I usually avoid tour groups. The only thing I hate more than manufactured camaraderie is being told what to do. The idea that anyone might combine both and pay for the privilege is beyond my understanding. On the Yangtze cruise, however, it would seem I had no choice, a fact made very clear when at 3.30am there was an almighty thump on my cabin door.
Peeling open one eye I looked across the room to see the tour guide standing in the doorway, haloed by the bright light of the corridor. She was smiling with what I took to be a look of spiteful satisfaction. ‘You wake up now,’ she barked. I looked over at Mr Snack, who was already slipping his yellow slacks over boxers the size of an Edwardian lady’s bloomers. ‘You go Chinese ghost city. You buy ticket.’ She slammed the door and Mr Snack, now fully dressed, made a discreet bow and headed to the bathroom in little white slippers.
The sounds of phlegm being mined from deep nocturnal recesses soon filled the room. I rolled over and buried my fingers in my ears, at which point I became aware of a curious sensation. Below the waist, my body was almost completely numb. I began to panic. Sitting bolt upright I pounded my thighs with my fists and tried to kick my legs. With each punch, feeling returned and, as I lifted my legs out of bed and clomped my feet to the damp floor, blood prickled my limbs. With sensation returning, the slippery dampness of the phlegm-stained carpet sent chills of revulsion up my spine.
This was my first indication that our ship had a serious list. Looking about the room I noticed the water in the bottle on my nightstand was tipped at a twenty-degree angle. When I opened the window the curtains fell out. I looked over at Mr Snack’s piles of food and was struck by the not entirely irrational thought that the only thing standing between us and capsizing was a single packet of soy chips. With some caution I climbed the hill to the door and made my way to the dining room.
Of all the bad meals I was to have on my Yangtze tour, breakfast was the best of a bad lot. Consisting of steamed buns stuffed with mystery meat and a bowl of flavourless rice porridge, the first meal of the day had, at least, the consolation of being warm and filling. As the prison guards slopped the white goo into my bowl I scanned the room cautiously for the Irishmen. Thankfully, they were nowhere to be seen. At a table by themselves, Mandy and Tina were hunkered down over a meal of chocolate-chip cookies and tea.
‘This is not good,’ said Mandy as I joined them. ‘This is really not good.’
‘We’re not happy,’ said Tina. ‘We’re really not happy.’
I put my tray down and watched my teacup slide slowly to edge of the table. ‘Aren’t you eating the buns?’ I asked.
‘No way!’ said Mandy.
‘How would you know what they put in them?’ said Tina. ‘Did you hear they found a factory that was making children’s toys with poison paints? What guarantee would you have that the same operation wasn’t making those buns?
‘We were promised a much better ship than this,’ she continued. ‘We were specifically told that we would have a sun deck, American breakfast and an English-speaking guide. But we don’t even have a socket for the hairdryer!’
‘If it was clean I wouldn’t mind so much,’ said Mandy. ‘But my bed has mould on it. And our bathroom is this high with water.’ She held up her forefinger and thumb.
‘We got a pool alright,’ said Mandy. ‘A gosh-darn—excuse my language—a gosh-darn pool of stinky river water.’ She took a breath and bit a cookie. ‘I’m trying to find out how this happened, but no one will answer my questions.’ As she spoke crumbs fell from the side of her mouth. ‘If my husband had been here you can bet they’d have listened to him. But oh no, we’re just a pair of dumb women. Well, I’m sick of it, absolutely sick of it. But don’t you worry, they’ll find out they can’t do this to us.’
Since I had met them, the marital status of Mandy and Tina had been a matter of mild intrigue. This mention of a husband piqued my curiosity. If they were married, then why were they travelling together? Perhaps her use of past tense meant he was dead. Were they, I wondered, simply a pair of widows, out to see the world, or was there another, less expected explanation?
Through the mist the boat began to approach the shore. As if privy to secret information, the dining room rose as one and moved towards the exit.
In the foyer, a sea of matching baseball caps stretched to each wood-panelled wall, spread out onto the decks, snaked up the stairs and down the hallways. Punctuating the crowd, tour leaders with megaphones barked instructions at their groups, the feedback squalls and echoes of their monologues a painful avant-garde opera in the grey morning.
‘Where are we going?’ Tina cried over the din. ‘What’s happening?’
As the boat bumped into the dock the crowd pushed forward in anticipation. A sullen man outside of the barrier, a cigarette stuck to his bottom lip, pulled back the gate. Stretching out over a shallow but swift-moving stream of mud, a wooden jetty floated on a series of precarious-looking pontoons. The crush of bodies propelled us towards the water. Beside me, Mandy and Tina were quickly swallowed up. ‘Stop pushing!’ they cried over the stomp of feet and the squall of the megaphones. ‘What is the hurry?’ The last I was to see of them that day was a pair of hands raised above the crowd in a futile gesture of entreaty.
As a nation of more than one billion, it often seems that the Chinese are so in the habit of pushing, shoving and fighting for everything that they tend to extend this behaviour to all situations, regardless of urgency—a tour of a historical site is met with the same sense of barely repressed hysteria as a bomb threat or hurricane evacuation. As ridiculous as it seemed, it was tempting to be caught up in the madness of the mob, as if this was a game show and the first person to the top of the mountain won a plasma TV or a holiday to Spain. Surrendering to the feverish crowd, I shoved my way onto the treacherous, mud-slicked gangplank and groped through the fog to shore.
The entrance to Fengdu was up a long zigzag embankment, soon to be flooded by the rising river waters. To reach it we had first to walk through a wasteland of abandoned apartment buildings in various stages of demolition. These were the former homes of the residents of Fengdu, most of whom had been evicted and moved across the river to a new town. There, if the Chinese government was to be believed, they had been installed in new accommodation of sybaritic luxury. In reality, many displaced citizens had received very little in return for their forced relocation, and corrupt local officials had pocketed the compensation of many more. A number of Fengdu residents, especially the elderly, had wound up homeless and still lived among the buildings, squatting in concrete shells while the water washed away the banks. Here and there, thin trails of smoke from the fires of their camps rose into the air, mixing with those of the demolition teams that would soon man the wrecking balls and bulldozers, lying idle in the mud.
A sweaty climb through the fog brought us to the ticket counter at the top of the embankment. By the gate the tour guides stood screaming instructions into megaphones as a panicked stream of sightseers forced their way inside. ‘You pay,’ said my tour guide, still waving her flag in the direction of the entrance. ‘Thirty yuan.’
‘I was told entry was included in my fare.’
‘No,’ she snapped.
Grudgingly, and with a loud curse on the ancestors of Ronald McDonald, I fished the money from my pocket and entered the compound.
Also known as the ‘city of ghosts’, the temple complex of Fengdu is modelled on the Chinese vision of hell. As such, it was to prove one of the few attractions I was to see along the Yangtze that would live up to its promise, though for reasons that were merely coincidental.
Built on either side of a small mountain valley, Fengdu is a string of gaudy temples connected by stepped paths and a series of bridges and gateways, each boasting various supernatural powers, including longevity and fertility but not, tragically, the power to get you out of Fengdu. Straddling the two halves of the mountain is the centrepiece of the complex: an enormous sculpture of an ancient Chinese scholar, referred to in tourist literature I had found in my cabin as the King of Heel.
An obviously recent addition to the landscape, the King of Heel was almost as big as the mountain itself, his head a ten-storey concrete block rising from a high ridge, like an apartment building wearing a hat. His arms were covered walkways running down the hillside, terminating under his chin in a pair of clasped hands as tall as a church spire. Sculpted steps snaking down the mountain suggested his billowing robes.
As ugly and incongruous as the King of Heel might have seemed, he was entirely in keeping with the character of Fengdu; although almost two thousand years old, most of the complex had been demolished during the Cultural Revolution then rebuilt in the 1980s. For this reason, among others, Fengdu lacked any of the atmosphere normally associated with historical sites. The temples had all the character of mini-golf props, the colours, bright and gaudy, suggested something lead-based and foetus-deforming: the blue a solid toilet freshener, the reds and yellows the inside of a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Many of the ceremonial gates were poured concrete. Even the few surviving medieval buildings had been ‘restored’ to such an extent that almost all traces of antiquity had been scrubbed away, making them indistinguishable from the modern reproductions. I had been to all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets with more atmosphere than Fengdu. Nevertheless, compelled by some misguided duty to culture, I plodded on, making my way deeper into the complex.