The front desk girl at the hostel hung up the phone. "I have good news and bad news," she said.
"What's the bad news?" Olivia, my intrepid travel companion, asked.
"There is no student discount for the entrance ticket package. The good news is that there are only third-class tickets left." We had asked for second-class tickets. The other front desk attendant gave the girl a look that said "you're an idiot."
That was how the three of us went for our trip of a lifetime in a dark, smelly third-class cabin at the bottom of the boat. But back to Chongqing. On the day our cruise started we had stocked up on what seemed like enough packaged food for a week-long trip to outer space. This turned out not to be really necessary, since hot food was available onboard and the same instant noodles and snack food were sold at several stops.
We had decided on the two-night instead of the three-night option, which meant taking a three-hour bus ride to Wanzhou before getting on the boat and setting off at around sunset. Once onboard, we found the room, dropped off our luggage, and immediately saw we needed to find someplace else to hang out. That place was the deck, a cozy outdoor space equipped with the type of squat tables and plastic chairs found at shaokao stands. With our snack foods, a deck of cards, some beers, and mugs of hot water, we settled in for a game of cheat the landlord.
At around midnight the boat stopped at Zhangfei Temple, an old-style building that had clearly been built more as a monument to tourism than anything else. We slept poorly in our airless dungeon, and were awakened at around 5:30 by blaring Kenny G music and a constantly repeated announcement about breakfast in the restaurant. We finally gave up, dragged ourselves out of our bunks, grabbed some food, and headed up to the deck. Going outside felt like coming back to life; Nescafe, biscuits, and dried fruit had never tasted so good.
The wake-up call was to get us ready for the early-morning stop at White King Town, another purportedly historical attraction still in Chongqing. We gave it a miss, and headed instead for an ancient-fortress-like structure we could see from the boat. It turned out to be a construction site, another tourist stop in the works, but it was a surprisingly peaceful place to stroll around and look at the river.
Fortunately, the tourist attractions were about to get better. That afternoon we switched to smaller boats and headed into the Lesser Three Gorges, a scenic stretch on a tributary of the Yangtze, and then to still smaller boats to see the narrow Little Three Gorges.
Back on the big boat I braved the dungeon for a nap, then emerged on deck to find that my companions had invented a new type of high-five that involves punching your friend's forehead, and Olivia was increasingly speaking in song lyrics. Ablajan referred to everything as "hilarious." Perhaps the lack of sleep and bathing and the snack-food diet were wearing on us, or maybe we were just having too much fun.
The next morning we were awakened at an only slightly less hellish hour to the sound of Kenny G, the breakfast announcement, and finally, vigorously pounded drums. It was time to board dragon boats for the trip into Shennong Stream. Luckily they had motors.
Perhaps concerned that we'd be bored of scenery by this time, the powers that be at Shennong Stream had prepared a plethora of amusements for us. There was a stage at the boat dock with a song-and-dance performance and a floating walkway between the dramatic cliffs lining the stream. The walkway led to a stairway up to another walkway, this one built precariously into the side of the cliff. Above it all, two men on bicycles navigated a tightrope while dangling two other performers on slings below them.
Our final stop was at the Three Gorges Dam itself, where we boarded buses that took us around to admire it from several different angles. Though I'd been curious about the dam since reading about it a decade before, visiting added little to the experience of, say, looking at a picture of it—certainly not enough to merit the top-tier ticket price.
When the bus finally dropped us off in Yichang, Hubei, the adventure was over. We were bedraggled and hungry, but we'd packed months' worth of fun into two long days.
Tip No. 1
If you try to book a cruise by phone and the person on the other end tells you that it will be fine to buy a ticket the day before departure during a national holiday, do not believe her. Call someone else, like Chongqing Port International Travel Service (023-86622290 or cq pits). There are several domestic companies running similar cruises; prices range from about RMB400 to 900 depending on class and whether the journey is one way or roundtrip. Food, entrance tickets, and deck pass sold separately.
Tip No. 2:
Don't buy the package of tickets to attractions. It includes pointless things like Zhangfei Temple and the Three Gorges Dam.
Tip No. 3:
You can buy a ticket on an overnight train from Yichang to Chengdu (approx. 13 hours; hard sleeper, RMB220) in advance in Chongqing.