“It is the largest hydroelectric power station in the world,” Max tells us proudly while pointing to the piece of concrete ahead of us. Not that I’m counting but it is about the fifth time he has told us, such is his excitement. It is the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the new Great Wall of China, some 1.4 miles long, 28 million cubic metres of concrete, 32 turbines kicking out 700 megawatts each, 100,000 cubic metres per second of water flow... basically, it is massive!
Dams don’t normally do much for me, but I wasn’t the only one on this tour from the cruise boat Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer who found themselves enthralled thanks to Max’s cheerful enthusiasm. He was Chinese, but like fellow guides has taken a western name because it’s easier for visitors to say. We had joined the vessel (the most luxurious on the Yangtze, a guide whispered to me) the previous evening and had been up on deck bright and early that morning to sail through the first of three gorges that promised to be the highlight of this four-night cruise from Yichang to Chongqing. It’s a short trip, but a welcome moment to relax during this marathon tour of China that visit Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an (the latter to see an amazing full-size army that was modelled from clay more than 2,000 years ago to protect Emperor Quin in the afterlife) and get a glimpse of life outside the big cities.
I was travelling with Wendy Wu, a holiday company that knows all about China. As I have been to Shanghai and Xi’an before, they put together a special itinerary for me that started in Beijing and included a couple of days in Chongqing at the end of the cruise. Beijing, the capital, is breathtaking in terms of both its size and energy. “It takes four hours to drive from north to south,” my guide, Jade, told me proudly as we hit another snarl-up driving from the airport to the city. Quietly, I wondered if that was because you spend so much time in traffic jams.
Some 80,000 people a day visit the Forbidden City and I swear they were all there the next morning as Jade and I walked through Tiananmen Square (the biggest square in the world!) and into the palace complex where emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasty lived, surrounded by hundreds of wives. I’m sure their lives were far better than the women on the outside, but even when they had been superseded by a new model, the wives were never allowed to leave. Not surprisingly then, it is the biggest palace complex in the world. I love Beijing - it is lively, buzzing and full of drivers who think stopping at red lights is optional - but after a couple of days, I was ready to escape to the peace and quiet of the river.
As Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer sailed through the Three Gorges - Xiling, Wu and Qu Tang - our Tour Manager, Willy, was out on deck telling us about the river, which is the third-longest in the world and was once so wild that, before the advent of engines, men formed human tractors and pulled their boats upriver. The scenery is dramatic. Forested in some places, surrounded by steep cliffs in others, houses here and there, and perilous-looking roads clinging to the rock faces. In Wu Gorge, we were told to look out for the mysterious 12 peaks that legend has it were once wicked dragons that were slain by a goddess and turned to stone. Unfortunately, the mist was so thick we couldn’t actually see them - or indeed the goddess who sits on top of one of them, having also turned himself into stone to watch over the boatmen below - but it added to the mystery. Sort of. Over the course of four days, we sailed through the dam’s five locks (it takes about three hours), learned about Chinese medicine, had a go at making dumplings, visited a local market in Fengdu City and saw coffins hanging up on rocky cliffs (I’m still trying to work out how they got there!)
Rather too often we passed ugly high-rise cities built to rehouse some 1.3 million people whose homes were flooded when the river was dammed. Then, suddenly, we were sailing into Chongqing, a city of skyscrapers and neon lights that most river cruise passengers just pass through on their way somewhere else, but where Wendy Wu had arranged for guide Nettie to take me to see the Dazu rock carvings some 90 minutes drive outside the city. They were spectacular. Around 10,000 carvings, many up to 23 feet high, all chiselled out some 800 years ago to show the life and death of Buddha and the horrors of hell.
It was like being in an art gallery, except instead of canvas the pictures are carved into a u-shaped rock face. That evening, Nettie introduced me to hot pot, a dish that originated in Chongqing and is literally a pot of spicy broth that sits on a hob in front of you, in which you cook meat, fish or veg as you prefer (I went vegetarian for the evening and it was delicious) and the next day took me to the city zoo. It’s not a place I’d normally choose to visit but we were going to see pandas so I couldn’t resist. I watched for ages as a mischievous young cub tried to get her sisters to play by sitting on them. Cute? That doesn’t even come close!