Welcome to "The China Chronicles", the story of two hapless English travellers who visited China for two weeks in the summer of 1999. The travellers were myself, Dave (author of the blog "The Plastic Mancunian") and my girlfriend and partner, Lisa. Also accompanying us were fear, excitement and a spirit of adventure that, quite frankly, surprised me.

I hope you enjoy it.

Day 5 – 9th June 1999 - Chongqing and the Yangtse River

The city of Chongqing is in the Sichuan region and lies at the meeting point of the Yangtse and Jialing rivers, forming a peninsular of land in between them. Chongqing is also the starting point for cruises on the Yangtse river, which is why we were here. From Chongqing, the Yangtse river flows east through the famous Three Gorges all the way to Shanghai. We had booked tickets for a first class cruise for the next two days taking us through the Three Gorges as far as a small town called Yichang.

We were both looking forward to a completely relaxing trip, using the opportunity to take it easy, enjoy the scenery and wind down completely. When I opened my eyes at 11am, there was no sign of stress, no food poisoning and no hangover. I got up and looked around our hotel room. This was a first class room, full of every modern convenience a man could wish for; comfortable beds, a clean bathroom (which I used to maintain my record for avoiding demon toilets) and a lush, deep and soft carpet which felt like walking on a cloud. I didn't have a care in the world and I was going to spend the next couple of days in similar luxury on a cruise liner basking in the comfort of a first class cabin. I showered and dressed and woke up Lisa. She, too had had an excellent night's sleep and was very surprised at how late it was.

The boat was scheduled to leave Chongqing in the early evening, which meant that we had the best part of a day to tidy up a few travel bookings, send a few postcards and explore Chongqing.

I had been told that Chongqing was known as "the Wok of China" with temperatures reaching up to 40C. Last night had been relatively cool and, looking out of the hotel window, it appeared to be a hazy and cloudy day. The sun had not been able to penetrate the clouds and I hoped that it would be bearable outside.

When Lisa was ready, we checked out of the hotel and left our rucksacks with the concierge (for a small fee). My first impressions of the weather had proved correct. The cloud cover had lowered the temperature and the day was cool and pleasant.

Our first port of call was the CITS office where we met Mr Henry Yang, a man who spoke perfect English and was extremely helpful. Through him, we arranged flights and hotels for days after the cruise. Everything was going according to plan.

After the CITS office, we decided to find out what we had missed the previous night when the deranged taxi driver had taken us to the wrong hotel. The CITS office was next to the Renmin Hotel, according to the guide book and by chance, the place where we had to pick up our flight tickets was also in the vicinity. Lunch was the priority because the Food Monster was currently on the throne in Lisaworld. Unfortunately, Tonto chose this moment to accompany us on our search for the hotel.

According to the guide book, the Renmin Hotel was magnificent and couldn't be missed. We strolled along the narrow streets of Chongqing, looking for a sign, a hotel, even a main road with a name we recognised. Nothing. What were we doing wrong?

The Food Monster was grumbling. Although Lisa wanted to eat in the hotel, she was running out of patience and I could see the Food Monster's automatic pilot about to take over and lead us to the nearest dirty chopstick café, of which there were plenty to choose from. Fate played its hand.

Unbeknown to me, we had walked up and down the same street quite a few times. I assumed that the local people on the street and in the shops had been staring at us because we were foreigners. In reality, they were watching us because they knew we were hopelessly lost. A kind soul rescued us.

A man came up to me and gestured that I follow him into a shop. Fearing he was a tout, I put up my hand and shook my head. Ignoring me, the stranger pointed to my open guide book and once again pointed to the shop, this time muttering a few words of Chinese. The cogs whirred and something fell into place. The man was asking me to go into the shop because, in there, was someone who could speak English and help me find what I was looking for. Captain Paranoia's view of the situation was different, but I ignored him and followed my own instincts. For once I was completely right. The stranger said something to the shopkeeper who asked me, in perfect English what I was looking for. Brilliant. I had the feeling that nothing was going to go wrong today. I left the shop with the shopkeeper's instructions firmly implanted in my head and rejoined Lisa who was waiting for me outside.

Incredibly, round the first corner, was the CAAC office where we had to pick up our flight tickets. A few minutes later, we were standing next to a side entrance for the Renmin Hotel. We walked in and found a very small reception with two lifts. Lisa and I both looked at each other. This was clearly not the Renmin Hotel. I thought our luck had changed so I suggested that we get our flight tickets from the CAAC office, look for the hotel for a while longer and, if we couldn't find it, eat lunch somewhere else. Lisa was losing her patience, the Food Monster driving her increasing frustration but she reluctantly agreed.

In the CAAC office, there was a single receptionist and a woman fast asleep on a sofa. When she saw us walk in, the receptionist seemed terrified and muttering something in Chinese, rushed over to her sleeping colleague. I tried to speak but she ignored me and shook the other woman awake. This didn't go down too well, as you might expect and Chinese words were spat into the atmosphere like poison darts from a pygmy's blowpipe. I don't understand Chinese, as I have said before, but the tone of her voice indicated that she had said something like "Why the hell have you woken me, you git?". Then she spotted us. Rubbing her eyes, she said "I'm sorry. Can I help you?" as a smile struggled to impose itself on her face. Obviously, her colleague couldn't speak a word of English and, in a moment of sheer panic at the sight of two foreigners, she had violently interrupted her colleague's midday snooze with no thought of the consequences.

We explained why were there and she dealt with our flight tickets professionally and with the utmost courtesy. Five minutes later, with our flight tickets snugly fitted into our moneybelts, we left the office. On the way out I said "share-share", the only Chinese word I know (hence the reason why I was using it so liberally), and gave a knowing smile to the receptionist who couldn't speak English. She smiled back and looked nervously at her colleague who was settling down again for the continuation of her nap.

The Food Monster was ravenous by this time and forced Lisa to drag us back to the hotel we had found earlier, to once again ask for directions to the Renmin Hotel. We marched in to the reception and, while Lisa was trying to attract the attention of the receptionist, I had a closer look at the lifts. One of the floors said "Main Lobby". Perhaps we were in the Renmin Hotel after all. I called the lift and signalled to Lisa, who was having great difficulty explaining her requirements to the receptionist.

"I think we're here," pointing to the lift as Lisa approached. Tonto had given us plenty of trouble when trying to find places in the past, but my gut instinct told me that I was right this time. Lisa tutted savagely (clearly in thrall to the Food Monster) and stormed into the lift when it arrived. The lift ascended and I whistled in accompaniment to the piped Muzac. The lift door opened and we found ourselves in the main foyer of the Renmin Hotel. To me, it looked like any other foyer and I couldn't understand why the guide book had enthused about it so much. I suggested that we eat here anyway, a proposal which Lisa agreed with forthwith. We had a bit of trouble finding an open restaurant. After wandering around for a while, we chanced upon an empty restaurant complete with waitress wiping down the tables. We sat down, hoping that the place was open and, presently, the waitress offered us a menu. She took our order and brought us a beer for an aperitif. However, before the food arrived, we were asked to leave.

Before you fly off at a tangent and assume we did something barbaric or outrageous, we were asked to leave because the restaurant was about to be cleaned. Another waitress took our drinks and led us to a small lounge. Our food followed shortly and we had a very relaxing lunch, incarcerating the Food Monster in his cage (at least for the time being).

I was still puzzled about why the Renmin Hotel had had such praise in the guide book. From where we were, the décor was nothing special. Lisa suggested we take a look outside. I didn't want to leave the way we had come in, so we left through the main doors and turned left into a dead end. Doubling back, we followed a winding path, flowing through increasingly beautiful gardens until we came to a courtyard in front of which was one of the most magnificent buildings I had seen in China so far. We had dined in one of the hotel wings. Standing before us was a huge circular concert hall, the design of which is based on the Temple of Heaven in the Forbidden City in Beijing. Embossed in green and red, the edifice separates the three wings of the hotel. To me it looked like a palace fit for the Emperor of China. The guide book informed us that the hotel had been built in 1953, a fact I found difficult to believe as I marvelled at the construction and design. What I would have given to have stayed here; the rooms were expensive for China but the extra cost would have been worth it. I cursed the deranged taxi driver whose incompetence had ruined my chances of staying in a palace. Lisa used the opportunity to practice her photography skills while I just sat down and admired the place.

After the Renmin Hotel, we planned to visit Pipashan Park, the highest point on the Chongqing peninsular, at a height of 345 metres, commanding excellent views of the city. To get there from the Renmin Hotel we would have to take another taxi, a prospect I wasn't looking forward to at all. My experiences of last night with Mr Madman had prejudiced me completely against all Chongqing taxi drivers. You may think this is unreasonable, but I say this to you: you didn't stare the grim reaper in the face; you didn't stare into the eyes of a taxi driver so crazy that even James Bond would think twice about tackling; you didn't have to sit in a car, which last week had been returned to a toy shop because it was too small for a single toddler to sit in. You may think that I am exaggerating but you weren't there, so I don't care. But we had no choice. We could walk or catch a cab. Reluctantly, I chose the latter option.

The new taxi driver, and indeed the taxi itself, restored our faith in Chongqing's taxi service (well slightly anyway). The car was much bigger and the driver was in full possession of the sandwiches required to make a picnic. He smiled at us, double checked our destination and set off at a reasonable speed carefully checking for lunatics such as the one we had met last night. It was a good job too because everybody else in Chongqing seemed to have taken out their brains.

We noticed two things about Chongqing:

First, there was a distinct absence of car horns. Later, I read in the guide book that car horns had been completely banned in the city since 1997 in an attempt to reduce noise pollution.

Second, there were absolutely no cyclists at all. The guide book speculated that the reason for this was the steepness of the hills and the difficulty cyclists would have negotiating them. My theory was that Chongqing was full of insane drivers and crazy pedestrians and either cyclists were too scared to risk their lives on the mad streets of the city, or they had all been put into hospital by lunatic drivers. The distance from the Renmin Hotel to Pipashan Park was not very far in a taxi but the number of times our driver had to take evasive action to avoid a collision was breathtaking in size. Pedestrians in Chongqing regard themselves as indestructible and walk out in front of cars with no fear. Perhaps they assume that cars will stop for them automatically, I don't know. What I do know is that the taxi drivers cannot dissipate their road rage by blaring the horn at suicidal pedestrians. This may explain why most of the taxi drivers are wound up so tight that they take out their frustrations on their hapless customers.

The other danger, since there are no cyclists to hit, is other cars. I though Guangzhou was bad but here in Chongqing, the streets are narrower and twist and turn up the hills, intertwining with each other like a snake orgy. Consequently, cars shoot out of side streets, their drivers focusing on anything but the road ahead, without a care in the world. Our taxi driver had to slam on his brakes almost every ten seconds during our journey. Incredibly he didn't flinch nor curse nor gesticulate to anyone, choosing to ferry us to the park with minimum fuss. Either he had taken a bottle of Prozac or was so high on dope that he didn't notice the dangers. I elected to close my eyes until we reached the park, which we did safely after about ten minutes.

The Hongxing Pavilion sits at the top of the park and when we arrived there, was full of people relaxing, eating and even sleeping. It was very peaceful here so we relaxed for a while enjoying the atmosphere. Chongqing was covered with low hazy cloud, which meant that our view of the city was mostly obscured. Lisa was disappointed because she was looking forward to taking a few photographs. To be fair, Richard had warned us about this feature of Chongqing the day before, warning us that the city would be very hot or very foggy. Personally, I was relieved that the day was cloudy and hazy for purely selfish reasons. I didn't want to be stir fried in the Wok of China.

From our view point, we could see enough of Chongqing to see that it was a largely grey and featureless city. Apart from the Renmin Hotel, we couldn't see anything else to captivate our interest. Chongqing was not a city I would like to spend more than a day exploring because, though it was a cultural city, it was no more cultural than Guangzhou and definitely more polluted. The hazy cloud on its own may have allowed us to see the cityscape but the smog and fumes from the thousands of cars combined with the cloud to produce a foggy layer, not unlike the blanket of smog which seems to permanently cover Los Angeles. We decided it was time to move on.

Our last port of call was the cable car crossing over the Jialing river and, once again, there was no choice but to catch another taxi. We strolled a little way down the hill from the park and hailed a cab on a narrow side street, hoping to get a driver who was at least marginally sane. We were lucky enough to get a similar driver to the one who had taken us to Pipashan Park. He was totally alert, and had to be. Within a hundred yards, we were following a woman in a small car, travelling a few yards behind her at average speed when, incredibly, she slammed on the brakes and started reversing very quickly towards us. The taxi driver also slammed on his brakes and calmly waited as Mrs Madman approached. Someone must have pushed the sensible button in her brain because, just as suddenly, she stopped reversing (within a few inches of our taxi), and shot off again. There was no reason whatsoever for doing this. I saw no cars in front of her, no deranged pedestrians on a suicide trip and no other reason to force her to stop and reverse in the first place. I was speechless. Then, when the driver finally got going again, another taxi shot out in front of us because he saw a gap. The fact that we were travelling at 30 mph didn't seem to deter him and, once again, the taxi driver hit his brakes in time to avoid turning us into mincemeat. We were in a crazy place and I felt we were risking our lives every time we stepped into a taxi.

The driver delivered us safely at the cable car and I staggered out of the car and said to Lisa "Thank God we don't have to get into another ". "We still have to get to the hotel and the boat," she reminded me with a smile. My God! Two more taxi rides. I was so looking forward to our cruise. There would be no cars, madmen or encounters with the grim reaper for a few days and I couldn't wait.

From a distance, the cable car crossing the Jialing river had appeared to be perfectly safe. From below, however, it looked as if the whole thing would fall apart. Lisa was not keen on going across the river at all. "It'll be alright," I said, though part of me was screaming "DON'T DO IT!"

We climbed the steps leading to the cable car and bought two return tickets. The cable car arrived and, along with about twenty other people, we climbed in, the cable car rocking gently as each person stepped inside. I moved to the window to get a better view and I swear that the thing tilted as I did so. The doors hissed shut behind us and off we went. Swaying in the slight breeze, we made our way across the river, overlooking steeply stacked run down houses and large hostile industrial buildings. The journey across did nothing to increase my confidence about the safety of this metal box we were standing in, which rocked and rolled as it made its way to the other side. The local people were unperturbed by the movement of the cable car but Lisa wasn't. She didn't like it at all and held onto me until it finally docked on the other side.

"Well that wasn't so bad, was it?" I said with a smile. "Yes," replied Lisa, clearly worried about the return journey. After a few minutes, we set off again in the direction of the peninsular. The view of Chongqing was excellent on the way back and we had chance to see the scale of the city. Though still obscured by a cloudy, smoggy haze, we could see a lot more than we could at the summit of Pipashan Park. Despite this, I didn't change my mind about Chongqing. From here it was still grey and featureless and I wouldn't be too distressed about leaving.

The cable car eventually arrived back onto the peninsular and, relieved, we walked down the steps to street level. Time was ticking on and we just had time to buy a few provisions before setting off for our luxury boat. Just before the taxi driver had dropped us off at the cable car, we had spotted a Carrefour hypermarket. What a bizarre place it was. Inside, it was just like a typical western supermarket except for one thing - the items it sold. The smell of the place was distinctly Chinese and there were all sorts of strange foodstuffs for sale. Luckily for us, it wasn't like Qingping market in Guangzhou; this place did not sell live animals for food. However, it did sell all manner of dried, strange looking material which I imagined was meant to be eaten. We stocked up on the more traditionally Western goods, such as crisps, beer, bread, ham, cheese, mineral water and one essential item; toilet paper (just in case).

We caught a taxi back to the Chongqing Guest House to pick up our bags. After a quick drink in the bar, we changed some more money and caught another taxi to the pier where our boat was waiting.

I was getting used to arriving for trains and taxis in an area full of crazy people with no idea which way they were going, so when we got out of the taxi at Pier 9 and saw hundreds of people milling round with no purpose, I was hardly surprised. Concrete steps led down from the street level to a shaky wooden bridge, spanning the distance between the pier and the boat, called the Tianshan. The steps were full of people selling everything from swimming trunks to toilet rolls, from beer to washing powder. They targetted us because we were foreigners, as we descended towards the bridge, grabbing at our clothing in an attempt to get us to buy their wares. We stepped onto the bridge with a sigh of relief, glad to be away from the grasping hands of the street sellers.

Before I go any further, let me introduce a word to you. You may have encountered this word before but just in case you haven't, here it is: ming.

The word 'ming' has nothing to do with China (even though you may think so) and is a word used by Lisa to describe the level of disgustingness of an object, action or indeed, anything. It conjugates as follows:

  • I ming - this translates as something like "I have been rolling in filth for three days and haven't had a wash. I stink of stale urine, I am covered in grime and I am a hazard to human health."

  • You ming - this is a terrible insult. If I were to say to you, "You ming", you would be quite justified in punching me in the face. It is something you can say to a person you really dislike. The reason? See "I ming" above.

  • He, she mings - this is something you would say about someone you hate or a tramp begging for money.

  • It mings - this is the way you would describe an object which was disgusting. For example, "the toilet in Shamian Park minged".

And so on. Lisa also uses the word "minging" as in "these toilets are minging". Where the verb "to ming" comes from I have no idea. My guess is that it is just Blackpool slang. However, the word is appropriate to describe some of the things we encountered over the next few days, so I apologise for its overuse in the next few chapters.

Let me start with the boat. Lisa and I were expecting a luxury liner, a smaller version of the QE2, complete with excellent food, comfortable beds and lots of activities to pursue as we relaxed on our cruise. What we actually boarded was the lead boat in the fleet of liners manufactured and produced in Satan's shipyards. I use the word "boat" very carefully here because the vessel we boarded was more like a rusty old lump of metal thrown out from a scrapyard because the scrapyard owner couldn't find a use for it. How the thing floated, I have no idea. I was just glad that it did.

The boat had three floors, each one minged as much as the others. The ticket we had gave us a cabin number but could we find it? Could we buggery! Loads of people wandered around in a daze, also searching for their rooms and we found ourselves going up and down the steps between floors repeatedly. After around ten minutes, Lisa found a door with a number range tacked on it which included our cabin number. We opened the door into a corridor from which around ten doors led to what I hoped was ten cabins. A woman stood behind a desk and we presented our ticket to her. She inspected the ticket and handed us a key, pointing to a door further down the corridor.

Before I go on, let me tell you about the classes of accommodation on this "luxury" cruise liner.

  • Class 1 - We were staying in first class accommodation. The cabins are supposed to have two beds, a private bathroom with a shower, a TV, a wardrobe and air conditioning.

  • Class 2 - Cabins with a wash basin and four beds. Each cabin contains a wash basin, a small cupboard and air conditioning.

  • Class 3 - Rooms with eight beds and nothing else.

  • Class 4 - Rooms with ten to twelve beds and no light.

  • Class 5 - The deck of the boat. Bring your own bedding, find a space and be prepared to sleep in the open.

From the description above, you would be excused for thinking that although the boat was a heap of junk, the cabins built into its interior would be fairly luxurious. You would be wrong. I opened the door to our cabin and walked straight into a scene from Dante's Inferno. Our first class cabin was more like a cell in the prison Satan reserved for the most evil souls in Hades.

The company running the cruise had a legitimate claim to this room being first class in that it had two beds, a private bathroom with a shower, a wardrobe (of sorts), a TV and an air conditioning unit. However, that's where the similarity ended.

The smell in the room was like a rugby player's jockstrap - stale, sweaty and with an underlying odour of something revolting and indescribable. The floor was covered in a disgusting purple carpet and sloped away from us towards the window, around ten feet away. The carpet in the vicinity of the window was soaking wet, as I discovered when I later took my shoes off and stood in stocking feet to admire the view. The room was about eight feet wide and barely had enough room to leave a gap between the two single beds, both of which were uncomfortable and covered in clean, yet stained, linen. A TV stood next to the window on a cupboard between the beds. I switched it on and it didn't work. Then there was the bathroom.

When we walked into the cabin, the bathroom door was shut. The cabin itself was rectangular, with the bathroom, taking up a corner of the room, which led me to believe that the bathroom had been added as an afterthought. I opened the bathroom door and almost passed out. The stench was the first thing to assault my senses. If you imagine a bin full of rotting pilchards and bad eggs, which has been used by an army of alleycats as a toilet for six months, you wouldn't even come close to the appalling mephitis tearing my nose apart. I walked inside holding my nose and desperately trying to quell the tsunami of nausea threatening to overcome me. The toilet was not a hole in the floor but it may as well have been. I lifted the lid and found the contents of the bowels of the previous occupants sitting there at the bottom of a pool of stagnant water, daring me to flush it away. I tried. The fucking thing wouldn't flush. Despair overwhelmed me as I imagined the prospect of using this toilet for the next couple of days. I slammed the lid down and examined the shower cubicle. It worked and was, compared to the toilet, relatively clean. I left the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind me and turned to Lisa who was still reeling at the thought of sleeping in the cabin.

"Don't go in the bathroom," I advised. "Just don't go there!".

She ignored me and went in. When I heard her cry "OH MY GOD!" I must admit that I chuckled to myself. It was a chuckle of insane despair. I threw myself onto one of the beds and mourned the loss of my dream of a cruise in a luxury liner. The next few days were going to be hell. In the bathroom, Lisa was desperately trying to flush the toilets and eventually managed to do so by throwing down tons of water from the shower.

I needed to relax and close my eyes. I pulled the curtains shut and noticed that I could still see right through them. I comforted myself with the thought that at least nobody would be looking in. I took off my T-shirt and shorts and was just about to lie down on the bed, when in came the cleaner. There was no knock - she just walked in. I quickly grabbed my shorts and struggled to pull them on, hopping up and down in the soaking wet carpet and cursing as I did so. Behind her, a Chinese family watched as I jumped around like a demented one-legged kangaroo. "Close the door, for God's sake" I yelled as they stood watching. After a few seconds, something clicked inside her head and, muttering something in Chinese, she left and pulled the door shut behind her. I pulled on my T-shirt and ran to the door to call her back in. She was waiting patiently outside and walked in when I beckoned her. I hoped that she would walk into the bathroom with some napalm to blast the place clean but, instead, she walked to the TV, unplugged it and walked out of the cabin with it.

I followed her out of the cabin and watched, in total amazement, as she entered the cabin opposite and left without the TV. So now my "luxury" cruise cabin would not have a TV set. I knew that the programmes would all be in Chinese and that I wouldn't understand a word of any of them, but there was a principle involved. It took a huge amount of self-control for me not to storm out and demand another telly.

Lisa walked out of the bathroom with a look of pure despair on her face. "This is awful," she said. "I can't believe the state of this cabin". I held her as she struggled to control her mood. And the bloody cleaner walked in again without knocking. I couldn't believe it. The same woman who had stolen our telly felt that she had the right to stroll into our private cabin whenever she bloody liked. I glared at her as she deposited some blankets on the beds and walked out again. Attempting to chastise her would have been futile. Lisa took the key and inserted it into the door knob, hoping that would prevent any more unwelcome visits.

The smell of the room was being tainted by the advancing stench from the bathroom. We had to get some air in this place. Lisa opened the window and we both sucked in a huge lungful of fumes from the engine. I felt that nothing else could go wrong. I closed the window and lay down once more on the bed, contemplating my next move. I was so tempted to just walk off the boat, cut our losses and try to make our own way to Yichang, completely forgetting the Three Gorges and the Yangtse river. After ten minutes considering our options, we decided that we would suffer and put the whole thing down to experience. The scenery would, I hoped, compensate for the awful conditions. We waited patiently for the boat to set sail and once again I opened the window. The movement of the boat dispersed the fumes and we were able to breathe in clean air again, a welcome relief to the sewage farm masquerading as our bathroom. I wondered whether any other toilets existed on the boat and made a mental note to examine them. I wasn't confident, given the ming factor of our cabin.

The boat slowly left Chongqing and drifted slowly along the Yangtse river. I had had enough of our "luxury" cabin for the moment and suggested to Lisa that we explore the boat and find out whether there was a haven for us, like a bar or comfortable lounge. We were disappointed and frustrated. The rest of the boat was truly awful.

We found a room doubling as a bar area and lounge but the door was locked and showed no signs of being opened. I chanced upon the public toilets and they were far worse than anything I had seen so far. The smell was absolutely abhorrent and, when I plucked up the courage to have a peek inside, I found that they were holes in the floor which had not seen water for at least a decade. Did the cleaners actually get paid on this boat? We had just set of and the toilets looked as if they had never ever been cleaned. I almost threw up.

We made our way around the boat and were stared at constantly. People pointed at us and giggled; children ran up to us and dared each other to speak to us. We could vaguely tell which passengers were staying in which class of accommodation by their appearance. The poor souls in fifth class were wretched. Their beds were just blankets on the hard and filthy deck and they were covered in grime. I felt really sorry for them. Compared to them we were in fact in a sumptuous and lavish apartment. Once again I felt shame. We stood on the top deck trying to avoid the fumes from the funnel and contemplated what the next few days had in store for us. My stomach was beginning to tell me that I needed food by rumbling in time with the engine. It was time to descend onto the lower decks of the boat in search of a restaurant.

The only place we could find was a room on our deck full of tables where the only food available seemed to be in huge vats - rice and a bubbling stew-like substance. It was like a free-for-all. People shouted and pointed, spilled their food all over the tables and floor, spat out huge chunks of rice and goo at each other as they chatted and generally made enough noise to wake the dead. Those who weren't eating were hacking and gobbing over the side of the boat into the river, a noise which disgusted me yet at the same time fascinated me. In China, this act of hacking and spitting was commonplace and the people, especially men who smoked, had no qualms about coughing up their lungs and ejecting the contents out into the street, the river or anywhere. I noticed it more on the boat since there were lots of people crammed into a confined space.

Walking back to the cabin, Lisa spotted a small shop. There wasn't much on sale, but it did sell the one thing which could make me feel better despite the terrible conditions; Tsing Tao - Chinese beer. We bought a couple of bottles and found a relatively isolated spot on our deck to enjoy our beer and avoid being gobbed on.

As we sipped our beer, we heard a familiar greeting. "Hello! Are you English?". I turned to see a young couple standing behind us who were not Chinese and not staring at us as if we had grown an extra head. We exchanged introductions, all of us clearly relieved to have met more people from England.

The couple were called Matthew and Lucy and came from London. They were on a two week holiday and had arrived at Chongqing, like us, to take a luxury cruise along the Yangtse river. The disappointment on their faces was equal to our own. In fact, Matthew and Lucy had booked a second class cabin and, luckily for them, had managed to get an upgrade to first class. I had looked in on a second class cabin on my way around the boat. It was far worse than a first class cabin and we would have had to share with two complete strangers. I told Matthew that he had had a lucky escape and I comforted myself with the thought that Lisa and I had almost opted for second class, until a divinely driven urge had prompted me to suggest first class.

We chatted to Matthew and Lucy for a while and then ventured back towards the prison cell we would call home for the next couple of days. Our evening meal consisted of sandwiches and beer, a much better option than joining the food fight in the canteen we had found.

A stale and disgusting stench still hung in the room and, as the boat drifted away from the city, I noticed the temperature beginning to rise. This was the moment I discovered that our air-conditioning unit did not work. Opening the window was not a desirable option because I didn't fancy a face full of fumes or our already hellish torture chamber being filled with horrific insects from the surrounding countryside. The room became a furnace; we were being cooked alive in the Wok of China. To escape from the smell and the heat, we explored the boat a few more times, each time trying the door to the "luxury" bar we had found, only to discover that it was locked. We decided to have an early night and try to make the trip pass that little bit more quickly by sleeping.

Just as my body was becoming accustomed to the appalling stench and the oppressive heat, I discovered that yet another of my senses would periodically be assaulted. At 11 PM, the boat docked somewhere and the captain of the boat decided tell us the location - as if I understood or cared - by shouting at the top of his voice into a microphone connected to the loudest loudspeaker I had ever heard, positioned above my head on the ceiling of our prison cell. The distortion made his voice sound surreal and I wandered, not for the first time, whether I was currently on a spaceship heading for Vulcan. I prayed that the boat would not move again so that I could at least get some sleep. To be honest, I didn't care where on earth we were and I was tempted to sabotage the loudspeaker, just like previous occupants had presumably attacked the telly and the air-conditioning unit in frustration at the horrific conditions.

This was going to be a long trip!

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