Gorges Dam viewed from Jar Hill Mountain

The idea of the dam was first proposed by Sun Yat-sen in  1919. John Louis Savage of the Hoover Dam came in the 1940's to help to realize the project, but WWII halted progress. In the 1950's, 30,000 people were killed in a single flood season. Not only would a dam be capable of generating power, it would also save lives by lessening flood impact, and just generally evening out the seasonal fluctuations of the river. (Before the dam, when water was low, men would physically pull boats along rocky areas of the river to prtovide passage). The Gezhouba Dam was constructed in Yi Chang in the 1970's, and its success gave the Chinese the confidence to embark on the massive Three Gorges Dam project.

Two five-stage ship locks viewed from Jar Hill Mountain

Xiling Gorge was chosen as the site because it is the widest of the three gorges. The exact location was selected because of the stability provided by granite bedrock there, and also the presence of an island to aid in construction (the island is now submerged). The dam was built between 1993 and 2008. It took 28 million cubic meters of concrete to build the project - the largest concrete dam in the world.

The final ship lock

There were 40,000 workers involved the project in 1993 (a whole boom city sprung up to support them and their families), and 2000 still remain.
The only part of the project that is still under construction is the ship elevator, with an estimated completion date of 2018. Although our ship would be too large to utilize it, the elevator would lift a container full of water, so that small boats could avoid the locks.

We went to Jar Hill Mountain for a nice view of the dam. We took 4 separate escalators to get to the top. There was a great view of the dam on one side (it is low water season, so there was no overflow of water as you sometimes see in footage of the dam) and the pair of 5-stage ship locks on the other. One set of locks is for passenger boats, and the other is for cargo ships. They took 9 years to construct. Unlike the Panama Canal, it does not cost anything to utilize the locks. The government owns the project and wants to facilitate trade along the Yangtze. We then walked down to an observation area where we got a good view of the ship elevator. It was all very interesting and the sheer magnitude of the scale of the project was mindblowing.

Three Gorges ship elevator
Getting back onto the boat after the Three Gorges Dam excursion
When we got back to the boat, we took nice hot showers to freshen up and then headed to the captain's welcome reception. We sat at the bar with Birgit and Stephan. We sipped tasty sparkling white wine while Captain Li, who has 43 years of experience despite his youthful appearance, welcomed the passengers. We enjoyed some appetizers and then headed to dinner together. Once again, there was a nice buffet which served a variety of Western and Chinese fare.

Cruise director Dick Carpentier, Captain Li Long Hai, and river guide Steven Xu at the Captain's Welcome Reception
We went to the lounge to prepare for the evening's entertainment, a fashion show where crew members dressed up in a variety of costumes representing the various ethnicities of China. We had drinks with Birgit and Stephan and enjoyed the show. We were seated near a door to the deck, and
at around 8 o'clock,  Birgit noticed that we were parked in front of two large doors waiting to enter the first of the five locks. We headed out on deck with all of the other passengers to watch. It was so amazing! As we watched, the doors opened ("like the gates of Mordor," as Stephan would later say). It took about 2.5 minutes to silently open. Then we passed through the doors into the lock and stopped right before the second set of doors.

Victoria Jenna crew fashion show
We went back inside as the fashion show was starting, but we continued to be distracted by what was going on outside. Looking out the door we could tell that the ship was rising, and quickly! I went out on deck and could see the depth markers on the walls, and I looked down below us at the 95 meter marker. We watched the rest of the light-hearted fashion show, and then the four of us went up to deck 6 and watched the whole process as we passed through the next three locks. We could reach out and touch the slimy walls of the lock; there was not much extra clearance on the side of the ship. It was so cool; we were fascinated by the mechanics of it all.

Touching the wall of the lock...not much clearance!

As the locks filled with water, the weights on the sides made a very eerie ghostly noise. Bats were circling, eating insects in the ship's spotlights.  And a red moon was visible overhead. The evening was a magical blend of nature and engineering. We entered the last lock at around 11 o'clock. Birgit and Stephan decided to go back to their room. We went to our room as well, thinking that we should probably get some rest before tomorrow morning's excursion. But once we got to the room, all we could see from our balcony was the concrete wall of the lock a foot in front of our balcony. The whole experience was so exciting...and this was the last lock before reaching the open river. There was no way we could go to sleep. So we grabbed our jackets and went to the bow of the ship on our deck.
Stephan and Craig as the locks open

The final lock was not as tall as the others.   We went through the final gates and there was the river in front of us. We were done with the whole process at midnight. What an adventure! And the passenger locks had  been closed up until 2 weeks ago, so our timing was impeccable. We wouldn't have wanted to miss this!! (They had bused passengers around the locks, where they had boarded a different ship on the other side).

Small boat ride down the Goddess Stream

The next morning after breakfast, we disembarked in Qing Shi (in Wu Gorge) for an excursion. Small boats took us through the scenic gorges of the Goddess Stream, a tributary of the Yangtze. The scenery was quite beautiful, but the weather was hazy. I had realized last night that my battery charger for my good camera was broken (and had been for a while, apparently, as the batteries I had been recharging were all dead), so today I needed to resort to my inferior backup camera. Unfortunately, the weather made the lighting very unfavorable for this lesser camera, and the photos don't really do the scenery justice. But we were very thankful that we had brought the old camera, so we were still able to capture our adventures. The scenery was amazing, and we enjoyed visiting with Birgit and Stephan while taking in the beauty of it all.

Stephan and Birgit
Small boat ride down the Goddess Stream
Small boat ride down the Goddess Stream

We passed through narrow limestone gorges. You could tell the maximum water level by the height at which the vegetation grew. We saw a cave high up on Shangsheng Peak. This was a tomb of the Ba people, which contained a hanging coffin which was 2-3,000 years old. The boat ride felt like a Disney ride, as our adorable little yellow-tile-roofed boats made up a little convoy through the picturesque gorge. But it wasn't a ride, the boats were not on a track (as was evidenced when our motor briefly stalled).
Craggy peaks of the Wu Gorge
Back on the Victoria Jenna, we sailed through Wu Gorge, the second of the three. Once again, the weather was hazy and photos came out disappointingly. But the weather was warm and we enjoyed being on the observation deck with the other passengers, listening to the commentary of the river guide and enjoying the beautiful scenery. The water was a pretty shade of turquoise. We passed farms with terraced rice fields on the steep mountain slopes. Silhouettes of monasteries could be seen up on the peaks. As we emerged from the gorge, we passed under a modern bridge and approached a "village" where some of the people displaced by the flooding of the gorge for the dam project had been relocated. Only in China would a city of a million people be referred to as a village!

The Kui Gate of Qutang Gorge, and its image on the 10 yuan note
We then had lunch, followed by a lecture about the Three Gorges area.  Next, we sat at the bow of the boat to watch the scenery as we passed through Qutang Gorge (the final of the three gorges). The wind was really howling through the gorge, and it took about 30 minutes to pass through. It was one of the most picturesque, and reminded us a lot of Yosemite valley. Looking back as we passed out of the gorge, we could see the view of the so-called Kui Gate that is pictured on the back of the Chinese 10 yuan note. The thing that surprised us most about the Three Gorges area was that the gorges are much more narrow than we had envisioned.

City wall and white pagoda at Fengjie
Temple at Fengjie
Walking on the city wall toward the White Pagoda at Fengjie

Craig had a follow-up appointment with Dr. Lee, who thinks that the acupunture was not effective for Craig's symptoms, but that the herbal pills had been, so Craig should continue to take them. Then we enjoyed tea and cookies in the lounge. We had once again decided to skip the optional formal shore excursion to Baidicheng, but we did go ashore on our own in Fengjie, to explore for a little while. The late-afternoon sun was now shining and the sky was blue. We walked along a crenolated city wall towards the White Pagoda. The octagonal pagoda is 7 stories tall, and is quite beautiful. There was also a colorful building which appeared to be a temple, and a series of statues of what appeared to be Chinese philosophers next to it. The long rays of the sun cast playful shadows on the wall, and colorful flags flew in the breeze.  We chatted with some locals and made friends with some of their little children. Our self-guided personal shore excursion was quite enjoyable.

Peacock dance, crew cabaret
We had dinner onboard the ship and enjoyed the crew cabaret. Steven the river guide did a performance of Sichuan opera face-changing, which was very impressive, and got us excited for the Sichuan Opera which we would see in Chengdu in a few days. It ended with audience members being brought onstage to dance. I was one of them, and we did the macarena and YMCA. If only Sonam Tshering could see me now! (No Electric Slide though.) We had drinks with Birgit and Stephan on the observation deck. There were very few passengers up there, and we enjoyed looking up at the stars as we sailed along the mighty river.

Sun rising over the Yangtze River
The next morning, we woke up to a gorgeous golden sunrise over the Yangtze. After breakfast, we went ashore for our final excursion: Shi Bao Zhai, which is an island that we could see from our balcony. It houses a Buddhist temple and an architecturally stunning wooden pagoda. The actual ancient city is submerged as a result of the dam project, but the temple sat atop a 120-foot cliff, so it remained unsubmerged. A retaining wall was built surrounding the island to keep the seasonal high water away from consuming the lower levels of the pagoda.

Shi Bao Zhai
The temple was built in the 18th century under Emperor Qianlong. At the time, monks could only climb to the temple via chains attached to the cliff face. In 1819, a 9-story pagoda was built with 11 steps per story (99 steps total, since 9 is a lucky number in Buddhism) to make the ascent easier and less dangerous for the monks who worshipped there. It was built out of mulberry wood for its resistance to insects (it is poisonous to them). No nails were used in its construction. In 1956, 3 more stories were added. The topmost one just has a metal ladder for access. In 2008 following the earthquake, nails were added as reinforcement to strengthen the pagoda.

11 story mulberry wood pagoda at Shi Bao Zhai
View down at the gate and retaining wall from inside of the pagoda
We walked up a hill past shops and through a nice courtyard area to get to the "drunken bridge", with a floor of wooden planks which undulate up and down like a fun house attraction when you cross it. When we reached the island, we had the option to climb the pagoda or not, and we decided to do so. We passed through a fancy yellow gate and entered the pagoda. Inside were statues and altars. We climbed the steep wooden steps, and each story was narrower than the last. Each story contained large round window openings which faced the river. We climbed to the very top, (up a metal ladder through a narrow trapdoor) and had great views back at the ship. Then we walked through the temple which held some interesting statues. We walked down the steps on the back side of the hill, back over the drunken bridge, and back to the ship.

Craig enjoying a beer on the observation deck
Birgit and Stephan kicking back on the observation deck

It was very hot, so when we got back to the ship, Craig enjoyed a cold beer and I took a bubble bath. We went to lunch, and then spent a couple of hours with Birgit and Stephan up on the observation deck. We had the whole deck to ourselves. The sun was blazing down on us.  The hot sun is exactly what Craig should be avoiding with his MS sensitivity to heat, but when we were here in the moment, we couldn't resist the fresh air and beautiful views that the observation deck afforded. But by 3 o'clock, none of us could take the heat for a moment longer, and we retired to our cabins.

Brian, Yung, and Jang
We rested in our room for the remainder of the afternoon, and then went to the Captain's Farewell Dinner. It was the only non-buffet meal of the cruise, and it was quite nice to share delicious family-style food with our table full of friends. Birgit had even convinced the head chef to provide our table with some specially-pepared hot chili sauce to add to the food. Our table was one of the last to leave the dining room, as usual, because we always have so much fun chatting.
Dressed up as Empress and Emperor
Craig and I bought one last drink at the bar, and got our photos taken while wearing Emperor and Empress dress. Then we met Birgit and Stephan on the observation deck to enjoy one last evening together. Tomorrow we would arrive in Chongqing. We would continue on to Chengdu the following day, and they would return home to Norway.

The next morning, we enjoyed a final breakfast with our tablemates, and then disembarked for Chonqing, ready for our next adventure after a very enjoyable river cruise!

Disembarkation in Chongqing