12 March 2007

Slow Boat To HELL – Day One, Yangtze Cruise

6:39AM – Alarms goes off. It’s time to get up! We’re docking at the Ghost Palace around 7AM. Anne did not sleep a single minute last night. Apparently the man next door had the television on full volume from midnight to 6 this morning. I heard nothing, though I did sleep through the Northridge earthquake back in the easrly 90’s. Her stomach isn’t feeling to hot either. Uh-oh. She just fell asleep in the bathroom. Speaking of the bathroom, we took a vote and agreed not to shower while on the boat. There is no hot water but beyond that, the whole bathroom morphs into the shower, which means major flooding should we decide to lather up under the freezing cold, slightly yellow, pressure-less flow. I can hear the Chinese people going crazy outside, which means we must be close.

9:23AM – Back from the Ghost Palace. I went against everything I believed in and joined a Chinese tour group. It seems we really had no choice. As this is a Chinese cruise ship (which explains our exceptional first-class cabin) there are only eight foreigners (2 Swedes, 4 Germans, 1 Belgian & 1 American) no one speaks English. Getting off the boat was typical China. Everyone pushed right up against the railing, a pseudo-line (more like a large lump of tangled human flesh) stretching through the boat and up the stairs. As soon as the gates opened the squawk boxes started, echo effect cranked to full. Anne and I were sporting our official “tour group” neck badges that matched our guides official “tour group” flag, which she waved rigorously back and forth. As soon as we hit land an onslaught of hawkers approached us. “Mister, mister! Hello! Cigarette? Noodle? Egg? Tea? Pretty Rock?” Of course they’re only after the eight odd-looking folks. Then came the miles of stalls, all selling the same thing – rocks, old Mao paraphernalia, “jade,” water, film (who uses film anymore, by the way) and “authentic piece of Ghost Palace.” It was kitsch with a capital K. Sadly, this set the tone for our entire visit.

True to form (going with mine & Anne’s incredible luck) the cable car broke as we approached the front of the line. That meant hiking up the side of yet another mountain, Anne dozing off here and there. We ditched our guide a good twenty minutes ago and still somehow managed to find the palace. Miracle! While we had hoped to find ancient relics dating back to 300 B.C., we instead stumbled upon what seems to be the defining feature of Chinese tourism – complete and utter destruction of history.

This site is thought to be one of the first places on earth where a society acknowledged and paid homage to the underworld (hell). Its importance to world history is unmatched in this area. Some of the buildings are 3000 years old and what do you think the Chinese government did? They replaced the entire interior with a walk-through tour telling the story of the depths of hell using wood manikins, bad lighting, and some really tacky special effects. Then, half way through, they installed a 20-second ride (that you have to pay extra for but can’t avoid) that zooms around a small circuit of more random ghosts, goblins and a “boat” riding on the “ocean,” which was recreated using a blue sheet and an industrial fan. The Chinese were loving every minute of it. Anne and I were cringing.

There seems to be no real interest in what sites and monuments actual mean. In fact, my feeling is that most people don’t even really know what they’re looking at. They just want to have fun, ignore their ride, take a picture, and be able to afford the experience in the first place. Whether that is a product of fifty years of Communist rule where anything and everything pre-Mao was either ignored or altered, I’m not sure. What I do know is that this is the general approach to Chinese tourism as a whole – kitsch. Toboggans and roller coasters at the Great Wall of China. A haunted house at an ancient relic. None of it is real, historic, or appreciated. To make matters worse, the entire Ghost City compound will be underwater within two years as the Yangtze rises and the new dam becomes fully operational! In fact, over 8000 archaeological sites, 280 villages & 19 towns with a population of 500,000 or more will be completely submerged by the end of 2007. Talk at tragic.

11:12AM – We came back to our cabin to find the front door and balcony door open, three crew members inside repairing the curtain Anne accidentally tore down last night. Definitely efficient, but does it really take three people? One guy is screwing, the second guy is holding the screws and the third person (a woman) seems to be supervising the situation. She’s standing about ten feet from them, pointing and shouting as they work.

11:47AM – The curtain-repair “dream team” just left. Thirty-five minutes to fix a curtain. Awesome.

12:38PM – Anne just woke from her nap/longest period of continuous sleep in two days. We swung open the door to our private balcony and the view is incredible. It seems natural beauty is everywhere in China. I just wonder how long that’s going to last. I can see the marker signs indicating where the water level will be by the end of the year. Thousands of homes and millions of people are still leaving in homes built below this line. Imagine your whole life washed away because the government felt like building a dam…

7:08PM – We just pulled into port, docked for five minutes, then pulled out of port. No explanation at all. Spent the late afternoon chatting with our new Swedish friends. They are on a NINE WEEK vacation. It would be great to be Swedish! “We had to shorten our summer holiday for the past three years,” the girl tells us. Only four weeks instead of six.” Bummer. Meanwhile, the Germans are working on drinking their 120 cans of beer they brought on board. Less than 24 hours and they’ve already gone through about 60.

9:22PM – We just pulled into another port, docked for about fifteen minutes, then pulled out of port. Again, no explanation. Anne and I are enjoying a nice conversation and bottled water on our very exclusive balcony.

10:55PM – Just about to hit the sack. We’ve discovered that the bathroom light only works if you flip the switch three times. Then you have to rattle the handle, flush the toilet, open the front door and turn three times.

1 comment:

Sara said...


I wore your shirt to bed last night. That's not creepy... right... Um.. right?!


Your depiction of the Ghost Palace was bang-on. The cable car wasn't working at all when we were there. Ai yah!

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