The ship’s doctor looked exactly like the sort of doctor you’d find on a merchant ship in a John Huston movie. You got the impression that they weren’t at the top of their professional tree. This view wasn’t helped by the fact that she’d just prescribed cough medicine for a rather angry and sore looking bite on Andy’s calf courtesy of an unidentified nasty Yangtse River insect.
Maybe it was a lost in translation moment but it was an example of the quirkiness of life on board a Yangtse River cruise ship. The ship itself was light years away from my idea of a cruise liner and resembled one of those old Mississipi steamers except sans funnels and paddles. It chugged slowly up the Yangtse at a leisurely pace allowing ample time to absorb the alien Chinese world that was passing by. The landscape and life on the banks of the Yangtse was nothing at all like I imagined it would be.
There was an excellent TV documentary series some years ago called Beyond the Clouds. I’d imagined the scenery around me would resemble a mix of that and a scene on a willow pattern, with Jade temples perched on cliffs and sampans negotiating bridges lit by delicate paper lanterns etc.
The Jade temples did exist but what initially struck me was the industrial nature of settlements on the banks of the Yangtse; mainly massive soot-stained cities. The weather was grim and the limestone cliffs rising up from the river were often shrouded in a grey mist that drained the colour from their slopes, whilst the waters swirled a murky brown. There were sampans on the river but there were also coal boats, merchant ships and other cruise ships – it was a fast flowing motorway that was fascinating to observe.
On board ship our fellow passengers were probably 75% Chinese with the rest a mix of other nationalities including two small British groups. Meals were served around large circular tables laden with dishes of typically Chinese cuisine which whilst not exactly top notch was certainly varied and decent enough fare…except if you were vegetarian in which case apart from rice it was Chinese cabbage or Chinese cabbage.
Entertainment on board was like a mini version of many cruises – there were films and Mahjong and flower arranging classes etc. At night the action moved to the lounge where there was an entertainment programme that ranged from cheesy fun to traditional dancing exhibitions. One of the cheesier events involved the male participants swinging a potato, held in place by a string tied to their belts, between their legs to hit a ball along a course. One of these competitions involved three participants from China, Britain and Germany; it turned out to be quite revealing regarding the…err…hip thrusting techniques of different nationalities. The German’s movements were incredibly stiff and mechanical whilst the Brit thrust his hips enthusiastically but just couldn’t get the rhythm right. The Chinese participant was the only one who could match rhythm with thrusting. Make of that what you will…I’m making no further comment.
With all sorts of judgements being made by the women in the lounge, I felt it wise to totally decline participation in the hip-thrusting international Olympics. But I did accept an invitation to take part in an exhibition of traditional country dancing which seemed much safer. Little did I know that part of it involved my female dance partner throwing her skirt over my head – bizarre, but when in Rome and all that.
The entertainment tended to finish very early and a small group of us would grab a bottle or two of wine and head out to a small open deck at the rear of the boat to enjoy our evenings on the Yangtse for just a little while longer.
One night, just outside the ghost city of Fengdu, we experienced one of those magical travelling moments that stay with you forever. The river was black apart from faint yellow lights from lanterns on fishemen’s sampans. There was total silence, the ship had moored up for the night as you don’t enter Fengdu under darkness (I’ll explain why in the next post). We’d been sitting quietly for a few moments contemplating the serenity of the scene when an Irish woman in the group began to sing a traditional Irish folk song, The Spinning Wheel.
Her voice was wonderfully sweet and pure and the cliffs rising up at our side created the perfect acoustics. As she sang “Mellow the moonlight to shine is beginning…” I could almost believe I could see the words of the song snake out into the darkness accompanied by crotchets and quavers. There was something so surreal about listening to a beautifully sung Irish song whilst sitting on on the deck of a ship in the middle of the Yangtse River in China that it sent a shiver coursing down my spine.
I wonder what the fishermen in the sampans made of hearing a siren’s song with lyrics that would have been alien to them arriving out of the black night, especially so close to a city where superstition was gospel and tales of ghosts being abroad at night were rife.