I asked myself whether today could possibly be any worse than yesterday and decided that it couldn't. After all, today we would see the three gorges, the Three Gorge Dam and arrive in Yichang and finally leave this horrible vessel behind forever. I convinced myself that today would be a good day.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
For both of us, the day started at 4.30 in the morning when I heard Lisa rush out of bed and into the seventh level of Hades masquerading as our bathroom. She emerged after about twenty minutes. The Smecta from yesterday had run its course, announcing the fact by subjecting Lisa to the worst kind of alarm call. Her life was once more blessed with diarrhoea. Worse than that, she had to endure twenty minutes in our bathroom and, as if to rub a ton of salt into a gaping wound, she had to, somehow, flush the unflushable toilet. During the last few minutes of her toilet trauma, I heard the sounds of a desperate person attempting to rid the world of a foul entity using water alone. I felt so sorry for Lisa and, when she came out, tried my best to comfort her in her hour of need by cracking a joke.
"Are you going to move in there?" I asked with a smile.
You instinctively know when you have put your foot in your mouth. Usually there is an expression of intense anger, disgust or amusement on the face of the target of your amusing quip, the amusement materialising only when it is you who have completely embarrassed yourself by saying something about another person when that person is within earshot. Like the time I told a young programmer on my team exactly what I thought of the company quality system. I stood on my soapbox and ranted for about ten minutes, causing much amusement. Foolishly, I thought that these people were laughing at what I had said. It was only when I turned around that I realised my audience was howling because the Quality Manager was standing behind me with his arms folded and his right foot tapping, wearing a face that can only be described as thunderous. I had so much egg on my face that you could have kept the American omelette industry in business until the end of the next millennium.
My off the cuff remark produced an intensely angry reaction in Lisa. At 4.50 in the morning, it was still dark so I couldn't quite make out the expression on Lisa's face as she marched over towards my bed, seemingly cured of her affliction. I squinted in the darkness to see whether she was smiling or not and noticed the faint whiteness where her teeth should be, which I mistakenly thought was a smile. As she got closer, I knew that something was amiss and I sensed rather than saw the blow aimed in my direction.
I covered my head as her fist struck. Lisa then gave me a lecture about the misery of diarrhoea and the pain and agony of being ill in such a horrible place, topped malevolently by the requirement to spend the last few minutes trying to expel the horrific substances produced by such afflictions.
"AND IF I DIDN'T HAVE THE RUNS AND WASN'T FACED WITH THE PROSPECT OF USING THAT BOG AGAIN, I WOULD HAVE LEFT THE MESS IN THERE FOR YOU TO CLEAN UP!" she bawled as I reeled from her verbal onslaught. I apologised but it was far too late for that. The temperature in our room rose a few degrees and I could have sworn that Lisa was glowing with rage in the bed next to me. I tried to get back to sleep but it was difficult, especially since Lisa had to make another trip to the toilet later.
Many strange noises echoed menacingly around the cabin outside as I tried to return to sleep. I think I succeeded for a while but was woken up by a repetitive ripping noise. I wondered what our neighbours were doing. Clearly they had managed to finally remove the skin from the creature or person they had been torturing the night before and were now tearing it into strips. I couldn't help thinking that it sounded extremely loud. The ripping stopped for a few seconds and I tried to drift back to sleep but I then heard a pitter patter sound from the roof of our cabin and moving down to the walls. What were they doing? Somebody was tapping the walls and ceiling. My imagination ran amok as I tried to work out what the hell was happening. Soon, the tapping stopped and, after a brief pause, the ripping noise resumed. I lay there and examined the noise and was suddenly aware that it was emanating from our room.
I wondered whether Lisa was losing her mind or had somehow become insane due to her illness. It sounded to me as if she was slowly tearing strips of paper, either in an attempt to calm herself down or to control her temper. Surely I hadn't annoyed her that much. I decided to turn over and try to sleep.
As I did so, the light came on and Lisa shouted "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?"
Puzzled, I turned over to face her and said, "What am I doing? What are YOU doing?"
At that moment, it dawned on us that the ripping noise was not due to either of us. That was the same moment we both heard the pitter patter noise and frantic scampering up around the wall and ceiling. I sat up and looked around but couldn't see anything on the walls and ceiling to make such a noise, so I looked at the floor. I couldn't believe what I saw.
Strewn along the floor were large pieces of torn toilet paper, full of little holes. Last night, we had placed one of the rolls we had bought from Fengdu on the table behind my bed. It was now completely unravelled, torn to bits and scattered over the entire floor of the cabin. I opened my mouth in disbelief. Lisa immediately worked out what the problem was. "It’s a bloody RAT!" she shouted. Closer examination of one of the sheets of toilet paper revealed tiny tooth and claw marks. The little bastard had somehow got into the room and decided to eat our loo roll. I noticed that there was a small hole about the size of an orange next to the bathroom door. Why I hadn't noticed this before is a surprise but I guess that I wasn't looking for the vermin entrance to this hellish prison cell. To confirm our suspicions, the scampering resumed above our heads on the ceiling.
The rat had clearly made the gaps between the cabins above, below and to the side of ours, its home. I was out of the bed like a shot, to cover the hole, fearing that the creature would once more pay us a visit. There was nothing in the room suitable so I used the remains of the half-eaten loo roll. After all, neither of us was going to use toilet paper covered in rat saliva and other potential infestations caused by the flea ridden beast.
The whole episode was beyond belief. This room minged; the bathroom minged; the boat minged; the creature who had tried to consume our toilet roll minged. The whole fucking thing minged so much that I wanted to destroy it. I was furious. I stomped around and ranted, sending a message out to all of our neighbours, who may have been listening, that I hated this cruise, I hated this boat, I hated everybody on the boat, I hated the cabin and I especially hated the bathroom. If the rat had entered the room at that precise moment, I would have held it captive until Lisa's next emergency, then drowned the little bastard in the toilet.
Time had passed and it was almost light outside. Captain Loudmouth burst into our lives announcing something in Chinese, which, of course, I couldn't translate. His bawling clearly had an effect on the other passengers in the boat because, seemingly as one, people started moving around. Our neighbours, the cat-skinners, slammed the door and walked along the corridor talking loudly and incessantly. I figured that we were about to sail through the first of the three gorges, so I got dressed and, extremely keen to get some fresh air after our experience with Mr Rat, set off for the top deck of the boat armed with the camera. Lisa, understandably, preferred to stay in bed and try to catch up on her sleep.
The Qutang Gorge is the first and smallest of the three gorges we were to encounter on our journey, being 8km in length. I made my way up to the top of the boat and joined the crowds as we passed slowly through the gorge.
Dawn was literally breaking, and the early morning mist, coupled with the haze gave an eerie picture. The river was flanked by cliffs, which rose out of the water. At the top of the cliffs we could just about make out the green hills drifting away into the distance. It was almost as if somebody had cut a huge slice out of the land and half-filled the gap with water. Qutang Gorge is supposed to be the most turbulent of the three gorges but, to me, the water seemed to be very calm, although it did flow fairly quickly. I took a few pictures to try to capture the eerieness of the scenery but I feared that the photographs wouldn't encapsulate the atmosphere. The other passengers were far more interested in the scenery than they were in me, which made a welcome change, and they stood there silently, as I did, marvelling at the gorge.
The sad thing about the three gorges (or Sanxia) is that there is limited time to enjoy the splendour of them. The Chinese are building, or may already have built, a huge dam called the Sanxia Dam, which will submerge the three gorges beneath nearly a hundred metres of water. The plan is to create an artificial lake starting at the dam itself in a place called Sandouping, and stretching back 550 km to completely cover the gorges and any villages or settlements on the way. Looking at the Qutang Gorge, I felt very sad that it would not be around for much longer, or at least open to the air, and I wondered why the Chinese wanted to effectively destroy this area of natural beauty. At the same time, however, I was pleased that I had the chance to see it for myself, rather than reading about how beautiful it was, years after the dam had been completed. I sensed that the other passengers felt the same.
With my camera, and my thoughts, I went back to the cabin when we reached the end of the gorge, meeting the Syracuse Orangeman and his family on the way. This time he put his arm round me, smiled and shook my hand. I returned the smile and said "Hello", which pleased them so much that they tried to say "Hello" back to me. I had definitely warmed to this guy and his family because, unlike the other passengers, he didn't stare at me; he actually made an effort to make me feel welcome and, although we couldn't communicate, I sensed that he genuinely wanted to know more about us. As I descended the stairs, I waved to him and his folks, and got back to the cabin with a smile, rather than a scowl at the thought of spending more time in hell's pit.
Lisa was fast asleep when I returned. I looked at my watch and it was 6.30 in the morning. There was nothing else to do but sleep myself. I got undressed and climbed back into bed, thinking thoughts of beautiful scenery and Yichang, the end of this horrific trip, instead of depressing myself contemplating rats, toilets and parasitic worms. Sleep arrived much quicker than I had anticipated as I succumbed to the gentle rocking of the boat, and the fact that Mr Rat, the cat torturers and the captain had decided to take a break from keeping me awake by ripping toilet paper, murdering kittens and bawling and setting off the foghorn.
We awoke when the captain announced, a few hours later, that we had docked in a place called Baidicheng. The guide had hinted, rather than explicitly stated, that Baidicheng might be worth a visit. I dismissed all memories of Fengdu, lest I see this town through tainted eyes, and started to get dressed, whilst Lisa, who was beginning to feel much better, used the toilet.
That's when our day suddenly became much worse.
I think Lisa heard my howl of anger before I realised I was actually making a noise. It happened when I decided to extract a few yuan from my moneybelt to take to Baidicheng in case we found something worth buying. My wallet was empty. I assumed that I had simply transferred my loose cash to the moneybelt. When I found that, too, devoid of cash, a sudden realisation slapped me in the face. I had been robbed.
Lisa came rushing out of the bathroom. I told her what had happened to me and she ran to her pillow to get her moneybelt which was hidden underneath. For a second I was relieved that Lisa hadn't been as stupid as I had, leaving my moneybelt on the table alongside my wallet. In the end, my stupidity would count for nothing anyway, because the thieving bastard had also cleared out Lisa's moneybelt, without disturbing Lisa and amazingly managing to keep the moneybelt seemingly secure underneath the pillow. A further check revealed that, fortunately, only the cash had been stolen; our passports, traveller's cheques etc. were still there. This was the last straw. I declared war on the boat, on its passengers, its captain and its crew.
After we had calmed down, we sat down and put our heads together to work out how much had been stolen, how the thief could have got into the cabin, when the theft had occurred and what the hell we were going to do with no cash to pay for a hotel in Yichang.
How much had been stolen? In Chongqing, seemingly an eternity ago, Lisa and I had spent a good ten minutes discussing how much money we would need for the cruise. She had suggested we should change a lot, I suggested that because we would be stopping off at towns on the way, we should change a little. In the end, we had around three hundred pounds worth of cash, some of which we had spent. This is the amount we would say had gone missing. As I considered this, I felt relieved that we hadn't changed more money. I didn't fancy our chances of getting the missing cash back here in China but this loss would already mean that we would have to cut down on a few things for the remainder of the holiday. That was infuriating.
How had the thief got in and when had the theft occurred? We assumed that the theft had taken place in the middle of the night before Mr Rat had paid us a visit and before Lisa had had the first of her dashes to the toilet. Furthermore, although the window was closed, it had been unlocked, leading us to conclude that the perpetrator had somehow clung to the ledge outside the boat, opened the window, stepped into the room. past my bed, and stolen the money when the boat had moored the night before. The only alternative was that someone had come in through the door, which was only possible if they had a key, because I had been taking great precautionary measures to ensure that the cleaning lady couldn't burst in on us unexpectedly.
I briefly considered whether it could have been the cleaner, or someone who had access to or had stolen her key, but I figured that once we reported this theft to the authorities, the cleaner may come under suspicion anyway. Besides, several other factors lead me to believe that the burglar had entered through the window; my notebook had mysteriously managed to jump down from the table next to the window, to the floor; the toilet roll, which had been attacked by Mr Rat had also been knocked on the floor, rather than, as I had originally deduced, the rat climbing onto the table and somehow dragging the toilet roll off the table before tearing it to shreds. As we talked about the method of entry etc., I realised that Lisa was becoming more upset. She had been in bed when the theft occurred and, being asleep, had been totally vulnerable as the bastard had pulled the moneybelt from underneath her pillow. I, too had been vulnerable, but my feelings were purely driven by rage rather than fear of what might of happened. I wanted to lynch the bastard who had done this, not only for actually stealing the money, but also for upsetting both myself and Lisa and for finding a new level beneath the lowest level of Hell for this boat trip.
What were we going to do with no money? Well, fortunately, the boat was due to be moored at Baidicheng for six hours. We set our priorities based on the current time. It was around 10.30, so, if Baidicheng had any banks were we could cash traveller's cheques, we would be able to get some more cash. Armed with the Chinese dictionary, we stormed out of the cabin, like two angry demons and marched up to the administration office to report the crime.
We found a woman who we knew was some kind of tourist representative and cornered her in her little office. Her knowledge of spoken English was limited, but she could write English very well. We used the Chinese dictionary to carefully and patiently tell her what had happened. She said something about fetching a policeman and disappeared, to return a few minutes later with a man who clearly wasn't a policeman, but rather a security guard on the boat. She then went to call a real policeman from Baidicheng.
While we waited for him, the rep asked us more questions, by writing down English sentences and looking up words in the dictionary. We tried to answer her verbally but she had difficulty understanding so we wrote the answer down as simply as we could. Using this technique, asking us questions like "How much money?", "Was the window open?", "Was the window unlocked?", "Were you asleep?" she managed to piece together our interpretation of what had happened. All three of us had to be very patient, myself especially. As I said earlier, I had declared war on this boat and all its crew and passengers, and I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from ranting. After all, this woman was trying her best to help two very distraught foreigners, under extremely difficult circumstances; shouting at her, whether she understood me or not, would not help the situation. She spoke to the security guard and tried to tell him the events of the night.
Eventually, a policeman from the town arrived and ushered us off the boat. It seemed that the investigation would continue at the local police station. Myself, Lisa, the tourist representative and the security guard, walked down the jetty to the town of Baidicheng and onward to the police station on the main street. My mind was totally preoccupied so I didn't have much time to observe the town itself. We arrived at the police station and sat inside, apparently waiting for someone to take a statement. Trying to relate our plight to the tourist rep had taken much longer than we thought and, luckily, as we sat waiting, I decided to check my watch. It said 11:58. I asked what time the banks closed. The answer horrified me. The banks closed at midday.
Fortunately, I had brought my traveller's cheques and my passport, so I ran out of the police station and was forced to examine the main street rather than blindly following other people. Baidicheng was a lot cleaner and a lot bigger than Fengdu. The police station was situated on what appeared to be the main shopping street. There were more people and, again unused to seeing a foreigner, almost all of them stared at me. I spotted a bank across the street and rushed across. The bank had no customers and, almost as soon as she saw me, the bank teller pointed towards the street again. I assumed that she meant that the bank was closing and almost pleaded with her to change some money. Another assistant appeared and told me in very broken English that this branch didn't deal with international transactions, pointing down the street to indicate that there was another branch there that could help me.
I looked at my watch again. It was midday. I panicked and ran outside. There was another bank about fifty yards further down the main street on the other side of the road. Time had run out so my only option was to sprint towards it, trying my best not to bump into people or push them out of the way. As I ran, people stared at me almost goggle-eyed. I was still trying to be polite, saying "Excuse me please" as I threaded through the crowd. After what seemed like an eternity, though it was probably only around half a minute, I reached the bank, the Agricultural Bank of China, and darted inside. I held up my passport to the woman behind the counter and, to my horror, she shook her head and pointed even further down the street. Surely it was too late now. I feared that the Chinese would be bang on time, shutting the banks and I almost gave up at that point. When I considered the alternatives, walking around a strange town, being unable to get a room because we had no cash, I decided to give it a try.
Once more, I dashed out of a bank in search of another one. Sure enough a further fifty yards down the main street, I saw a much larger branch of the Bank of China. This had to be the correct one. It was almost as if time had rewound as I sprinted down the street once more, to the amusement of the local people. What I haven't told you is that the temperature in Baidicheng was in the high nineties, so running was not pleasant at all. When I finally reached the Bank of China, I was wheezing so much that I could barely speak. Crawling to the desk, I handed over my passport and whispered "Can … I … change … some … money … please?". This time, the bank teller was a man who smiled as he pointed to his right. I understood this to mean "No, mate! It's another bank further down the street." Something inside me collapsed. My will to live, perhaps. I must have visibly sunk.
The teller said something else to me in Chinese but I wasn't listening. I started to walk out of the bank when he actually came around the desk and pointed to a door inside the building. I hadn't noticed it but the words on the door itself sparked a little bit of hope inside me. The words were in English and, though I can't remember them exactly, I do know that the word "International" was one of them. Trying my best not to collapse into a heap on the floor, I walked through the door into another room where there were roughly ten people milling around behind the desk. I looked at my watch again. 12:03. I handed over a traveller's cheque to one of the guys behind the desk and he looked up at the wall clock, which told him the time was 12:05 - the bloody thing was fast. In fairly good English, he informed me that I should come back at 3pm.
"I CAN'T," I wailed. "The boat will be gone by then."
He looked at me, saw the desperation on my face and said, in fairly good English "OK!". The man was my hero. I don't know how many times I said "Thank you," as he handed over the cash but a million times wouldn't have been enough.
I left the bank in a slightly happier mood, making sure that the cash was safely tucked into my money belt. I was hot and perspiring heavily, and I could feel sweat dripping down my forehead into my eyes as I walked. I had fastened the money belt so tightly around my waist that I could feel it imprinting an impression of itself on my skin. Heat radiated from my head, which I guessed was scarlet with the exertions of the last couple of minutes. People continued to stare at me as I made my way to the police station, probably because I looked as if I were about to melt into the footpath rather than being the only foreigner in Baidicheng.
Back in the police station, nothing more had happened. The policeman had made a couple of phone calls in my absence and left Lisa, the security guard and the tourist rep sitting there twiddling their thumbs. Lisa perked up when I told her that I had managed to acquire some cash and told me that we had to get some kind of loss form, signed or stamped officially by the Chinese authorities, if we were going to stand any chance of getting the cash back upon our return to England. Due to the lack of spoken English, I feared that this task would be very difficult. I had assumed that we were here in the station to take a statement and found it difficult to hide my surprise, frustration and annoyance, when the policeman beckoned outside. Nothing had happened. We had been sitting around for over half an hour and now, it seemed, we were returning to the boat.
Outside, the policeman hailed a taxi, driven by the cousin of Mr Madman, the taxi driver who had taken us from Chongqing airport to the hotel. This particular taxi was more like a minibus and he raced through the streets of Baidicheng, oblivious to pedestrians, cars, bikes and, it seemed, buildings. The most amazing thing about this white knuckle taxi ride was the presence of the policeman, who had decided to come back to the boat with us. Why the taxi driver wasn't booked, hung drawn and quartered for the insane way he belted down narrow streets, I will never know. Perhaps the police in China are even worse drivers.
The taxi eventually arrived at the quay where the boat was moored and for a second, I thought he was going to try to board the boat himself. Luckily, he screeched to a halt throwing all of us against the side of the minibus. Incredibly, the policeman paid the driver without as much as a finger wagging at the appalling driving. Breathing a sigh of relief, we boarded the boat and settled down in the tourist rep's little office.
The security guard and the tourist rep spent the next ten minutes filling in a statement about the sequence of events, the rep dictating whilst the security guard wrote down the details in Chinese. We waited patiently until they had finished producing two such statements, and then the policeman produced an inkpad, using sign language to indicate that one of us should endorse them with a fingerprint. Lisa volunteered and then tried to ask for one of the copies of the statement. With the help of the Chinese dictionary and the tourist rep's grasp of English we managed to get our message across to the policeman. However, he simply shook his head. Evidently we could not take a copy of the statement, nor would they provide us with a form to say that we had in fact been robbed. One of the statements was for the police, the other for the boat's records. We, the victims of the crime, were not allowed to have a copy. Bugger! For ten more minutes, we tried to explain the concept of insurance and tried to get the policeman to at least give us some proof that we had visited the authorities. We only succeeded in getting the policeman's name, address and telephone number. The policeman left the boat satisfied that everything had been covered. Lisa and I were totally dissatisfied and cursed as we left the office. We consoled ourselves in the fact that we were due to visit some major cities and that we could try once more to get an official loss form, using the policeman's name as proof. The authorities may at least be able to call the policeman and obtain proof that he did deal with a robbery on the boat in Baidicheng. We also decided to phone the British Embassy to seek advice when we reached a suitably large city.
Dejected, we went back to the cabin, taking all necessary precautions to ensure that our hellish haven would be safe from light fingered locals and toilet roll eating rodents. I locked the door and window, drew the curtains and blocked up the hole next to the bathroom through which the rat had entered. We were both thoroughly drained by stress, unwanted athletic exercise and illness. We both collapsed on our respective beds and dozed until there was something else worth seeing.
As I lay down, I was visited, once more, by Captain Paranoia, my unwanted companion on this trip. It was already difficult enough to sleep on this boat, without being subjected to taunts about being continually robbed and mugged, and having signed police statements with fingerprints. For all I knew, the statements could have said "Please arrest us. We are guilty of crimes against the Chinese people and should be thrown into a jail and left to rot for the next 25 years with nothing to eat but cat soup and extremely dodgy looking Dim Sum.". I couldn't wait to get off this bloody boat!
Despite the traumas of the day, Lisa somehow managed to fall asleep. I could hear her soft breathing as I argued with my hated imaginary nemesis. Every sound caused major paranoia. Was that scratching noise a hungry rat searching for a new bog roll? Was that click somebody trying to carefully and noiselessly trying to open the window? Was somebody even now attempting to pick the lock on the door to the cabin? You've probably guessed that I didn't get a wink of sleep, even though I was exhausted. I checked the time, hoping that somehow the boat had increased its velocity and reached Yichang hours ahead of schedule. My watch told me that the boat had probably slowed down and that we may have to spend yet another night in this stinking, rat infested cabin.
For the first time, I seriously considered what it must be like in hell. A luxury cruise through hell's rivers could not be worse than this; a river infested with man-eating worms, being forced to live in an odious room on a filthy boat plagued by vermin and having your privacy invaded by a thieving bastard while suffering from a major stomach upset with the only toilet available being full to the brim with tons of human waste, smelling like a very ill elephant's arsehole. These things would surely be on Satan's list to make the cruise as horrific as possible.
Time passed by so slowly. I lay staring at the ceiling trying to dream up plans for torturing the bastard who stole our money if ever I caught up with him. Eventually, the captain of the boat announced that we were about to reach the second of the three gorges. Lisa woke up with a start and I asked her how she was feeling. Physically, her condition had improved dramatically and she felt a lot healthier. Mentally, however, she, like me, was very angry and very upset about the events of the day. We needed cheering up. I told her that the Qutang Gorge had been well worth seeing and that the other two gorges were supposed to be longer and better. Before going up to the top deck, we made sure that we had all of our valuables with us. I double checked the window and made sure that the rathole was blocked. We left the cabin and I checked the door at least twice to make sure that nobody could get in our absence.
Up on the top deck, we once more bumped into the Syracuse Orangeman. He was sitting down on one of the few seats on the boat. As soon as he saw us, he stood up and beckoned his family to do the same, holding out his hand to indicate that we should take their place. We politely declined and opted to stand right at the front of the boat. Strictly speaking, passengers were not allowed to do this; a chain blocked off the front quarter of the deck. Whether it was considered dangerous, I don't know, but Lisa and I decided that we needed something to cheer us up. Like two naughty children, we stepped over the chain and stood at the bow. The boat sailed into the entrance of the second gorge, called Wu Gorge, and the cliffs, once more rose up on both sides of the river. The wind was very strong and howled between the cliffs. Lisa an I did our impersonation of Leonardo de Caprio and Kate Winslett in Titanic. We stretched out our arms and let the wind tear at our clothes. The effect was totally exhilarating. The wind was clean and fresh and it was a relief to fill our lungs with air uncontaminated with revolting smells. I felt like Leonardo in Titanic, except I wasn't "the King of the World", more likely, I was the "King of the Yangtse" - at least temporarily.
The Wu Gorge is 40 km in length and on each side, the cliffs rise to a magnificent 900m. The sun was shining and there was no haze and mist, unlike this morning, so the view of the gorge was totally clear. Fishermen waded into the river at the foot of the cliffs and watched patiently as boats sailed past. The other boats were full of people on the decks marvelling at the scenery. Once again, I considered the damage to this gorge, when the dam opened. I wondered whether the faceless people who had conceived the Sanxia Dam had ever sailed the Yangtse River to see what they would be destroying. I didn't know the economical nor political considerations, nor did I know whether the dam would bring prosperity to the region and dramatically improve the lifestyles of the people of the area, but I couldn't help thinking that the whole thing was a mistake.
The Wu Gorge was certainly more popular than the Qutang Gorge in terms of the volume of traffic on the river, perhaps because of the time of day. As we continued through the gorge, boats of all shapes, sizes and speeds passed us in both directions. Some boats were small but fast and raced close to the shores, sounding their horns to warn fishermen to move out of the way.
Eventually, we passed through the Wu Gorge and decided to return to the cabin. We passed the time by playing cards and talking but, in reality, we were both counting don the hours until the voyage ended. I had no desire to wander around the boat observing the Chinese. We had passed through two of the three gorges and, to be honest, I wasn't too bothered about seeing the third gorge. My attention was focused completely on the little town of Yichang, our haven and reward for enduring the Yangtse cruise.
Captain Loudmouth announced the arrival of the Xiling Gorge, the longest of the three at 80km. Both Lisa and I were full of apathy. I almost tossed a coin; heads we see the gorge, tails we lick our wounds and be boring in the cabin.
"Come on," Lisa said. "The gorges are what we came to see."
Reluctantly, I agreed. Xiling Gorge was very similar to Wu Gorge but this time, the setting sun added an extra element of beauty to the landscape. I was pleased that I had conquered my lack of enthusiasm to see the spectacle. The local passengers were extremely enthusiastic about the whole thing and moved around the top deck, pointing, waving at people on other boats and talking incessantly. We were no longer the centre of attention and I was slightly relieved. Lisa and I leaned up against the railing, watching the sun go down, adding its orange-red colour to the landscape. My thoughts drifted to pleasant areas as I tried to banish the events of the day into my subconscious mind. Suddenly, a hand fell on my shoulder and a familiar voice said "Hello there. What have you two been up to."
I turned to see Matthew and Lucy, the only other English couple on the boat. We told them about our exploits of the day and they were shocked. As Lisa related the story of the rat, the robbery, the visit to the police station and my trip to every bank in Baidicheng, Matthew subconsciously put his hands in his pockets and gripped his wallet and loose change. Lucy appeared to be more concerned with the rat than the theft.
For them, the trip had not been a complete disaster, though their cabin sounded as if it had been as bad as ours. We began to talk about our exploits in China thus far and what our life was like in Hong Kong. Matthew and Lucy were also in China for two weeks and had actually visited the country, though briefly, before. They still had a week to go at the end of this trip but had spent the days before the cruise in Chengdu, a city about 250 km from Chongqing. Like us, they had had a few bizarre experiences during their short stay in China so far.
One thing they had witnessed, which we had missed, was the activities of the fishermen on the shores of the river. Eels, for example, are killed by picking them up and smashing their heads against the rocks on the shore. The fishermen then skin them and fillet them, presumably using the remains as bait to catch other unsuspecting river creatures.
Lisa and I had seen birds, pigs and sheep, skinned and glazed, hanging up in shop windows for customers to examine before purchasing them. Matthew and Lucy had seen something worse; a dog - skinned, glazed and complete with teeth and tail. I almost retched at the thought of seeing Fido hanging in a meat shop waiting to be bought, taken away, sliced, cooked and eaten by a Chinese family. Thank heaven I hadn't seen such a sight.
Matthew also told us to be wary of leaving a tip. In most countries, leaving a tip is the expected thing to do, so I usually leave a small amount of change. Matthew and Lucy had left a restaurant in Chengdu, leaving a small amount of money on the table as a tip. About a hundred yards away from the restaurant, they had turned round after hearing a huge commotion. The waiter from the restaurant came bursting through the door, looking around wildly. He caught sight of them, shouted and came sprinting after them. Captain Paranoia must have taken control of both Matthew and Lucy, suggesting that this apparent madman must be a homicidal maniac. Under such circumstances, they had no choice but to run. The waiter didn't give up, chasing them for another few hundred yards before eventually catching them. Breathless, he shouted something in Chinese and handed over the tip Matthew had left for him. Matthew tried to explain that it was for him but the waiter wouldn't have it. He returned to the restaurant leaving a stunned Matthew and Lucy standing open-mouthed.
At the end of the Xiling Gorge, we came upon the construction site for the Sanxia Dam. Incredibly, the majority of the Chinese passengers had saved a few photographs for this complete eyesore. People who had gone for an early evening nap had missed the beauty of the Xiling Gorge so that they could witness the one thing which would ultimately rid the world of the three gorges. Lisa, Matthew, Lucy and myself could not believe what we were seeing. It was almost as if the people on the boat had taken a holiday just to see the construction site of the Sanxia Dam, oblivious to the fact that the three gorges would be buried beneath tons of water. I was appalled and refused to take any photographs. The feeling of depression, removed temporarily by the sight of the gorges, returned with gusto. The only thing that made me feel slightly better was the thought that we only had a while longer on this wretched boat.
For the last time, we returned to the cabin, where we packed our belongings and sat on our beds waiting for the ship's arrival at Yichang. We didn't have to wait too long before Captain Loudmouth bellowed over the loudspeaker. I looked out of the window to see where we were and found myself staring at a slimy brick wall. Disorientation struck as the wall began to rise. Was the Tianshan sinking? After the day we had had and the trauma of the entire trip, my feelings of hatred focused completely on the ship. In my mind's eye, I pictured the Tianshan slowly sinking beneath the water and I couldn't help wishing that it was happening. Unfortunately, the wall was rising because the water level was sinking. The Tianshan was in a huge lock. The water level must have fallen about 30 or 40 feet before the boat moved on.
When the call came to leave the boat, we couldn't get off there quickly enough. We threw our key at the tourist representative and fought with the other passengers to get off the boat. It was inevitable that we met the Syracuse Orangeman as we disembarked. We waved and smiled with genuine warmth, probably more to do with our leaving the boat than being pleased to see them.
"YES!", I shouted as my feet touched dry land once more. The concrete beneath my soles marked the end of the most horrific cruise, the most disgusting boat and the least enjoyable two days on holiday I had ever spent in my entire life. Of course, we had another week or so in China, but I couldn't foresee anything worse than the events of the last two days. I noticed that most of the passengers we passed were pointing at us and staring. It was then I noticed that one of the people staring at us was a westerner I had not seen on the boat. When I returned his stare, he looked slightly uncomfortable and made his way to us.
"Did you have money stolen?" he asked politely, with a strong German accent. He must have sensed some hostility behind the glare I gave him. The expression on his face changed to one of sympathy.
"Yes," I replied eventually. "Quite a lot, actually."
"Ah," he said. I expected him to follow this by saying "So you're the ones are you?" but he merely tutted and walked away. News of our robbery must have spread throughout the boat, which might explain why most of the disembarking passengers were pointing and staring. I felt sick.
Just then, Matthew and Lucy appeared. We had a hotel to stay in Yichang but, as yet, Lucy and Matthew had nowhere to stay. Lisa suggested that they try our hotel, which was supposed to be in the centre of Yichang. Basically they had nothing to lose so they decided to give it a try.
We had been told that we would be picked up at the dock by the hotel minibus and, sure enough, we saw a man holding up a card with "David and Lisa" written on it. We approached the man, who led us to a coach. Matthew and Lucy boarded the coach without being challenged.
By now, the time was getting quite late and I was extremely tired. The events of the day had finally caught up with me. I passed out on the coach and was woken up by Lisa when we arrived at our destination; the Xinerxin Hotel. All four of us got off and went into the hotel reception. Matthew and Lucy had no problem getting a room. Lisa and I got a triple room for the price of 200 yuan. The room was huge, with three beds and a large bathroom.
The Xinerxin Hotel had only just started taking foreign guests. All of the prices in the reception area were in Chinese as were the signs and instructions in the hotel room.
We didn't bother unpacking because we would have to check out early in the morning. I meticulously checked each door and window (even though we were on the third floor) because Captain Paranoia was merciless in his taunting of me. Weakened by the events of the day, I was powerless to resist his suggestions that we would be robbed by six foot rats, which could climb walls. Lisa had begun to feel ill again and immediately went to bed.
We were expecting a representative of the CITS to arrive at some point during the evening with our train tickets out of Yichang. I was fed up of waiting and went to bed myself at around ten o'clock. Of course, Sod's Law applied and the tickets turned up at midnight, waking me up from a deep slumber. For the next two hours, I was kept awake by a discotheque on the ground floor of the hotel, pounding crappy disco music until the early hours of the morning. Lisa was oblivious to this because the Sleep Monster was in complete control of Lisaworld.
I wanted to cast this day into the void of history and forget about it completely. It was fitting that I should spend the last two hours cursing the inconsiderate hotel and its patrons for keeping me awake with music I hate. I don't like listening to "No Limits" by "2 Unlimited" when I'm at my happiest - but after today's depressing events and my current frustration at not being able to sleep despite being totally knackered, it was about as welcome as vomit in a swimming pool.
When sleep eventually arrived, I welcomed it with open arms and cooked it a great big sumptuous repast.