Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Dam Trains!

After our dragon boat victory we had an afternoon to marvel at the technical achievement that is the Three Gorges Dam. The nicest thing that can be said is that it does the job; certainly, despite the parks and viewing platforms all around, it is hardly beautiful. The five shipping locks, again impressive in scale and utility, bolster up the general greyness of the whole project. I think it's taken thirteen years to get to this point with most of the generators now in place and generating. Some still need to be installed however and will be before 2009 when the dam will generate 10% of all China's power needs. The water in the gorges will then have risen to around 175 metres. After being driven from one viewing place to another to take in the sight, we were all soon blase about the whole deal. As the Thai say, same same but different.

To counter this oppressive lack of invention, that night we had one of the finest meals yet in the nearby city of Yichang. Eel, pork ribs in sticky rice, etc., etc.. Lovely. Later, after getting settled into our hotel, Pat, Jill, Daniel and I went in search of internet. Our hotel had one pc and Andy got there first, so we headed off with some hazy directions from the concierge. Finding an Internet cafe was not easy, although if we were seeking a 'hairdresser' our search would have been finished pretty quickly. Yichang, a city of broken pavements, is awash with hairdressing boutiques, though at night hair-cutting is not something they specialise in. Instead, to earn a little extra money, the red lights go on and the lovely ladies stare out longingly at passing males. In at least one place we passed there was a massage going on. We moved along quickly.

True to culinary form, the hotel offered a splendid breakfast the next morning. As I wrote Yichang wasn't the prettiest place we'd been to - it has gained a lot of its current prominence from shipbuilding and its proximity to the dam - but then we didn't have much time there to really see it. Having arrived late the night before, a minibus was to take us away at nine. A five hour bus journey then a 16 hour hard sleeper train journey. Just a not on the hard sleeper/soft sleeper distinction. Chinese trains cannot make a distinction like first and second class; it goes against the Communist grain. Instead then there are hard and soft sleepers. A soft sleeper is a compartment with a door and four beds. A hard sleeper has no door (the carriage is all the one) with six berths. Naturally we were in a hard sleeper. What's more a Chinese tour group of some hundred people had booked up all the lower berths. Nigel, Daniel, and I, separated from the others, were to have top bunks. After struggling with my backpack for twenty minutes, I finally pushed my way through to my assigned bunk to find four Chinese guys playing poker and smoking on the bottom bunks. They were as un-overjoyed to see me as I them. Daniel, who has asthma, was not too keen on the smoking aspect, and Nigel, with Daniel's best interest at heart, was of a similar view. Again let me stress that Nigel, the tour leader, is big, very big, 7 foot tall and bearded big. Storming in to the carriage he bellowed out, 'No smoking! No smoking!'. The Chinese thought this very amusing until he lifted one of them out of his seat to show the 'No smoking' sign behind him. Before we knew it a whole carriage load of Chinese were yelling at him, while Nigel yelled back. I thought we would be lynched. To be fair, it stopped the smoking, but we did have 16 hours to spend with these people and only for a soft-spoken train inspector coming along things could have gotten nasty. In the end the four guys swapped berths with four female members of their group and peace of a sort was restored. The inspector still took our passport numbers though.

In contrast to the carriages of the other members of our group, our carriage was a bit of a dive. Children urinated on the floor, card games clogged up the passage and our bed area, while every so often the general noise was punctuated by someone hawking up phlegm. Don't ask me where they spat. Not anticipating a lot of sleep Nigel, Daniel and I adopted a strategy of alcoholic anaesthesia. Getting off the train at stops, we managed to sample a large variety of beers (all of low volume) before the lights went off at 10 and we were forced to take our bunks. Given the circumstances I was surprised to sleep at all, but I did, even though it was up at 4 am to get off at our next location, Yangshuo.


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