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Saturday, October 31, 2009

China’s New Great Wall




Words and pics by Roderick Eime. Additional photography from Helen Wongs Tours

River cruising is the perfect means to explore the great Yangtze River.

The Yangtze River is a massive tempestuous monster. For centuries it has been both the life and death of the Chinese people, providing food, water for irrigation and a critical transport route, but turning fierce with immense and destructive floods. In 1998, the last destructive flood, some 2000 people were drowned and millions made homeless. This final malicious act of the Yangtze would be the last.

If China was to grow and prosper, the beast must be tamed and made to work for the masses. The might of the new China is setting out to tame this fearsome beast with concrete, steel and seemingly limitless manpower.

Our journey begins in Chongqing, a vast, sprawling metropolis now bearing the title of world's largest city. With a population of 32 million it is three times the size of New York City thanks mainly to the relocation of former riverside inhabitants displaced by the Yangtze's rising.

Our vessel, the 4600 tonne, 150-passenger Princess Victoria is the Victoria Cruise Line's flagship and quite likely the fanciest cruiser on the river. Most cabins have cute little balconies, there's a European hotel manager, Christof, and more than sufficient culinary variation and quantity. The attractive young crew are chosen, I'm certain, for their cabaret performing talent as much as their domestic diligence.

As HRH proceeds majestically downstream, we pass floating car carriers laden with sparkling new Volkswagens, one of the many products of the newly industrialised city. Both shores are undergoing momentous transformation with great cranes and concrete pourers working overtime to construct new apartment blocks and shopping centres. The ancient riverside villages are gone, replaced by the energetic and progressive new 21st Century China.

We visit some of the few remaining archaeological sites en route and the Ghost City of Fengdu is a standout. Every so often, you visit a place that defies description, and this is one. Visitors are welcomed by a parade of stone demons each depicting unholy vices and terrifying acts. Displays inside the temple include torture and demon gods and are guaranteed to leave you squeamish.

The Three Gorges themselves are so named for the gorges Qutang, Wu and Xiling occupying a section of about 120 kilometres of the river between Fengjie andYichang. Despite their reputation for stunning scenery it was one of the most hazardous stretches of the Yangtze. As river levels rose and fell with the seasons, navigating the fury of its waters was a white-knuckle experience for crew and passengers alike.

We divert from the main channel to the Daning River and proceed up the “Lesser Three Gorges” (Dragon-Gate, Misty and Emerald) where former farmers and river traders are now tour guides for the many passengers who come to see one of the most scenic locations in all of China. The few farms and dwellings we see are slowly being consumed by the rising waters. Residents must dismantle their own homes and move the materials above the water line to avoid flotsam fouling the dam.

Mr Zhang, our boatman, now sports smart leather shoes and trousers but dons a traditional fishing jacket and headdress as he sings a song and poles us up the narrow tributary bordered by dizzying, sheer cliffs. He's happy that his boat is full of paying travellers, but the notes of his song are tinged with sadness. He'll never sing this tune like his father and grandfather did, hauling in the nets and selling the fish.

After four days cruising, we meet the manmade monster designed to subdue the Yangtze and in the middle of the night, we toast the new Great Wall as Princess Victoria descends 100 metres via a series of locks to the old riverfront at Sandouping.

Any way you look at it, the Three Gorges Dam is one of the world's engineering marvels, easily rivalling the Panama Canal or even the original Great Wall itself. Always controversial, the dam was first proposed in 1919 but many events have intervened to delay its arrival.

Proponents argued that flood mitigation would save many thousands of lives and improve irrigation, navigation and water utilisation The hydro-electric plant would produce 22,500MW or the equivalent of ten per cent of China's industrial requirement.

Opponents cited the dislocation of millions of residents, hundreds of tonnes of damaging sediment, loss of historic relics and the danger of catastrophe due to earthquake or landslide.

“Of course, the new project was welcomed by the younger, ambitious Chinese who did not want to work hard fishing and farming anymore,” says Cathy Huang, our onboard guide with refreshing candour, “but the older people find it very hard. They don't like living in big apartment buildings and miss their life on the river.”

Begun in 1994 and completed in 2006, the dam comprises 27 million cubic of concrete, all of which had to be laid in one continuous pour. The dam wall is 2335 metres wide, 101 metres high and contains 39.3 cubic kilometres of water.

As the Princess passes through the multi-gated lock system, we fall xx metres to the river beyond the wall and tie up until morning in anticipation of our 'great tour'.

After breakfast we gather our cameras and floppy hats and prepare to embark a fleet of buses. One passenger is clearly unimpressed. “Why would I want to go and see another damn dam,” he remarked scathingly. “Yeah,” I sympathised, “a bit like dragging yourself off to the opening of the pyramids.” Regardless of your environmental leanings, viewing the dam has to be up there with the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building or Colosseum.

Clearly visiting the dam is a popular outing for the Chinese. Hundreds of folk are jostling and nudging, as is the Chinese way, for the few vantage points and I hurriedly snatch a few photos before my arbitrary time limit expires and I'm moved on. In a country with more than a billion people, personal space is a luxury few can afford.

Downstream of the dam, the river is much less effected and the water levels are more-or-less unchanged. Traditional villages reappear and there are glimpses of what life must have been like once upon a time on the other side. While we can lament how the Three Gorges Dam has transformed the Yangtze forever, the enormous upheaval thrust upon those along its course is indicative of a rapidly changing China, a country throwing off the ancient shackles of reluctance and charging headlong towards a prosperous future with the promise of plenty for all. Let's hope the Eastern wisdom doesn't repeat the many mistakes of the West.
HMS Kinsha. A typical river steamer
of the very early 20th Century
Come to Me – or be damned!

Near the Three Gorges Dam site, in the Xiling Gorge, was the infamous Kongling Shoal, once one of the deadliest sections of the river.

In the low season, a savage rock protruded from the waterway, known to the locals as “Come to Me”. It earned this name as a result of the unusual navigation technique required to avoid striking the rock whilst passing. Instead of trying to circumvent the protrusion, captains must aim directly at the rock so the rapidly flowing current will then direct the vessel around.

In December 1900, the brand new 826-ton German steamer, Sui Hsiang, was attempting to negotiate the Kongling Shoal. The German captain was struggling at the controls when the Chinese officer pleaded with him to aim directly at the rock, but the captain lost his nerve at the last minute and attempted to go around and the current drew the ship against rock, fatally puncturing the hull. All were saved except the captain.

Fact Box

Helen Wongs Tours offers a range of Yangtze River cruises from 9- to 24 days duration aboard the Victoria Cruises's luxury fleet of six vessels with multilingual Western cruise directors and well trained local staff, all outside cabins with picture windows, lower berths and private bathrooms, fine Chinese cuisine with Western selections, lectures on history and culture, Tai Chi lessons, painting and calligraphy demonstrations, a full range of facilities including business centre, bar, fitness centre and health clinic, and live entertainment.

Cruise prices range from AU$2680 (9 days, cruise only)

For information and reservations, phone Helen Wong’s Tours +612 9267 7833, or visit www.helenwongstours.com

Images: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rodeime/sets/72157627787427859/ (Lo res gallery)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Falling Heroes - Vanuatu's Famous Land Divers



There’s something almost suicidal about Vanuatu’s famous land divers. Bungy jumpers have the benefit of an elastic cord to cushion their fall, but not so the legendary N’Gol (land-diving) natives of Pentecost Island.

The origin of this dangerous ritual is clouded in tantalizing mystery. One of the more romantic tales tells the story of the abusive husband Tamalie who, in pursuit of his recalcitrant wife, followed her up a tall tree as she fled from him. She, whose name seems to have been mislaid in the passage of time, refused to come down knowing that another beating was in store. Driven by pride and rage, Tamalie lunged at her, but she jumped. Tamalie, intoxicated by fury, lunged after her not knowing she had tied vines to her legs and he plunged to his death while she survived.

Some liberal doses of artistic license may have embellished this tale, but it remains as intriguing as ever. Apparently the village men began to re-enact the nameless wife’s heroic plunge to prepare themselves for a similar challenge from their own wives. A slight variation says she repeated her stunt, along with other women, presumably to mock the incompetent men, but was ultimately forbidden to perform the dive along with any other women who might attempt it.

What is clear today is that the death-defying feat is the sole domain of the men and is equally believed to usher in a bountiful yam harvest as it is to ensure the jumper is never accused of cowardice or lacking manliness. Boys as young as seven or eight may jump, albeit from a much lower level, and then work upward as they get older.

The ‘rite of plummet’ is performed annually in the southern region of the island of Pentecost around April, May and June as the yam harvest begins. The enormous 30 metre towers are built immediately prior to the event and can take up to five weeks to construct. Jumpers will sleep on the ground the night before to ward off any evil spirits. They attach carefully selected vines to their legs being careful to approximate the length required. Wet vines will stretch and dry vines will snap, so the selection process is critical and is often left entirely in the hands of a trusted village elder. Beside the vines, there are no safety measures whatsoever

With vines attached, the almost naked jumper will make a short speech before throwing himself off the platform. The assembled crowd listen intently knowing these words may be his last. All the while the village men sing, chant and stomp to create a trance-like atmosphere. Then he jumps.

Like a rag-doll, his body flies toward the ground and at the last minute the vines tighten and arrest his otherwise fatal fall. A properly executed jump will result in the man’s head and shoulders gently caressing the tilled soil beneath the tower. Such a landing is considered lucky (no kidding) and is a good omen for the yam harvest. He staggers to his feet, assisted and congratulated by attendants at the base. A new hero is born.

"If you come and the two vines break, it means you break your neck, or your backbones, or maybe your legs," said village leader Luke Fargo in an interview with US network, ABC.

But Fargo says they have to do it, despite the dangers. "It's our traditional thing, so we must do it from year to year."

If you think this sounds like fun, think again. Foreigners are expressly forbidden to participate, presumably because of the inherent danger, but also to preserve the allure for the islanders whose sacred rite this is.

"They tried to ask us to do it, but we don't allow them, because if they miss, maybe they get injured and sometimes they die," said Fargo.

And if you don’t believe it’s dangerous, just ask our Queen. During the 1974 Royal Visit the islanders were keen to put on a show for the visiting royalty. Only problem, it was the wrong season and the vines were dry. Not wishing to disappoint, they dived anyway, with vines snapping more often than not. The injury toll mounted and one diver later died. This, apparently, is the only such fatality in recent memory.

Westerners were first introduced en masse to this hair-raising spectacle via the camera of celebrated documentary filmmaker, Sir David Attenborough. In the 1950s, his BBC crew were bringing the strange and mysterious animals and people of the world into the living rooms of the English-speaking world.

The ‘Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club’ claim to have performed the first ‘bungee jump’ modelled on this ancient spectacle and it wasn’t long before it became commercial thanks to the ebullient Kiwi entrepreneur, AJ Hackett. His headline-grabbing stunt on the Eiffel Tower in 1987 ensured the new extreme sport’s success and by 1988 he was in operation in Queenstown New Zealand. Even James Bond has bungy-jumped (Golden Eye 1995).

Only in recent years has the event been regularly witnessed by visiting western travellers and P&O are fortunate to be able to offer this as one of their most exciting shore excursions.

P&O Cruises time their program to witness this spectacle in April, May and June

See cruise information for Pentecost Island

By the Hammer of Thor – A Viking Trail through the North Atlantic



If you were a Viking in the Middle Ages of European history, chances are you were not much of a diplomat or humanitarian. Roderick Eime reflects on the Nordic influence.

The fearsome Viking reputation is not without substance. Beginning around the ninth century until well into the eleventh, the Norse mariners went on an aggressive land grab that often resulted in bloodshed, abduction and pillaging. Today’s mild-mannered and infinitely cultured Scandinavians have countered this unfriendly perception somewhat by reminding us that the Vikings were also skilled seafarers, advanced agriculturalists and energetic traders who advanced the culture and civilization of Europe generally.

No matter which angle you embrace, Vikings still evoke a powerful mystique with their bold and robust architecture and design as well as pagan worship. Just like the Greeks and Romans, Norse mythology is chock-a-block with mighty deities and gods like, Thor (god of thunder), Odin (god of war) and Freyr (goddess of love and fertility). Our days of the week are still named after Norse gods. True.

Vikings and Norse culture has experienced several periods of renaissance over the years with the 1870 Wagnerian opera, The Valkyrie, perhaps the most memorable. A notoriously long and arduous production, the phrase “it’s not over until the fat lady sings” refers to the final act of the buxom Norse queen, BrĂ¼nnhilde.

Away from the grand opera and comic books, it’s out on the water that the Vikings had their biggest influence. Their penchant for raiding, trading and colonizing spread the Norse culture and genes deep into Russia, North Africa and as far as modern Canada. Great explorers like Erik the Red and his son Leif Ericson, took the Norse influence west of Iceland to Greenland and North America and even created settlements as far away as L'Anse aux Meadows on the tip of Newfoundland. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is believed the Vikings lived there around 1000AD.

Passionate historians or even just the curious can recreate their own “Viking trail” by interconnecting the various Norse settlements with modern cruise ships, enjoying a form of sea travel Erik and his crew would never have dreamed of.


Starting in Newfoundland, such cruise lines as Silverseas and Regent Seven Seas include L'Anse aux Meadows on itineraries that may also include Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland from where Erik & Son fled in the late 10th Century. Far from being constrained by its name, Iceland is far more than frozen water. Visits to ports like Djupivogur, Isafjord, Seydisfjordur and Akureyri aboard vessels from MSC, P&O and even the smaller boutique and adventure lines such as Seaborne and Cruise West will reveal a land rich in natural and cultural treasure. One of the most popular excursions is the geothermal lake, The Blue Lagoon, where you can swim in 40 degree, mineral rich waters just 40km from the capital.

Greenland, the world’s largest island, nearly 300km west of Iceland, was also visited and colonised by Erik and Ericson but these villages only existed until the early 15th century, when the Norse were either evicted by the Inuit or died out. Not limited to small expedition vessels, Nanortalik and Qaqortoq are two ports visited by the larger liners including Princess, Holland America and Saga. Visits to Greenland are becoming increasing popular and even a little urgent, as the massive glaciers disintegrate in the planet’s warming climate. The destination provides both a natural and cultural feast when combined with the rich and colourful Inuit who ultimately prevailed over the Viking invaders.

If you were sailing toward Iceland from the northern tip of Scotland, it would be hard not to stumble across the remote Faroe Islands. Still a domain of Denmark, the first Vikings are thought have arrived in there in the 7th century, not by boat but from a migration north from the Orkneys and Shetlands, which themselves experienced centuries of Scandinavian influence that persists to this day.

Look for itineraries that include ports of Torshavn (Faroes), Kirkwall (Orkneys) or Portree (Hebrides) to fully experience the Norse influence of Northern Britain.

Fact File:

As an Arctic destination, most ports are only visited during the northern summer cruise season, typically May to September. The ideal months are June to August when the weather is warmest.

Cruise Lines:

MSC, Saga, Hurtigruten, HAL, Oceania, Silversea, Seaborne, Cruise West, Costa