Thursday, October 17, 2013

Episode 6: The Dam Yangtze

Being the misanthropic absolutist that I am, I have decided to divide the world into two types of people: People Who Like Cruises and People Who Don’t Get Them (I refrain here from using the word “hate”).
I have plenty of people I love and care about who wax effusively and romantically about cruises: “Oh, it is so relaxing. So beautiful. So amazing. The food is to die for. I gained 15 pounds! The sound of the water is like a lullaby. The scenery is so beautiful! The ship is so luxurious!” They were never persuasive to me. I would smile and nod and think, “What about all the petrochemicals that are spilling into the waterways and ruining the marine ecosystem? Why would I want to gain 15 pounds? What if you don’t like all the privileged class white people who are cruising with you (only a misanthrope would have such a thought)? What about the exploited labor of the crew and housekeeping staff who never get to get off the freaking boat, but must nod, smile, and genuflect to rich tourists 24 hours a day?”

Cruises are like golf. People who like golf, love golf. Other people, who don’t like golf, think “Are you kidding me? Shouldn’t we use this land for low-income housing? Isn’t that potable drinking water they are pouring by the millions of gallons onto the grass to keep the greens green? Aren’t all those chemicals they are putting on the fairways and greens to kill bugs and weeds leaching into the ground water and poisoning us all? Isn’t all of this waste for the sake of entertainment morally corrupt?”

Just for the record, golf is not a sport. People who play golf try to argue that it is a sport. It may be a game (like Monopoly, only played outside in the heat: long and boring), but it is not a sport. If fat, middle-aged guys with cholesterol over 290 and at least one blocked artery can play the game with any success, it is not a sport. I will stand by this definition. Skateboarding = a sport; ping pong not a sport; hula-hoop = sport; roller skating = sport; croquet = not a sport; ice-skating = sport; roller derby = heck awesome, kick-ass sport; golf = not a sport.

Regardless of my skepticism about cruises, after a couple months in China, the thought of sitting my gluts on a deck chair with reading material and baking in the sun sounded like a great idea. Plus, I was under the impression that if I wanted to see The Three Gorges there was only one way to do it: on a cruise ship.

The Three Gorges are actually a series of gorges that stretch for hundreds of miles along the Yangtze River. You may have heard of the Yangtze River. It is the longest river in China, a true force of nature. About 30 years ago, the Chinese government in their infinite wisdom, decided to harness the power of that mighty river and they built the biggest hydroelectric dam in the whole, wide world. It is the Three Gorges Dam. In doing so, of course, they annihilated several ecosystems and villages. The villages just drown (the government built “new” villages on higher land and moved people there, so everyone is happy, right?). The sturgeons, however, have not recovered. Pre-dam, the sturgeons would start their spawning journey in Shanghai and travel hundreds of miles up the Yangtze River to Chengdu to do their happy mating dance and create more sturgeons. The damn dam stopped them half-way. The sturgeons didn’t know what to do, so they died.

Apparently, the Chinese government is creating farms for sturgeons to try to re-train them to spawn in Yichang instead, the last village before the damn dam. Good luck with that.

I could make an analogy comparing the Three Gorges Dam eco-destruction and the Keystone XL Pipeline, but I fear I would lose my audience.

The gorges, however. Yes, the gorges. The gorges are one of those geographic formations that one doesn’t want to miss. It would be akin to going to Utah and side-stepping the Grand Canyon. The Three Gorges are on the list of everyone who comes to China: The Forbidden City: check. The Great Wall: check. Tibet, as long as it lasts: check. The Terracotta Warriors: check. The Three Gorges: check.
The gorges are the surreal, other-worldly scenery you see when you watch the filmCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. They are mountains that climb out of the water like enormous prehistoric beings. A human is so dwarfed by the sheer face of these humungous rocks that to crane your neck backwards and look up is to feel the perspective of an ant in relation to Shaquil O’Neal (and that is one of the very rare sports analogies you will ever get out of me).

Of course we wanted to see the Three Gorges. Or I did. I am not sure Zephaniah was much interested. But he was interested in being on a ship for four days, sleeping on a ship, eating on a ship, talking to people on a ship, doing jump rope on a ship, reading on the wee-balcony of our cabin, and signing up for all the events offered to pass the time (because we are on a freakin’ ship and can’t get off, so they try to distract us by planning “events”): learning to play Mahjong, watching evening cabarets, learning about Chinese traditional medicine, watching an artist meticulously paint the inside of very tiny glass bottles (no one showed up for that one; not even the artist — Z and I were there, looking at the bottles, though).
Zephaniah and the people who served our table every day.
The first night on the top balcony of the ship.

Our breakfast, lunch, and dinner companions (assigned seating). These German tourists spoke no English; me, no German, so I don’t know anything about them other than they all have the same haircut. Do you think that was intentional (that they all go to the same barber)? Or do you think, like women who live together syncing their periods, it just happened and they are oblivious to it?

Did you notice that all of these things involve sitting? This is because most of the people on cruise ships are geezers. They are winded by one small outing in the morning that involves climbing 400 steps to the top of a small hill. They want to sit. After even one afternoon of sitting, I feel the urge to bite my knuckles off my hands as a form of kinetic sensory engagement.

When we would get off the ship for our “daily excursions” to a village along the river, Z and I fell in line with the rest of the cruisers: Geezers on Parade. There is a guide who marches out in front with a little flag. We all follow the flag, like a bunch of shuffling lemmings, listening to curiosities and history of the local area. The pace is that of a slow walk, a very slow walk.

The first village we visited was Fengdu, which is called “The Ghost City.” Z and I actually enjoyed this outing (except for the slug-like pace that marched us up the hill). In the Taoist philosophy (a Chinese-specific spirituality), the village of Fengdu is where every soul must pass for judgment. When someone dies, their soul travels to Fengdu (I’m guessing on a cruise ship) and they have to pass three tests to determine their worth. First test: walk across the stone bridge in seven steps without slipping; second test: make water dance in a bowl by rubbing it; third test: balance on one foot for at least three seconds on a round stone in front of the God of Hell. Z passed all the tests with flying colors, but still was quite concerned about his fate in the afterlife and so immediately fell to his knees when we arrived to the top temple where sat the God of Hell.
God of Hell in the temple at the top of the hill in Fengdu.

Z falling down before the God of Hell
When dead Taoists get to the God of Hell, they must stand before him to hear their sentence. If they have been bad in their current life, they are sent to the horror chamber and specific punishments are inflicted on them until they are released and reincarnated in a life form that is considered “lower” that human (such as an animal). If their judgment is good from the God of Hell, they are reincarnated as a more evolved human or sent to paradise.
There are two detailed dioramas at the temple of the God of Hell that depict all the various sins/punishments meted out. This one depicts the punishment for a philanderer. That’s about right, I’d say.
This is the punishment for Playboys in the Taoist Hell.
The wonderful thing about Taoism is, even if you have to have your testicles crushed by a giant pestle, you won’t be there forever. Christians might want to consider this, being that they believe in a less merciful god who sentences people without redemption. In Taoism, once you pay your debt to the God of Hell, there is always a chance to reincarnate and do better the next life.

On the way back down the hill, you have to choose whether to cross the bridge of wealth or health, taking as many tiny steps as you can to secure your fortune in this life. As you can see, Z was the lone capitalist in our group, choosing the “money bridge.” He argued that with money he could buy medicine and health care if he was sick. I reminded him that not every sickness had a cure. Still, he went for the money.
Z, the sole person taking steps over the bridge of wealth; everyone else chose the bridge of health.
How did this child come from my body?
Z and his new hat, purchased from the hat salesman at Fengdu

Z walking across the bridge of the First Test on the way to the Tempt of Hell
After the first outing to Fengdu and about an hour on a deck chair at the top of the ship, I felt like a caged animal. Now what? Three more days of this? You have got to be kidding!
Z, however, was having a fantastic time. Mostly because he can sit on his bottom for hours on end reading. I have known this about him for several years and as a parent I love this about him. As a fellow traveler, it annoyed me. At one point I resorted to hiding the Kindle from him.
Z (back from a quick bathroom break): Hey, have you seen the Kindle?
K: What? Huh? No. Why?
Z: I thought it was right here.
K: Hmmm. I dunno. Why don’t we do something else.
Z: Like what? Play Mahjong!
K: Never mind. Here’s the Kindle.
Z on the wee balcony outside our cabin, reading (as usual).

This is how churlish and childish and small cruise ships make me. I was hiding reading material from my nine-year-old.
He is also the type of person who finds games like Mahjong fascinating and can’t wait to round up a bunch of ship-board grannies to play for hours on end. While he was chortling over his tiles at a green-felt Mahjong table in the “game room,” wooing a covey of white-haired women, I was in the pathetic exercise room, like a hamster on a wheel, trying to get my heart-rate up on a creaky stationary bike.

The only person more miserable than me on the cruise was the trophy wife of the 60-something former CFO, who went by the unlikely name of Nacho(?!). The difference between me and the trophy wife is, however, her hell never ends.
On our way in a wooden boat to see more gorges (yes, we got off a boat and onto another boat). Can you guess which tourists are Nacho and his wife?
The last day the morning outing was to the dam. Seriously? Who wants to see a dam? I especially did not want to see the dam because the night before, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., I had to see the damn dam up close and personal as our ship passed through it. It takes four hours for the ships to pass through the dam because they have to go through five chambers. In each chamber, they hitch up to giant hydraulic lifts that lower the ships as the water drains out of the chamber so they can sail through to the next chamber. The hydraulic lifts make the sound of a merciless Giant scratching his fingernails against a humungous chalkboard. This sound continued for four hours and our cabin was right across from a lift (we could reach over the balcony and touch it; Z did so much to my immediate horror and panic). The screech of the lifts grinding against concrete, dear reader, was molar-rattling. I felt like I was on the top of Fengdu, facing the God of Hell, and his pronouncement was not good. In the diorama of hell tortures there must be one featuring fingernails on a chalkboard while one is trapped inside a cruise ship cabin.
Z, somehow, slept through it all. Just before he drifted off, as I was grinding my teeth to the first minutes of metal-on-cement-scraping torture, I asked, “Do you want some ear plugs?” “No need,” he mumbled, drifting off to sleep. Who is this changeling?

The next morning, sleep deprived and owl-y, I refused to go on the Geezer Tour to see the damn dam. Instead, Z and I got off the ship, walked around the village, found a quasi-foot path to the river and kicked around in the water for a couple hours, finding Yangtze River rocks, examining shore-washed crabs, and scrutinizing flotsam and jetsam. It was, without a doubt, the best part of the trip.
Throwing rocks into the Yangtze

Some time off the ship on the shore of the Yangtze River.

Oh, and the bread and butter was good, too. Chinese bread has too much sugar in it; it tastes like cake to me. But the bread on the cruise was real bread. And butter. So, there was that.

Yes. And the gorges were pretty

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