My memory of our first night on the good ship Tianshan are hazy and peppered with weird dreams (which may not have been dreams at all). I know that the boat moved on after its first stop, a fact announced to me in the Chinese equivalent of double Dutch by our vociferous captain. I woke up many times to the sound of foghorns and worrying noises from the surrounding cabins. If I hadn't known better, I would have sworn that our neighbours were skinning each other or performing other kinds of satanic rituals involving chickens, cats and snakes (I thought about the soup we had seen in Guangzhou). I was vaguely aware that we pulled ashore somewhere overnight and was woken up properly by my new nemesis, the captain, informing us that we had docked at a place called Fengdu. I opened the window to get some fresh air, forgetting that I would fill my lungs with acrid blue smoke, and heard the sound of people above coughing out their lungs (hardly surprising with the fumes from the funnel choking every living thing within range).
I lay back down on the bed with the guide book trying to find out whether there was anything interesting to see in Fengdu, when the bloody cleaning woman burst in again, with her customary Chinese apology. I leapt up and was about to hurl a tirade of abuse when she shut the door again.
I turned into Victor Meldrew. "I don't belieeevve it! That bloody woman just walked in AGAIN! Don't these Chinese people believe in knocking on the door?" I ranted to myself for a further two or three minutes and realised that I had made a mistake. I had woken up Lisa.
"What's going on?" she asked. I apologised for waking her up and explained that, once again, our beloved cleaning woman had burst in without an invitation even though, this time, we had left the key in the door. Lisa wasn't as angry as I thought she would be.
"We've docked at a place called Fengdu," I said. "Shall we go for a wander?"
Lisa agreed and quickly got dressed. Escape from this boat, albeit temporarily, was a much better option than being stuck here in the cabin from hell. We would explore a new town.
Armed with a phrase book, dictionary and Lonely Planet, we left the cabin and tried to find out how long we would have before the boat left. We found an official looking person who informed us that the boat would depart at 10 o'clock, giving us approximately an hour and a half to see what Fengdu had to offer.
The boat was connected to the land by a precarious and seemingly everlasting ramp over the river. There appeared to be hundreds of people heading back towards the boat, leading me to believe that Fengdu really had nothing to offer at all. I warned Lisa to be careful because the last thing I wanted was to end up falling into the muddy brown waters of the Yangtse river. Lisa then told me about something she had read in the guide book the night before.
The Yangtse river basin is home to a variety of creatures, most notably microscopic worms and an assortment of freshwater snails.
You may ask why I should worry about that. I hate snails so much that I would willingly eradicate them from the Earth, if I had the power, along with wasps, slugs, spiders, ants and most other similar creatures. The only purpose for insects, arachnids and slugs, as far as I can tell, it to annoy and terrify humankind. Worst of all are wasps. What the hell are they here for? The little buggers spend the whole day buzzing round and stinging people for fun and do nothing more than procreate, leading to even more of the things. I have never been stung by a wasp but the very thought of being injected with wasp venom fills me with dread. I once read that a wasp sting killed a woman. The wasp in question was buzzing around her small child's head, so the woman swiped at it with her hand and made contact, stunning the creature as it crashed to the ground. Not content with that, the woman stamped on it. Unfortunately, her feet were bare and the wasp sting entered her foot. She had a massive allergic reaction to the venom and keeled over, dying a few hours later. I know that this was a very isolated case, but I have a fundamental fear of wasps, and when I hear that it is possible to die from a sting, my terror is cranked up a few thousand units. That is why, every summer, I run around like a screaming banshee, waving my hands over my head, knocking down old ladies and small children, whilst being chased by wasps who must thoroughly enjoy tormenting me.
Spiders also have the ability to turn me into a gibbering wreck. There are two good things about spiders: the can't fly and they eat insects. Other than that, they are creatures from hell. Whilst I will willingly and ruthlessly kill wasps in cold blood, my irrational fear of spiders is slightly different and leads me to spare their lives. I am scared of the potential size of a spider and its ability to bite and possibly kill a human being. If I find a spider in the house, I will try to catch it and throw it out of the window rather than killing it and facing the wrath of its bigger and more deadly relatives. I know deep down that if I kill a house spider I will not be the subject of a vendetta by its irate African cousin, mainly because tarantulas do not live in England and there are in fact no poisonous spiders in Europe (as far as I know). Furthermore, common sense tells me that spiders are not intelligent and will not despatch the arachnid equivalent of an assassin to England to hunt me down and destroy me. But logic and common sense evaporate when I am confronted by one of those horrible English spiders with a body the size of a peanut and four inch long legs. What's more, I know exactly how fast spiders can move. I once saw a hungry tarantula attack a gloved hand at the speed of light. One second, it was sitting there doing nothing; the next it had raced across the room to sink its fangs into the stupid idiot trying to provoke it.
I will never forget a science fiction program I saw about a new species of creature: the spiderwasp - a cross between a tarantula and a wasp created by a crazed scientist. If such a monster existed on planet Earth, I would volunteer for duty in outer space or lock myself in a sealed room for the rest of my life.
Anyway, back to the snails. The snails in the Yangtse river can be infected by the tiny worms carrying the disease bilharzia. These worms multiply and are eventually discharged by the snails into the river. The homeless creatures feel the urge to find a new home and, if an unfortunate human being happens along, a worm will use his body as a squat by boring into the skin and attaching itself to internal parts of the body, organs such as intestines and bladder being a prime target. The worst thing about this, apart from the fact that you are invaded by a horrible little disease-carrying parasite, is that you do not realise what is wrong until it is too late. The only sign that a worm has moved in is a rash, which may be accompanied by a bit of a fever. The disease, known as schistomiasis, announces its presence some time later when it has been established, by turning your guts into an inferno, discharging blood in your urine and irreversibly damaging your internal organs.
Isn't nature just wonderful? Not content with terrorising people with horrific creatures such as spiders and wasps, Mother Nature has created a worm which, pissed off because it was crapped out of a snail, will invade and systematically destroy human beings from the inside.
I'm glad I didn't bring my swimming trunks for a dip in the Yangtse. However, the rickety old ramp from the boat to the shore did worry me. It was narrow and full of large gaps and seemed very unstable. I would have felt unsafe on my own but the situation was made much worse by other people coming in the opposite direction. Luckily, we reached the shore safely, only to be harassed by people trying to sell us food, clothes, jewellery, toys and all manner of useless bric-a-brac.
When we had escaped the clutches of these street sellers, we walked onto the main road of Fengdu. To our left, men playing pool in the open air, suddenly stopped to stare at us. I honestly think that these guys had never seen anyone from outside China, mainly because of the way the stared at us and ran to fetch their friends, as if the freak show had come into town. I was used to being stared at and pointed at but this was the most intense episode and made me feel decidedly uncomfortable.
During the Han Dynasty, two men, Yin Changseng and Wang Fangping, lived on the mountain nearby. The combination of the family names, Yin and Wang, formed the word Yinwang. In China, Yinwang means the "King of Hell". Hence Fengdu and nearby Pingdushan are full of temples containing statues and sculptures of demons and devils and have been given names like "Bridge of Helplessness" and "Palace of the King of Hell".
As I walked the streets of Fengdu, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the King of Hell coming towards me. The town was gruesome and absolutely disgusting. The streets were filthy and the underlying smell was appalling. I had seen people fishing and washing in the river as we left the boat and once again thought of schistomiasis. Not only did they have to live in this horrible place, they also had to risk being occupied by parasitic, disease-carrying worms. Truly this was the abode of the King of Hell.
Another reason for venturing into Fengdu was to stock up on supplies. Our luxury cruise liner was not equipped with towels and we were running out of toilet roll. We had to stop at a shop. The first place we walked into seemed to be a general store of some kind. As we entered, the people inside stopped talking and stared at us with open mouths. I turned around and noticed that a few people had been following us along the main road. These were now waiting outside the shop. The shopkeeper seemed to be honoured by our presence and waved his hands in a gesture which said to me, "Welcome. Take your pick." The only thing we could see that we wanted were toilet rolls. Lisa pointed at them and held up two fingers. He handed them over and we gave him the required cash. Then he started picking up other bits and pieces and giving them to us; stuff like tissues, soap, candles and assorted knick-knacks. Politely, we shook our heads but he began to move around his shop pointing at food and drink. I think he wanted us to buy his complete stock. We declined and left the shop.
Further up the road was a woman selling clothes on a small market stall. She had a couple of small towels, which we bought. She, too, tried to sell us everything she had. Call me mean, but we declined once more.
The reception we got as we made our way through the town was amazing. Shopkeepers stopped what they were doing and stood in their doorways, openly gawping at us. Pedestrians stopped and stared at us as if we had just crawled out of a primeval swamp. The whole of Fengdu seemed to be coming to a standstill. I had had enough of the place. There was nothing to see here but filth and gawping Fengduvians. We had got what we came for and I just wanted to return to Tianshan - the King of Hell's luxury liner.
Lisa agreed and we turned round and headed back the way we had come. The woman who sold us the towels came charging up to us when we passed her. She gibbered something in Mandarin and then tried to take the towels back from us.
"What the hell's she doing?" I asked Lisa as if she'd know. I pulled the towels away from her and said "I don't understand. We have paid for these." Of course, once again I had forgotten that English is not understood by everyone on the planet. The woman also forgot that Chinese was not understood by everyone on the planet. You can guess what happened next. Lisa and I tried asking her in English what the problem was. She, and an increasing number of people tried to explain to us in Chinese what the problem was. We stood shouting at each other in an ever-increasing crowd of people for a good few minutes before common sense prevailed - we walked off. She chased us desperately trying to get her message across before finally realising that we couldn't speak her language. Standing in front of me, she pointed at the towels, made a hand signal to tell me how much I had paid, shook her head, and made another hand signal saying how much I should have paid - which of course was double the price I had paid.
I was tempted to hold out and refuse to pay. However, the price of the towels was so cheap that I gave in. I think they cost us the equivalent of 50p each. The woman may have charged us for one towel, not realising that we wanted two; after all, it was clear that language was a major problem in this and every other situation. I handed over the cash she claimed that I owed her and she tried to tempt me back to her stall to buy more of the rubbish she was selling. We politely refused and headed back to the boat amidst stares from everyone we passed.
We boarded the boat again and returned to our cabin. Lisa, by this stage, had begun to feel slightly ill, complaining of stomach pains and an urge to go to the toilet. I didn't need to go at all and I was wondering whether I could survive for the next couple of days without having to go into the bathroom at all. The cabin had been cleaned, though I have to use the word "clean" in its loosest definition. A couple of things had been moved around and the beds had been tidied up. Apart from that, the bathroom was still like a cesspool and the floor was damp and smelly. Lisa braved the toilet and I contemplated taking Immodium to clog up my intestines. Common sense prevailed and I decided not to risk damaging my insides, choosing to let nature take its course when the time came. Another option came to me, briefly. I could go and ask Matthew and Lucy if I could use their toilet. I decided against this for two reasons. First, their toilet may be worse than ours. Second, they would probably think that I was some kind of insane fruitcake for doing so.
Lisa seemed to be spending an awfully long time in the bathroom. Fearing that she might have been asphyxiated or attacked by a toilet creature, I tapped on the door and asked if she was alright. She wasn't. She had an attack of diarrhoea. I pitied her. We had stayed in a couple of beautiful hotels with pristine toilets, and would probably do so again when we left this cursed boat, but Mother Nature, the creator of microscopic disease-carrying worms with an attachment to human intestines, had decreed, in her infinite wisdom, that Lisa would be struck down with the trots when the only toilet available was the filthiest and most disgusting …apart from those outside of course.
Then a thought struck me. If Lisa had diarrhoea, it was quite likely that I would end up with it. After all, we had both eaten the same food for the last couple of days. If I succumbed to the same fate, I would be fighting her for use of the foul toilet in our cabin, the only other option being to risk my own life with the hellholes in the floor elsewhere on the boat. I prayed it wouldn't come to that.
Lisa told me she would be some time so I went for another walk. I stood on the top deck of the boat as it pulled away from Fengdu, pleased not only to see the back of the residence of the King of Hell but also because, with every yard the boat travelled down the Yangtse River, we were closer to leaving the boat.
The river was a strange colour. To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. I presumed that it would have the appearance of a river, unspoilt by pollution, which, though dirty, would still be capable of supporting life. Yet the colour was not what I expected at all - it was a sort of muddy yellow-brown colour and was so opaque that it was impossible to estimate its depth. I watched the water for a few minutes looking for signs of aquatic life but saw nothing more than the foam and bubbles created by the movement of the boat.
The banks of the river were home to a number of small communities ranging in size from a few small houses to small towns similar in size to Fengdu. On the far side of the river, I could see small fishing boats and groups of men untangling nets. I concluded that there must be fish living in the Yangtse and that they would probably rely on senses other than eyesight to navigate their way around the river. Alternatively, the fish may be similar to those found at the bottom of the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean; the ones to whom Mother Nature has provided a kind of built-in flashlight. I contemplated this further and imagined how such fish would react to being pulled out of the murky waters of the river into blinding daylight. I assumed that this was why the local people fished during the day, to make it more difficult for the blinded fish to escape, having been caught. I considered this surreal speculation for a few minutes more, but stopped when I thought about how the fish could arm themselves for capture by wearing sunglasses to protect their delicate eyes from the sun and make quick their getaway, being blessed, once again, with the ability to see and plan a route of escape. When I thought about it more, began to question my sanity. Fish wearing sunglasses? How crazy is that? It would be impossible for a fish to wear a pair of shades because fish do not have ears.
Seriously, though, my weird train of thought, heading directly towards madness, made me think once more about our predicament: we were stranded on a floating toilet, with no obvious place to escape; we were living in a prison cell with a toilet so bad that it would violate the health and safety laws in hell; Lisa had the trots; my mind was considering the possibility of fish wearing sunglasses. What could be worse?
The one good thing about the trip was the scenery. I dismissed thoughts of mutant fish and concentrated on the surrounding countryside once more. The river was flanked by green undulating hills and, as I said before, small settlements were dotted around. Other boats drifted along the river, ranging from large crafts, such as ours, to small fishing boats and rowing boats. People waved as they passed us and I waved back occasionally, as did the other passengers on the upper deck. I hoped that the novelty of our presence on the boat had begun to wear off by now because I was able to move around without attracting too many stares. Moreover, I was beginning to recognise a few people and even started to say "Hello" or just smile at them. In return, I received a friendly smile or a wave.
I stayed on the deck for an hour or so, during which time the boat pulled into shore once or twice. Each time, the loudspeakers all over the ship blared out the location and instructions in Chinese and passengers disembarked or new people joined us. My stomach began to tell me that it wanted food. I had seen enough scenery for the time being and I walked down to our cabin to see how Lisa was.
Back in Hong Kong, Lisa had had a similar stomach upset and a local doctor had prescribed a medicine called "Smecta" to ease her symptoms. It looked disgusting and tasted worse, apparently, but it appeared to do the trick. Lisa had not used it all and had been sensible enough to bring the remainder with us to China. In my absence, she had taken a dose and was lying on the bed, hoping it would do its job. I asked her how she felt.
While I'd been gone, she had made a couple of trips to the toilet and, although she was feeling uncomfortable, she felt well enough to eat. Our provisions from the supermarket were dwindling; we would have to find something to eat on the boat. On my way back to the cabin, I had noticed that the little shop was closed. There was nowhere else to eat apart from the canteen we had spotted last night. I was tempted to starve myself but, once again, common sense came to my rescue and persuaded me to at least try the food.
We knew that nobody spoke English on the boat, so we had to take our Chinese phrase book with us for protection. There was no way I was going to try fish and risk having my large intestine invaded by worms carrying bilharzia; I would be eating beef for lunch.
Café de Tianshan was full of people. The floor and the tables were covered in rice and beer and food was splattered all over the tables and chairs. There was not a spoon or fork in sight. People were sitting down at large round tables, spitting rice into each other's faces (by accident of course). Such was the noise level that everyone had to shout to be heard, and when the loudspeaker went off, the racket was unbearable.
Despite the apparent chaos, there was a system in place. First, we had to buy a ticket. Next we had to present our ticket to a man with three huge vats of steaming food and claim our lunch. Next step was to pick up the rice, the final step being to obtain your drinks.
We walked up to the ticket man with the phrasebook and pointed at the words "beef" and "rice". He nodded and handed us two tickets. Next, we approached the man with the vats of food. He handed us two bowls of meaty stew and two bowls of rice. Finally, we picked up two bottles of water and two sets of chopsticks.
After a few minutes, we found a relatively clean table and sat down to eat. Once again we were being stared at as we ate our lunch, this time, I think, because our fellow passengers had never seen western people eat Chinese food with chopsticks and they muttered to each other as we ate. Call me sensitive, but I don't like being scrutinised while I eat. I found the experience extremely uncomfortable and had to restrain myself from shouting "WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?". It was worse for Lisa because I spent the entire meal moaning about all my troubles, which, on this vessel, were many. The one good thing about our lunch, surprisingly, was the food itself. Our attempts to ask for beef had proven successful and it was very nice.
That afternoon, the temperature rose even though the sun was obscured by hazy clouds. Both Lisa and I went back up onto the top deck briefly, but the haze made it difficult to discern the surrounding landscape. We headed back to the cabin and opened the window to cool down. Even though it was hot outside, the air conditioner in our room turned the cabin into a furnace and the slight breeze, though warm, was very welcome. I lay down on the bed and began to contemplate life when my worst nightmare burst in and announced its presence: I needed to use the toilet - and I may have the trots!
The thought of even entering the bathroom filled me with dread, but to use the toilet almost made me suicidal. My nose and eyes were going to be subject to an intolerable beating and I really didn't want any part of my skin making contact with the toilet at all. I plucked up the courage when I considered the alternatives, though I was tempted to simply go to the lowest deck, find a corner and crap into the river. The next few minutes brought a mixture of total revulsion and utter relief. The bad news was that the toilet was still horrific. The good news was that I hadn't suffered the same fate as Lisa and managed to complete the task in hand and leave very quickly.
The next major town was called Wanxian and was described as very good place to explore. However, the boat, for some reason, only stayed there for about ten minutes and we were not allowed to get off. This amazed me because they had allowed us to come ashore at the palace of the King of Hell, yet wouldn't allow us to visit a town described as "neat, hilly and a great place to wander around for a few hours". We were both totally pissed off and frustrated that we couldn't leave the boat when we wanted to and that the only place we had actually stopped at for any significant period of time was Fengdu, the world's biggest cesspool.
The good thing was that, by this stage, we only had to spend one more night on the boat and within thirty hours, we would be, once more, sleeping in a comfortable bed in a lovely hotel in a nice little town called Yichang. At least that's what we hoped.
We spent the next hour or two being cooked in our cabin. We had the window wide open and tried to cheer ourselves up by playing cards and planning the rest of our trip after the cruise from hell. Eventually, I became so hot and sweaty that my only option was to cool down in the shower. I would have to suffer the disgusting bathroom once more. In the end, it wasn't too bad. The relief of the ice cold water on my body, though shocking at first, was totally welcome.
Bored with the cabin, we wandered back upstairs to the top deck. We stopped briefly at Yunyang, which apparently had a superb temple and once again we were not allowed to get off. A foghorn almost perforated my eardrums as we drifted out onto the river once more.
We strolled to the front of the boat and sat on deck watching the unfolding scenery. Just then, an old man, his wife and, we guessed, his son and daughter-in-law. Came and stood next to us. The old man looked at us and gobbed onto the deck. I turned to Lisa and said "Charming". When I looked again they were having a family conference and pointing at us openly.
"This is ridiculous," I said to Lisa. "I can't believe they're so bloody obvious about it."
Lisa said. "Look! He's getting a camera out." I turned to see the man smiling at us as he pulled out a camera. I couldn't believe this. He was going to take a photograph of us. Were we that strange? Was our appearance so bizarre that he had to record it so that he could show it to future generations? Actually, I didn't mind if he did take a photo of us. In the end, it turned out that he wanted us to take a photograph of him. Lisa obliged. She said "Say cheese" just before she took the picture but I think they failed to understand. Not that they needed any encouragement to smile, because they were all beaming from ear to ear.
While Lisa was taking the photo, I took a closer look at the old man. He was dressed in fairly modern, western clothes - his shorts were not too dissimilar to mine but had a British, American and French flag on them, along with a few others I didn't recognise.. He had short grey hair and a bright orange cap with "Syracuse Orangemen" on it. I think he thought that we were American. Lisa handed the camera back and he grabbed her hand and shook it. He then shook my hand and patted me on the back before leaving us. Judging from his clothes, I would have said that he was fairly well off and may have been staying in first class. However, within a few minutes, we saw the other end of the spectrum.
A small girl, aged about eight or nine, wearing a filthy dress came up to us and just stood there watching us intently. Her feet were bare and her legs, arms and face were covered in grime. Her hair was long and messy, as if she had just got out of bed. Lisa knew how to say "hello" in Mandarin and tried to communicate with the girl. She received no response, only a blank look. Once more we were being regarded as aliens but this time we didn't mind. Through the grime and muck, the little girl was quite pretty and I felt sorry for her. After a few minutes, she walked away, clearly bored with us. Around ten minutes later, we returned to our cabin once more. On the way, we passed the little girl again. This time, she was curled up in her mother's arms on the deck of the boat. The two were enjoying the benefits of fifth class and I felt totally sorry for both of them. To me, the sight of these two unfortunate people summed up the feeling of disgust and disappointment I felt about this trip. Compared to them, we were enjoying a luxury cruise. I looked around and saw other passengers in fifth class sitting on blankets on the deck, having staked their claim to their piece of turf. I was depressed and in need of a beer to numb my negative feelings.
Time drifted on and it began to get dark. The itinerary of the boat was such that we would encounter the first of the three gorges tomorrow morning in the early hours. An early night was called for and, after chatting and drinking a beer or two, we retired at around 9.30. Once again our sleep was punctuated by horrific noises from outside. At one point, I was wrenched from my slumber by a very loud clanking noise, lasting for about twenty minutes. By the time it had finished, I was wide awake and tried to sleep again, a task made more difficult by the loudspeaker blaring out at us and our neighbours skinning animals and gobbing everywhere. It was going to be a long night.