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Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Month in China! Yichang and a Yangtze River Cruise!



Wangfeng Hanging Restaurant


Our Balcony Stateroom

Cruising on the Yangtze River!

When I planned out our month in China I HAD to find a way to include a cruise on the Yangtze River! For the 40+ years I'd dreamed of going to China, a cruise down the Yangzte and getting to explore some of the villages along the way was a "must-do"- one of those things that no trip through China would be complete without! So towards the end of our trip, from Chengdu we took another Bullet Train to Yichang to catch our Yangtze River Cruise. I booked the cruise directly with Lyn of Yangtze River Cruises, and it was Excellent- truly one of THE highlights of our month in China! I also booked it against the advice of a number of "old China hands", including several locals, who told me it would still be "too cold" in March and no fun- total BS! It was gorgeous and glorious, the weather was fine, and a cruise down the Yangtze River is THE way to see the China of your dreams!
The morning we left Chengdu, Dan had his last 100 RMB Crowne Plaza breakfast (see my posts on our fabulous two days in Chengdu here and here), and we made it to the train station with an hour to spare, but thanks to the confusing, packed lines of the pushing masses at the boarding gate, we made it into our First Class seats on the Bullet Train (all the way at the end of the platform) with only 5 minutes to spare- and time for only 1/2 a cigarette! LOL First Class seats (and Business Class, when available- which weren't on this train) are Very nice, but there's no First Class boarding area or separate line, so even though you are paying Big Bucks for the upgrade to First Class, boarding is Always a kind of "controlled chaos", especially if you have luggage. While there may have been Red Caps available, we didn't see any, and didn't have the time to search them out, so we again toted everything ourselves... and while doable (there are escalators, and in this case a convenient elevator), it's not a great deal of fun, and if we get to do this kind of a trip again, we will do it with almost NO luggage, save a backpack or one small roller case!  While we were waiting at the gate, Dan got us coffee, and then I went to the Business Class Lounge to try to get some help contacting Lyn at Yangtze River Cruises, to find out exactly where we'd be met in Yichang, and the very helpful desk clerk used her iPhone voice-recognition translation app to help me- and, contrary to everything I'd been told- it worked fine: I think the key is speaking Very, Very Clearly and Enunciating Properly... a skill I've got thanks to 40 years of Public Speaking following a childhood in Repertory Theater, due to my Grandma Tanya!  The clerk called Yangtze River Cruises  and we were told that we'd be met at the one and only Arrival Gate, and that the guide would have a sign, and speak English (Yay), and that we'd find each other without a problem! And so it was!
Our Bullet Train from Chengdu to Yichang

Lunch on the train...
Dan was able to sleep a bit on the train, and we split a nice, hot lunch tray: beef, chicken, greens, salads, rice and a peanut condiment; the face-masked stewardesses came by periodically with carts of goodies.  We passed Chonqing, which I wish we'd had time to visit, so as to see the famous carvings... and then we arrived in Yichang... And everything I set up actually worked out! Our guide met us at the Arrival Area at the Yichang Train Station just as planned, with a sign reading "Daniel Hillery Clark", and she and our driver took us to the totally fabulous Wang Feng Hanging Restaurant, built into a cave perched on a cliff overlooking the river!  Knowing that we'd be boarding our Yangtze River Cruise in Yichang, I "Googled" the area, and learned about this totally fab restaurant that instantly became a "must do" prior to our cruise!  
The photo of the Wangfeng Restaurant I wish I'd taken...

The restaurant is in the Happy Valley of the Xiling Gorge, a beautiful, scenic stretch of cliffs, caves, and parks where the Chang Jiang River flows into the Yangtze.  You walk into the restaurant and down the steps, and find yourself in a natural “cave lobby”; a long plank road runs along the cliff and leads to another natural cave, which is the dining room, part of which hangs out of the cave over the river-  where our dining table was placed! We arrived early, and so were the first diners of the evening,  and got to watch the zipliners, bungee jumpers, tobogganers, boaters, cable car passengers, and all the other lucky folks doing cool, fun things across the river! I had read about this restaurant online, but had No idea about all the other fun, and what a great holiday you could have here, especially in the summer!  With advice from our guide, we ordered the local specialties: fresh-from-the-tank Yangtze River "Fei Yu"  fish, which is a delicate white fish, served in a bowl of broth and sold by the kilo (we ordered a 1/2 kilo which was enough for the two of us); local "Tian Qi Miao" greens (yummy and totally new to us), stir-fried with bits of hot red pepper and garlic, and a plate of the deep-fried local herb pancakes, for which we requested a dipping sauce of hot chili paste, ginger oil, and vinegar, because we're crazy like that. LOL  
Dinner at the Wang Feng Hanging Restaurant

Dan, hanging over the cliff!
Dan in the Cave Dining Room
On the walkway hanging over the river...
The view from our table...


View from our table...
Our guide talked us out of the "too expensive" wine, but as I am a bad woman (as you all know, LOL), I surreptitiously poured the last of last night's Baiju, which I just happened to have in my purse, into our hot tea. LOL Happily you can smoke at the Wangfeng, so we could be grownups again, and truly enjoy our meal! As we ate, looking out across the river, other Chinese diners arrived, including a table of guys who looked like "made men"; totally focused on their iPhones, they were absolutely oblivious to the magnificence around them...  
Dinner at the Wang Feng...
Dan, at the bridge by the Wang Feng Hanging Restaurant
Bungee jumping!
After our dinner at my idea of The Most Romantic Restaurant In The World, we were driven 1.5 hours on the cruise line's bus to the ship. I booked this cruise in Dec., but in Jan. the Chinese government jerked the cruise companies around and made them change the cruise itinerary (no more sailing through the famed and historic locks) and the boarding location- which was now 1.5 hours outside Yichang. We arrived at the terminal, which is still pretty rough, on an unpaved mud road from hell, and boarded the ship using a truly unique tram (for 2 RMB each- 40 cents), so we wouldn't have to walk down the 100 stairs to the ship carrying our luggage. LOL 
On board!

Tram on the left, stairs on the right...

The tram down to the ship...
The ship, however, the MV Century Diamond, was 5-star, world-class, and truly elegant, with a helpful English-speaking staff (especially Cruise Director Stephen), a spa offering Chinese spa treatments, a lovely bar, a top sun deck with tables and chairs, sun beds and swings (where one could smoke), and all the other cruise line amenities- and we had a lovely, truly world-class stateroom with a balcony! This really was a "bucket list" dream come true: I was on a cruise on the Yangtze River with the love of my life!!! The minute we were on board we made a beeline for the bar, ordered ourselves a couple of fancy-shmancy whiskeys, and Immediately began to enjoy our cruise!

Our Stateroom and Balcony!

On board!


The famed Locks...




Three Gorges Dam Project
It was drizzling the next morning, when we did the "included" tour of the Three Rivers Gorge Dam- the biggest hydroelectric dam in the world- but we got to see both the "boat elevator" for small boats, and the famed locks that our cruise ship was supposed to sail through- until a month ago, when the Chinese gov't decided to jerk the cruise companies around and no longer allow them to go to the head of the lock queue... As a result of the drizzle, and due to Cruise Director Stephen making the excursion sound like a grueling 4k slog though the mud in the rain, we were the only adventurous souls in our little group to take the "optional" tour to the Ba Ja (Ethnic Minority) Village, and it was GREAT! Yes, these were two of those "follow the guy (or gal) with the flag" group tours that we normally avoid, but on a cruise you sometimes have no choice, and so you become one of those people you usually make fun of. LOL The "included" tour in the morning took us to the world-famous Three Rivers Gorge Dam, and we had a young guide who was Passionately invested in the dam, probably, as he explained, because his family was one of the hundreds of thousands of those displaced and relocated due to the building of the dam (which tripled the price of US concrete for a brief and shining moment in the 1990s, when China bought all its concrete for the project from the US), and the fact that their viliage was literally and deliberately sunk in the process. He was one of the lucky young people who, as a result of the dam, got to go to university, study English, and become a tour guide, and so become a part of that rarefied "world of the future", as opposed to the "older people", as he put it, who hate the dam, as it destroyed their village, history, culture, and everything that had been precious to them for untold generations... The Chinese thoughtfully installed a series of escalators, hillside gardens of flowering peach trees (which were undoubtedly gorgeous about a week after we were there), fountains, lookouts, and food stalls, and created a major tourist attraction out of something that is basically ungodly ugly. LOL The dam looks its best at night, when it is lit up like The Great Wall of Yichang, as it was at 11pm that night, when we stood outside on Deck 6 watching our cruise ship turn round and pull out of Yichang...
Making Peanut Candy!
Back at the ship...
After the Dam Tour, we came back to the ship for lunch (dumplings being the only really good thing on the buffet, and nothing special at that), and then went on the Optional Tour ($50pp) to the Ba Ja Village that was made to sound like a 4k trek through the mud of hell, but which was totally delightful! We went by boat to a "living museum" of an "Ethnic Minority Village" set in a  gorgeous, cloud-kissed mountainside, where we got to walk though a folk love story, starting with a traditional, masted sailing ship being pulled ashore by sailors, a young maiden being wooed by her flute-playing boyfriend, fishermen with cormorants and nets, waterwheels, washerwomen pounding laundry on the shore, free-roaming ducks, a lot of super-fun monkeys, who literally played and posed with us,  and finally a wedding, complete with live music and singing, crying women, and tea drinking- I was given a glass of fresh-leaf tea by one of the actors in the wedding! One of the tourists was "drafted" into playing the groom- right after which they had a baby! LOL Our guide sang us local folk songs on the bus, and was dressed in the traditional flower-embroidered outfit of pants and a tunic, with a conical, flower-filled straw basket on her back, very similar to the one we brought back from the Vietnam Highlands.  All the "street foods" looked and smelled So good that I bought us some yummy peanut candy we were given samples to try at the dam, and Dan grabbed a hot, spicy sausage-on-a-stick before we boarded the boat from the village back our ship. 
  

Boarding the boat to the village...


On the way to the village...




The start of the play...




Posing for a photo-op!

Elisse conversing with the monkey!


The village wedding...




Dancing Dan, or How we became the Party People of the Yangtze River Cruise: When we got back to the ship, we hastily changed for dinner, met our table-mates for the buffet (maki rolls with wasabi being the only vaguely memorable thing), and then went to the bar for the Captain's Welcome Party, which was celebrated with flutes of excellent, semi-dry Changyu Champagne (from the winery we visited while in Beijing), that's Way better than the sweet, headache-inducing "champagnes" we usually get in the USA. They were playing Sinatra when we arrived at the bar upon boarding, and that night they played swing music, and when I hear "In The Mood", baby's GOT to dance! Dan obliged me, and we instantly became The Dancing Party People of the cruise! A (very ballsy) divorce (I assume LOL), traveling wither her gal-pal, came up to me and asked if she could "borrow" my husband for a dance, and I told her yes- for half a dance. LOL So many people came up to us to compliment us on our dancing that I lost count! Dan and I, together with our table mates from Canada and Germany, instantly became The Party People of this cruise- truly a first for us! This was actually the most fun we'd ever had on a cruise, as far as fellow cruisers goes; with this jolly crew of all ages we danced up a storm, drank (Dan and I having finally bought the Wine Package, and me being determined to get my money's worth LOL) , took tons of group selfies, and enjoyed the ship pulling out of Yichang at 11pm from the top outside "smoking" deck! None of us could believe that our little group was the only one up on deck celebrating as we watched the ship pull out of port...  after which we went down and closed the bar at 11:30. LOL And so to bed, as Pepys would have said... 
Chef meets Chef!

Elisse with the Captain and his staff


The Party People!

Great Wall Wine!
 Woke up to a moving view of the Yangtze River and gorgeous mountains going past our cabin's balcony, and really wanted to just lay in bed with a cup of coffee... for the next year. LOL  So I stayed in bed through breakfast again, and made it to the dining room just in time to catch the included excursion. We went, by small and charming Chinese boats, through a gorgeous tributary of giant, cloud-tipped mountains, to another "ethnic village", this one in the "Goddess Scenic Area" of the Gorge, where we were entertained by local village singers. Our tour guide, who also sang us folk songs, told us that she taught herself English via TV and magazines, and that hers was one of the many families displaced from their now-underwater village by the dam... but that she happily accepted the trade-off: a 100sqm home + appliances in lieu of their 15sqm one, and opportunities such as becoming a tour guide, among other things... She's now working to put her son through college, as HS and college are "very expensive" in China, which only provides free grade and middle school. She had several local products for sale on the boat, and I split a 100 RMB 2-pack of the local "Goddess" tea with the young German gal in our group.   
 


Back on board...



From our balcony...




From our balcony...
Got back to the ship in time to enjoy sailing through one of the magnificent gorges on the top deck, and for Dan and I to rock in one of the porch swings in the sunshine... and then joined our table-mates for the Buffet Lunch. Found one thing worth eating this time: the spicy roast pork and what I think were rolls of tofu.  We loved this cruise 100%, and SO wished it had lasted for at least a week, if not more... but we were NOT impressed by the food at all.  The duck, which they always had and I always tried- in hope- was 90% bones, fat and skin, and no meat to speak of- as were most of the other meats. The stir-fried veggies and dumplings they've put out periodically were okay, as were the maki rolls, but nothing special. We're both VERY glad we did 3 weeks of "foodie" stuff all over China, because if we hadn't, and had only taken this cruise, we'd never know how truly marvelous Chinese food in China can be... 


I made us Spa appointments for Traditional Chinese Massages, and we decided not to do the "optional excursion" the next afternoon, but to relax and enjoy the scenery from the ship, as we sailed through the gorges. We went to dinner and then to the bar for the Staff Show, which, though def not the Tang Dynasty Show or Chengdu Opera,  was quite good; they did a short selection of Chinese village and "ethnic minority" dances, and one of the waiters was a very good Face Changing Artiste... 
"Face Changing"

(One does wonder where they're hiring dancers and training them to be waiters, housekeepers, and bartenders, or hiring maids and training them to be dancers...) Then we and our table-mates stayed on and danced up a storm to oldies and 70's disco- again, almost the only ones in the bar!  We went to the Spa and had the "Traditional Chinese Medical Massages and Foot Massages" @ 520 RMB- and I let them up-sell me into a "Cupping" treatment for Dan's chronic back pain for an additional 140 RMB, but to be honest, we found it way overpriced and were Not impressed. It cost us $175 and wasn't 1/2 as good as what we had in Xi'An for $30, and the cupping, while interesting, didn't seem to help his back pain at all... 
Cupping treatment

There was animal towel folding in the lobby in the afternoon, followed by cocktail mixing in the bar, a Captain's Bridge Tour, and Kite Flying... I went up on deck with a glass of wine and watched the  kite flying in the summery sunshine, and half-heartedly tried, but couldn't manage, to get a kite airborne (no wind), but eventually others did (all Chinese guests, of course- they know what they're doing LOL), and it was pretty enchanting to see the colorful kites fluttering over the ship as the mountains of China went by on one side of the ship, and hillside towns and cities on the other...  I think the last time I flew a kite was when Papa and I flew his "Japanese Fighting Kite" in Cunningham Park in NY when I was about 7... and a wave of nostalgic melancholy and sadness washed over me... 
Kite-flying...

Went back to our stateroom and laid in bed for an hour tor two before dinner watching the gorgeous scenery of China pass by, drifting in and out of sleep, and wishing this would last forever... 
 
Our stateroom...


From our balcony...

From our balcony...

The last night of the cruise I went to pay our bill at the desk, and then tried to change $200. $100 of my US banknotes were okay, but $100 was rejected: this one has a little tear, that one has blue ink on the edge, etc., and the Bank of China is So Strict... When I tried to object and discuss the matter with the lovely dancing desk staff they simply repeated the same phrase about the Bank of China being So Strict over and over until I finally gave up and walked away in frustration. Went to the bar for a last "free" drink, then up on deck to take a few photos of the passing city lights and suspension bridge reflected in the water... 


And then it was morning and we were in Chonqing! 
Docking in Chonqing...


We made it to the perfectly 21st century Chonqing airport, thanks, in Great measure, to David Liao who turned up at our cabin at 7:45am, a true and blessed surprise from Lyn at Yangtze River Cruise! I was expecting only a driver who didn't speak English- all I had booked as I thought that was all that would be needed- and boy, was I wrong! Thank goodness for David Liao- who, as it turned out, came to assist us as well as another couple on the cruise. The biggest surprise was to learn, first hand, that China really still does have Coolies- men who carry suitcases- AND PEOPLE- on their backs on bamboo poles- and not just at "tourist sites". The cruise company supposedly only pays for your bags to be delivered to the very long flight of  stairs- then it's up to you- or the coolies you hire- to get you to your car, a good 10-minute up-hill hike. Why don't they let the cars pull up to the stairs, you ask. And the only answer we can come up with is to keep the Coolies in business. As soon as you get off the ship you are greeted by a group of Coolies- the longshoremen of Chongqing. David and I quietly agreed that he would pay them (10 RMB per bag) to take all 4 of our bags to the vehicle, and I would pay him. Dan was actually offered a Coolie ride up the stairs, but demurred- had I known, I would have done it, just for the experience! As it was, it was pretty impressive to watch- and like seeing a slice of the "ye olde China" I know from novels I've read come to life- to watch them each haul 250 lbs. of suitcases on the end of bamboo poles across their shoulders, doing timed grunts was impressive, to say the least... I would have taken photos but things happened too quickly, and I frankly felt odd about taking tourist snapshots... When the car pulled up they started negotiating Again- but with David, not I. In the end I watched him give them 80 RMB- 20 RMB per bag, not the 10 originally agreed upon- and so learned they play that game with locals, too...  David instructed the driver to get us to the right place at the airport, which he did- I gave him 100 RMB, too. Then we found our check-in desk and got our boarding passes, but had to kill an hour before we could check our bags, and so had 2 really good lattes and a giant but bland (basically tasteless) "chicken noodle bowl" (topped with an omelet and an assortment of veggies and peanuts) at an airport restaurant- another 102 RMB. David magically appeared at our table, having assisted his other charges, and helped us get our bags checked. After he left, however, I wound up paying the extra 198 RMB to check our 3rd suitcase- it had wine in it, which I'd forgotten- along with a cigarette lighter and a can of Pepsi that got confiscated- and so I had to go back and check it, and come back through security again. The overly thorough woman who did my "pat-down" (and gleefully confiscated my cigarette lighter) had her 'wand' tuned so high it beeped over the Visa staples in my passport! Thanks to my hastily checking our carry-on bag without thinking, we had one of the beautiful ceramic bottles of delicious Baiju from the Water Towns shatter in the bag and soak everything- and a jar of chili paste leak all over (and destroy) one of Dan's tee-shirts- which looked like someone bled on it when we opened the case- and my black blouse stank to high hell! But the short flight to Guangzhou on Sichuan Airlines was fine- I think we were in Business Class as it was only 6 seats across, and the gorgeous cheongsam-clad stewardesses gave us snacks and juice. :-)   


Chonqing Airport




We got a taxi to the hotel with no problem, but it took forever, due to Insane traffic and our very nice driver's cluelessness, and cost 170 RMB. The Holiday Inn Guangzhou Shifu that we stayed at was literally on THE "Pedestrian Mall" of restaurants, shops and fun in Downtown (Litvan) Guangzhou... and our 10th floor room had a glorious wall of windows overlooking all of it...   
Holiday Inn Guangzhou Shifu
View from our guest room at the Holiday Inn
Downtown Guangzhou- the view from our guest room
Nighttime view from our guest room...

This hotel is THE place to stay in Guangzhou, that's for sure! I was greeted royally as IHG Platinum Elite, gifted with drink cards and a late 4pm check-out the next day that enabled us to relax prior to getting our night train back to Shanghai for our flight home. We were both pretty pooped, so I went down to the Concierge to find out if there was a good, local restaurant that would deliver to the hotel, and the very kind Concierge lady took me down the hall to the hotel's truly fine Cantonese restaurant, and I ordered Dan and I a very tasty Room Service mini-feast of local specialties: roast duck, a corn-eggdrop soup with lilies, and a stir-fried veggie dish of "lily flowers and beans" which included celery and other crunchy and tasty things and was excellent- and a dish of chili sauce on the side! I ordered "small" portions, which were, of course, stupidly large. LOL Got our glasses of free House Wine at the elegant bar (which has a free hors d'oeurve table with maki and such,  and a lovely outdoor smoking patio lit with fairy lights), and ordered a double Tanqueray G-and-T to take up with our dinner, which cheered Dan up immensely!

Our Guangzhou contact, Janvi, met us at the hotel in the morning and helped me buy a suitcase, and then took me to a special Guangzhou "Bamboo Pounded Noodle Soup" spot: I treated us to bowls of noodle soup topped with our choices: mine with pork-mushroom dumplings, his with offal- and pickles, peppers, vinegar, and chili sauce to add to taste- and got take-out to take back to the hotel. I SO hope we get to come back and do a REAL "foodie" tour through Guangzhou with Janvi!
Lunch with Janvi!

The special house-made noodles
Janvi at the Noodle Restaurant!













That afternoon the wonderful Holiday Inn staff arranged a taxi with a driver who left us right at the correct train station entrance, and a truly kind, young Red Cap at the Guangzhou train station stayed with us, used his iPhone app to communicate perfectly, and got us boarded early (all for 100 RMB,  and I gave him an extra 20). Our fellow passengers on the night train (which was a 4-berth soft sleeper, not the promised "capsule sleepers") helped us settle in for the night.  When we arrived in Shanghai in the morning, the Railroad Police at the Shanghai Station kindly helped us shlep our suitcases into a taxi, and we got to the Radisson Blu Hotel Shanghai New World, collected our waiting suitcase, and relaxed in their lobby with coffee until it was time to get the shuttle bus to the airport.  The Radisson Blu has a lovely, little Tea Shop, and I bought the small hot water "peeing Buddha" that we'd seen in action at the tea houses in Shanghai and Beijing... and then went back and bought a little tea table, and a sweet little tea pot and cup set, too! The tea-tastings and ceremonies we experienced in Shanghai (see my post here) and Beijing (see my post here) were something very special, and I wanted to be able to make tea like that at the Elkhorn Inn...  
My Chinese tea-table, back at the Elkhorn Inn

I must say, sadly, that our flights home on United, due to the United personnel we dealt with, were VERY, VERY BAD, and that, unless we have absolutely no choice, we will NEVER fly United again. We few from Shanghai to to L.A., and then to Chicago, and then to Roanoke, VA, with a 16 hour layover from hell in Chicago, and from the start United's personnel made it as bad as possible. United's staff in Shanghai lied to us: told we would only have to claim our bags in L.A., and that they were ticketed through to Roanoke, we wound up having to claim our bags in both L.A. AND Chicago, and get them re-ticketed in Chicago, which became a total fiasco that had me literally in tears. United's personnel, both on the aircraft and in the airports, literally bent over backwards to make the entire experience of flying as miserable and stressful as possible, and several of their stewardesses actually laughed and gloated with pleasure over the misery they caused us. The ONLY helpful people we dealt with on the way home were airport employees- two Skycaps in the airports literally saved the day for us- and tipping heavily didn't hurt. United's personnel left us with a Very bad taste in our mouths, and their "Customer Service" is non-existent; that fiasco of flights home was a very sad way to end a wonderful "once-in-a-lifetime" trip, and unfortunately, try as we might to get it out of our heads, that experience will stay with us...
When we got home, we unpacked all our spices and wine and other goodies, and then I set up our little Tea Table in the Elkhorn Inn's dining room. Following the included instructions, I then set about trying to make "Tea Boy" and "Happy Buddha" pee, like we'd seen them do in China- and after two days I finally got them peeing! LOL (There is a "learning curve" with this, but basically you pour hot water on them, then soak them in cold water. Then when you pour hot water on them again, they pee! :-) )