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A Journey on the Yangtze River, China
The primary embarkation point for downstream cruises is "China's foggiest city", Chongqing, previously known as Chungking. (Some places have a new and an old spelling that Westerners are familiar with, i.e. Beijing used to be called Peking) It's a grey, industrial city that sprawls over hilly terrain and offers a few interesting areas to explore if you have some time to kill before your departure, but it's not worth planning a stop over.
One of the most entertaining things for me on the cruise was the amazing array of craft you see plying the waters of the Yangtze. We saw everything from small bamboo rafts to cruise ships, car ferrys, and small barges loaded down with garbage - heading for recycling?? I wondered. On a recent river trip in Southeast Asia, I was confronted by the realization that in the third world, they do not have the infrastructure, that we take for granted here, to dispose of those convenient plastic bags that now replace cloth or straw sacks. When I first traveled in Southeast Asia, street vendors artfully wrapped to-go food in banana leaves. Now they have styrofoam.
Seeing the riverbanks lined with plastic bags at low water season, made me realize the enormity of the problem. Those are not birds in the trees. When the rainy season comes, the plastic bags that were snagged on branches, and marooned on the shore during the seasonal flooding, will resume their journey to the sea, to form vast, floating trash islands. Maybe universities need a new major, "Garbology"... and isn't that what we love about travel - it brings you face to face with issues we can ignore at home. (That's all the eco-babble for this post, hope it has inspired some rumination!)
Choosing your Ship
The spectrum of "cruise ships" on the Yangtze is broad. If you are an adventurous backpacker on a tight budget, you will find options, but be careful, we heard some horror stories! The most affordable ships exist to accommodate Chinese budget tourists and they offer absolutely no frills, "BYOTP" (bring your own toilet paper!) so know your capacity for roughing it before signing up for one of these cheap trips! On the other end of the spectrum are the European built ships catering to Westerners, which is what we chose. I am typically a "backpacker" when I travel on my own, especially in Asia, but I would say this is one place I would highly recommend splurging on a first class cruise.
Being a cruise novice, I was pleasantly surprised by the amenities of the ship. There are simple, private cabins with a small bed and tiny shower; or luxurious, two-room suites. What I enjoyed most was the access to information - I could have spent all day in the ship's cozy reading room stocked with beautiful books, in several languages, on the river, Chinese art and culture. An English speaking officer is always available to answer passenger's questions, and there are calligraphy demonstrations and lectures for those thirsty for knowledge. When you have had enough mental stimulation, there's a nice upper deck for relaxing with the wind in your face and the dramatic Gorges passing by. You won't miss a swimming pool!
FOOD: The food on the ship was served buffet style, so everyone could find something to their liking, either Chinese or Western. As on most cruise ships, it was three meals a day, "all you can eat", so we never went hungry!
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