Life on the boat, Day One

Monday, March 22, 2010

Life on the boat turned out to be quite pleasant. As I mentioned in my last post, a last-minute reprieve meant that I had a cabin to myself, and that made all the difference. The cabins were small, and sharing such close quarters with a complete stranger would probably have pushed me right over the edge I’ve been teetering on for so long. I know I’m supposed to be here to experience the local culture and meet people and such, but I really don’t need to meet China coming out of the bathroom in its underwear at 6:00 am, thank you very much.

Cabin number 217 – cozy, and ALL mine!

We arrived at the city of Chongqing after a seven and a half hour bus ride and made our way straight to the dock to check in to the boat and clean up before going back into town for supper, a grocery stop, and (for me) an internet café. Chongqing is a positively massive – the city itself is home to 4.3 million, but the population of the whole municipality is 32.7 million. That’s more than the entire population of Canada, and helps give you some perspective on exactly how populous China is, considering that’s just one corner of the country.

Supper that night was the specialty of the region – hotpot! It’s sort a fondue-like thing where you get a pot of spicy, bubbling broth/oil and plates of different things to drop into it to cook. The hotpot itself sits over a big propane burner that’s built right into the table. (Clearly the Chinese are much farther advanced in the realm of Flame-At-Your-Table than the Nepalese.) Our hotpot was a relatively tame variety that had a small-ish inner pot of very spicy oil and an outer ring of tamer broth.

Huang ordered a large number of different things that we threw in – beef, tripe, mushrooms, fungus, a sort of spam-like ham, fish balls, more fungus, bean sprouts, tofu, bamboo shoots, and more fungus. We also each got a small bowl of a sort of light sesame oil, which we could flavour to our own taste with mounds of crushed garlic, vinegar, salt, pepper and MSG, which was provided in a little pot right on the table. You’d pluck a bit of cooked food out of the broth with chopsticks and then dip it in the flavoured oil, and then pop it into your mouth. 0.0002 seconds later you’d spit it out onto your plate because it was approximately the temperature of the surface of the sun, having spent the previous minutes sitting in boiling oil. After things cooled off, they were quite tasty, and the the whole meal was fun and interactive and made my face turn red – from the heat of the burner and from the spiciness of the food. Like most meals in China I left completely stuffed, and it only cost ¥37.00, which is less than six bucks, and included a large beer.

Jess, posing with our hotpot

I even had a little adventure after dinner. The group broke apart at that point – most people went straight to the supermarket to stock up on beer and Oreos for the boat ride, but I had to go to a bank machine and find an internet café so I could attempt to get a blog posted (the things I do for you people…). Huang accompanied me most of the way and left me with a piece of paper to show a cab driver so he’d drive me back to the right pier. Soon enough I managed to get all my chores done and hopped into a cab. The driver dropped me somewhere, but it bore no resemblance to the place where we’d first climbed into cabs to go to dinner. At this point it was dark, and about ten minutes before we’d been told to be back at the boat. I was near the river, that much was certain. And I was fairly sure which direction that boat lay in, but frankly I was not disposed to an adventurous hike with the clock ticking on the boat’s departure. Luckily, I had the trusty iPhone, and Huang’s mobile number, so I called him right away. He told me to stay put and asked to talk to a local person so he could find out where I was. At this point I simply handed my phone to a random women who was hawking cartoon maps of the Yangzi river a few feet away. She gave Huang the information he needed and soon enough the cavalry arrived and Huang whisked me away to the safety and comfortable confines of cabin 217. I still owe him a beer for that. Oh, and does anyone need a cartoon map of the Yangzi river? Only ¥10.00!

I liked life on the boat. There was some free time, and it turned out they even had internet access – a cellular modem that could be had for just ¥30 per hour (about $4.50). And of course all our meals were provided while we were on board. This turned out to be good and bad. Good because it was simple and convenient. Bad, because most meals were served buffet style and ended up resembling feeding time at the zoo. For reasons passing understanding the buffet table was always set up with the stack of plates right in the middle, meaning that it was impossible to figure out which direction you were supposed to go around the table in. This, coupled with the natural tendency the Chinese seem to have for crowding and shoving, rather than queuing (especially when food is involved), made things a bit of a madhouse. The second morning I stayed in my cabin and cobbled together my own breakfast (with peanut butter… so far supplies are holding out!). It was a much more pleasant way to start the day than braving the ravening hordes.

We also had a few excursions, or shore leaves, or paroles, or whatever you call it, while on the boat. The first day we visited what’s called the Ghost City – a collection of temples on a hillside along the Yangzi near Fengdu (Aha! The cartoon map does have its uses!). It’s called the Ghost City because it’s like the capital city for the underworld – all souls have to go there after death to be judged by the King of Heaven, who will decided whether they will be reincarnated as animals, or people, or whether they have achieved Nirvana. Each soul has to pass three tests on the way, which we also attempted to pass with our local guide. The first was to cross over one of three stone bridges and not be dragged down by evil snakes and worms into the water below. Choosing to cross the left hand bridge signified a wish for health and long life, the right was for wealth, and the centre was for love.

David and Claire crossing the middle bridge. Awww… (One of the two Simones is hard on their heels.)

For the first little while the Ghost City seemed to be a fairly standard collection of Buddhist temples. But the farther we got up the hillside, the creepier the decor got. My favourite was the stairway lined with a series of stone statues depicting different ghosts – including one for excessive drinking, and one for smoking, and one for meat-eating.

The meat-eating ghost. Note I didn’t mention what kind of meat…

Finally we reached the main temple at the top which featured a giant depiction of the King of the Underworld, and had a lovely miniature statue gallery of torture on one side. The last test was just at the entrance to the temple. (Don’t ask me what the second test was, because I can’t remember. It might have involved running up a long flight of stairs while holding your breath. Or that may just have been something the local tour guide made us do for her own amusement.) The last test involved having to balance with one foot on top of a large rounded pebble for three seconds while focusing your gaze on the Chinese characters above the entrance to the temple.

Cal, demonstrating his worthiness

Overall the Ghost city was diverting, but not hugely interesting. This turned out to be the theme for all the excursions we had off the boat. In fact, the best thing that happened during that first day trip was that I met a few people from a GAP Adventures package tour who were on the boat with us. GAP is a lot like Intrepid, though it’s based in Canada, hence a lot of the people on the tour were Canadian. I met Randy and Nancy and a few others and ended up spending a lot of my time of the boat chatting with them. Randy was an especially good Friend du Jour since like me, he was the senior citizen in his group. I think he may have been happy for some conversation with someone closer to his own age and with similar interests. I know I was.

Late in the afternoon after the Ghost City, when everyone was properly fed and napped, Huang promised a lesson in Mahjong. It was a bit frustrating at first, partly because, though Huang’s English is excellent, sometimes his sentence structure or pronunciation can be a bit opaque. The other problem was that there are three suits involved – bamboo, cakes, and numbers (like hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs). Bamboo and cakes are easy to remember, but the numbers are signified by their Chinese characters, so it required a lot of checking of cheat-sheets to be able to remember them. In the end though, I had a really good time. We were playing out on a sort of sun deck area and attracted quite a crowd of locals most of the time. This meant I had a peanut gallery of coaches watching my every move, which was a bit stressful, but also fun. Eventually one or two of our gang drifted off and we convinced local Chinese people to come play in their place until finally it was me, Huang, and two locals. I’m very proud to report that I won that hand. (Aside: I’ve had a quick browse through the Wikipedia article on the subject and I think the version we were taught is quite different than what I’ve seen before. For instance, there were no Dragon tiles or jokers.)

David and Tony, puzzling over the pieces (also featuring Cal’s left elbow and Huang’s right hand left thumb, and left index finger)

That night, after the Captain’s Welcome Banquet (mercifully NOT served buffet style), the crew of the MS Fortune put on a little show. It was touching, but really also quite sad. One couldn’t help but get the distinct impression that this was a required activity for the poor crew members, who probably weren’t paid very well and who still had spent their off hours learning dances and fitting up costumes and such. And of course, inevitably, there was an audience participation moment. This left me gazing into my gin and tonic thinking, “How did I come to a place in my life where, at 41 years old, I’m on a second-rate cruise boat on the Yangzi river, slightly drunk, watching grown adults play musical chairs?” (Or, as our Master of Ceremonies called it "The peoples number is more than one the stools number.") It was the evening’s watershed moment. Not long after that I abandoned the whole enterprise, took my second G&T back to the cabin, and fired up a video on the computer. Much better. I felt a bit bad about abandoning the show and the rest of the group, but I just didn’t have it in me for a night of debauchery. After all, that was just the end of Day One. The MS Fortune, the Yangzi, and China still had more to offer.

Bonus Chinglish sign, in honour of Mr. Thoughtful Monkey:


Lisa said...

Not sure why, but Gilligan's Island came to mind...

I love the meat-eating ghost...;0)

Unknown said...

Friend du Jour - excellent.

Has everyone been checking out the photos on flickr? Try the slideshow method: very easy. I especially like the set called Yangzi. Magic in the mist. It even has a photo of both of Pam's feet!


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