Kenji's Excellent Asian Adventures, Part 6: This is Not the Cruise You're Looking For

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Last year I took a three-month trip through China and Southeast Asia, keeping an on-again off-again diary for the whole trip. This is the sixth part of my Excellent Asian Adventures.

Days 18 to 20: This is Not the Cruise You're Looking For

Location: Somewhere between Chongqing and Yiching, China

It's 5 a.m. and I'm woken up by an earsplitting, crackling hiss, followed by pre-recorded message that sounds like an angry monk reading Vogon poetry over a New York subway PA system. It's not quite the last thing you want to hear in the morning, but it's close. The last thing you want to hear in the morning is what follows: a two minute excerpt of Kenny G's interpretation of The Girl From Ipanema, played in a loop over those same PA speakers.

I'm fairly certain that the best and brightest minds in China have been hard at work coming up with a series of sounds scientifically proven to be the most efficient way to deprive innocent ship passengers of sleep. If hell had a waiting room, this would be the soundtrack.

This, by the way, is the same noise I awoke to yesterday morning at 5 a.m. It was on a repeated loop that played continuously until 7, when it finally gave way to China's normal soundtrack: loogie hocking, coughing, and the dramatically-loud pitter patter of unrestrained children, no doubt looking for a corner to pee in. I'm fairly certain it's going to happen again today. The only upside is that it drowns out the noise of the air conditioning unit, which does nothing but cycle the same wet air around the room, occasionally giving out a little gurgling groan to let you know that it's still alive and you better not unplug it or you'll be cut out of the will.

Waking up at 5 a.m. wouldn't be so bad if it happened to be after a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed to the smell of a hot breakfast being prepared. Instead, everything is damp. And I mean everything. The bed is damp. The sheets are damp and moldy-smelling. The pillows are damp. My hair is damp (and I don't even have hair right now). The carpet, coated in decades of grime and spit, are damp. The dried spicy shredded squid I bought as a snack packed in a sealed plastic pouch with a packet of silicone desiccant guaranteed to keep it dry, is damp. Even our ultra-fast-drying synthetic fiber clothing, which we were assured would have to break the basic laws of thermodynamics in order to get damp, are damp.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard the pride of the Yangtze, and your home away from home for the next three days.

I'm not normally a "cruise" kind of guy. I've taken one cruise in my life, but after a hectic week in Beijing, followed by some heavy hiking on Emei Shan (complete with those jerky monkeys), and a few more hectic days in Sichuan and Chongqing, a slow, lazy, romantic cruise on the Yangtze river, surrounded by the famous Three Gorges sounded pretty heavenly, and we decided to go full-immersion by skipping the International cruise lines and opting for an operator that caters to Chinese tourists. Apart from a sweet young Swiss girl traveling alone, we were the only non-Chinese tourists on the trip.

As we were herded aboard our ship via a long concrete staircase (the funicular next to the stairs looked like it hadn't moved up or down its rusted tracks for decades), the first thing we noticed was the smell. Water-bound vessels always have some kind of pungent aroma. That comes with the territory. But this was something different. After locating the source of the stench—which I'll get to—we seriously considered eating the cost of the tickets and stepping off before we even left port. In retrospect, I kinda wish we had.

The ship itself was a sort of floating time machine. The interior, with its wall-to-wall carpeting complete with cigarette burns and the stains of every bodily fluid you can name and a few you can't, looked like a dim sum restaurant that hasn't been cleaned or redecorated since 1972. The main lounge had two wooden benches (also burned with cigarettes), a chandelier with 16 lights (only three worked), a refrigerator full of warm beer and Red Bull, and a counter that sold dried squid, baiju (Chinese firewater) and instant noodles.

The warm beer and baiju would become my best friends for the next couple of days.

Through the smoke-filled haze that had already permeated the room, I could barely make out a "no smoking" sign above one of the benches. It was right next to a sign that said "No spitting." In case that sign wasn't specific enough, there was a third sign on the wall that said "No spitting ANYWHERE."

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There must have been a fourth sign posted somewhere that read "Please disregard all posted signs," perhaps stuck somewhere on the dingy carpet where it was obscured by gobs of spit and discarded cigarette butts.

Walking up the curved staircase to the second level of the lounge, I saw a long line of tourists, each one carrying a large thermos in their hand. Ah, that door down there must be where you fill up your hot water bottle for instant noodles and tea, I thought.

I was correct, but it's not all the room was. It was also the lone public restroom on the boat, and the source of the offensive odors. Why did it smell so bad, you ask? Because already, before we had even left port, the squat toilet had been clogged. A layer of brown, streaky liquid was slicked across the floor.* You had to step into it to get at the hot water dispenser. The clog was so severe that murky brown water was backing up into the sink. Folks were standing in piss, holding their thermoses inches above raw sewage in order to fill them with the water that they'd be cooking with and drinking from for the next three days.

* If there's one advantage to the Chinese steadfast refusal to supply toilet paper to the public, it's that at least when bathroom floors are covered in piss or worse, you don't get any of those disgusting pulpy masses of paper that come along with it.

It's okay, I said to Adri as I saw her eyes widening in horror, her body instinctively drifting towards the nearest exit. We'll just avoid public spaces. So long as we have safe refuge in our First Class, air-conditioned cabin, complete with Western toilet and in-room shower, we'll be able to relax, right? I said to her as the ship finally pulled out into the brown, muddy water of the Yangtze.

We found our cabin and unlocked it.

"The horror! The horror!" I whispered weakly as the door creaked open.

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I suppose this does qualify as a Western toilet, though it may as well have been a squat, because there's no way in hell my any part of my body was getting anywhere near that thing. It's normal in China for showers to be a simple hose-and-nozzle situation attached to the wall in the bathroom. In this particular case, you had to stand or sit on that toilet in order to use the shower.

Well, I thought, so long as we can use the sink, at least we can stay mildly clean.

I turned on the tap. As soon as water started circling down, a wave of raw sewage odors shot up out of the drain. I quickly glanced under the sink and saw the problem: it was a straight PVC tube going down to the floor. No U-bend, no valve, literally nothing separating the river of sewage that ran under our room from every other toilet on the same floor and the drain in our sink. We slammed the door shut, mentally slapping an "Open in case of emergencies only" sticker across it.

We went for a wander to the upper observation deck, and nearly burst out laughing when we found that the "shaded observation area" had already been strung up end to end with underwear, pajamas, and t-shirts attempting to dry in the evening mist.

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We laughed even harder when we realized that it had only been 20 minutes since we boarded, which meant that folks must have come onto the ship fully prepared to wash their clothes immediately in order to get at the prime drying spots before anyone else. That laundry stayed up there for the remainder of the trip.

There were some upsides, but they were few and far between. The "towns" you stop to visit are either strings of shops selling tourist knick knacks, or large, industrial, concrete numbers (sometimes both). We used these short off-shore excursions as a means to gorge ourselves on spicy bean starch noodles, dumplings, and coal-roasted potatoes, as well as to replenish our supply of dried squid and peanuts seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns and chili.

It was on one of these walks that I discovered one of my new favorite snacks: "Dried Horse Bean With Mysterious Flavor," which are in fact quite dry, but not all that mysterious. The dried fava beans come with a thick coating of a sweet-and-spicy fermented chili and Sichuan pepper spice blend. We spent hours on the upper deck of the ship, playing cards, eating fermented horse beans, and attempting to numb away our general sense of queasiness with warm beer and hot tea.

On the second day of the trip we discovered exactly what it is the morning announcements interspersed between the Kenny-G were saying: the menu for the day. Turns out there's a dining cabin in the aft section of the second floor of the cruise ship which offers a full menu of Chinese standards. We sat at a communal table with the single Swiss girl, a Chinese family, and middle-aged Chinese man who was halfway through a solo bottle of baiju. He offered us each a slug then giggled as we coughed and sputtered while trying to knock it back.

The mapo tofu, braised greens, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, and stir-fried chicken we ordered were not half bad considering the surroundings. A step or two below standard American food court Chinese fare. We were a bit concerned as to the general hygiene of the kitchen producing it, but it was delivered to the dining room via the screen of a dumbwaiter so it was possible (though not easy) to imagine that the kitchen was clean.

This was the first and last meal we took there, and it required us to cut down the imaginary "emergencies only" tape we had placed over the bathroom door.

The one stop we were really looking forward to, the famed Fengdu Ghost City was skipped due to time constraints. The Three Gorges themselves are relatively impressive, though I hear that they are far less so after the construction of the Three Gorges dam.

The Smaller Three Gorges, which you reach via a day trip on a mid-sized boat followed by a small wooden skiff were even nicer than the actual Three Gorges. The gorgeous natural beauty makes even the hackneyed tour guide schtick bearable, though headphones help even more.

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The mid-sized boat you take to access the Smaller Three Gorges has an upper-upper deck where you can pay 30 Yuan for a cup of tea, which then allows you to sit up there for the remainder of the 6 hour trip. This, at least, saves you from being shoved mercilessly by umbrella-toting grannies.

It also ensures that you won't accidentally get hit by one of the cigarette butts, banana peels, or half-eaten corn cobs wrapped in plastic bags that get chucked willy-nilly into what were undoubtedly once clean waters.

It's kind of depressing to be taken on a nature-baed cruise and watch as it is literally polluted right before your eyes.

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I have never been shoved around as much as I have been for the last couple weeks in China. People will literally hold you back with their hand as they cut into a line just as you're about to start talking to a cashier or ticket-seller without even offering a bit of eye contact by way of an "excuse me." The only upside to it is that nobody seems to care if you call them out on it and shove them right back out. And the shoving seems to know no age, gender, or class borders either. You're just as likely to get shoved by a young, well-dressed young girl in high heels as by a disheveled grandmother with a pushcart or a man in a business suit.

Like countries that have a haggling culture, it's a part of every day life that I just find extremely unpleasant.

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China is a wonderful country to visit with incredible food, gorgeous scenery, and a rich history, but I can't with any sort of sincerity recommend visiting the Three Gorges on a cruise. Do yourself a favor: If you're on your way from Chongqing to Shanghai, skip the boat and jump straight on a flight. There are far better things to see (and more importantly, tastier things to eat) once you get there.

Day 21: Giggling is Universal

Location: Wuhan, China

Our harrowing cruise ended three days after it began and we caught a bus from Yiching to Wuhan. Day buses are not an altogether unpleasant way to travel in China, provided you get a seat towards the front of the bus. At the back of the bus you have to put up with the bathroom odors which get pleasantly wafted through the cabin by the swinging door that invariably has a broken latch. In the center of the bus, where we were seated, you have another pleasantry to keep you occupied: the communal spit bucket.

It's nothing more than a plastic tub that sits in the aisle and serves as both a garbage can and spittoon. There's nothing more relaxing during a drive through the Chinese countryside than the hocchhhhhh-p'too-SMACK of laser-precision loogie-hocking next to your seat. The upside was that the seats and floors were relatively free of bodily fluids.

The only stop we made during the 180-mile journey was at a highway rest stop. Oh man I wish we could trade in our McDonald's and convenience stores for Chinese rest stops! Chinese fast food means noodles, but the ones at the rest stop were actually good. You pay a few Yuan for a basic bowl, then ask them to gussy it up with a wide array of fresh steamed vegetable, sauces and chili oils, ground meat or nuts, and broths. It's a hot, fresh, satisfying, and cheap meal that gets served hot in a matter of seconds. It's almost enough to make you forget about the state of bathrooms in Chinese rest stops (hint: not good).

If noodles aren't you're thing, there's also the usual array of Chinese convenience store snacks that range from shrimp chips to cryo-vacked Peking duck to dried fruit to meat- and seafood-flavored Pringles. Head over to the right side of the convenience store and you've reached the fried-duck-parts depot. Think: the clear acrylic bins with plastic scoops at the bulk candy shop, but instead of Sour Patch Kids and malt balls you've got fried duck legs, gizzards, and heads. You pick out the ones you want, scoop them into plastic bags, then gnaw on them to extract bits of skin and cartilage (you find little actual meat).

For the rest of the bus trip, the communal spit bucket becomes the communal duck bones and spit bucket.

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One of the problems of looking vaguely Chinese but not being at all Chinese in China is that not only do Chinese people try to speak to you in Chinese, but you actually have a tough time convincing them that you don't speak Chinese.

Have you ever noticed that when faced with someone who doesn't speak a lick of their language, English-speaking tourists slowly turn into Tarzan?

Man to confused waiter: "Do you guys have egg rolls?"

Woman to man: "Honey, I don't think they understand..."

Man to woman: "It's ok, honey. They'll get it. Watch." To waiter: "You have egg roll?"

Woman: "Dear, I really don't..."

Man: "EGG ROLL? YOU HAVE? ME HUNGRY. BRING EGG ROLL."

After two and a half weeks in China, I know what it's like to be on the receiving end of that.

One thing that does translate well into any language is uncontrolled giggling. Adri and I spent a short night in Wuhan, en route from Yichang to Shanghai. After a long pleasant walk and a meal of almost-too-hot-to-eat mushroom, pepper, and Chinese chive skewers painted with chili paste and grilled over charcoal on Hubu Xiang, Wuhan's snack street, we spotted a storefront offering foot massages delivered by fish.

Inside the shop is a long row of foot-level, open-topped aquariums housing Garra rufa, the so-called "Doctor Fish" from Turkey. The nice lady running the shop didn't speak any English, but it was pretty easy to understand. You pick your tank based, I suppose, on how large you like your feet-eating fish (they ranged from tanks with thousands of dime-sized specimens to those housing two dozen fish the size of Persian cucumbers), and how hungry they appear: As you walk by the tanks, the fish swarm towards you, sensing that a meal is in store.

We picked tanks with the smallest fish in them, sat down in the comfortable green-upholstered massage chairs, slipped off our sandals, and stuck our feet in. The fish immediately swarmed, scraping at our skin with their tiny toothless mouths, burrowing between our toes, nibbling at our ankles.

It feels not unlike a battalion of tiny dwarves armed with feather-tipped pikes suddenly attacking your feet on command. I burst out into a fit of uncontrolled giggling that got everyone in the store going. Adri, the shopkeeper and her husband, along with two large, very serious-looking Chinese tourists with their feet in the big-boy tanks all bonded as they laughed and pointed at the Chinese-looking guy who couldn't handle it when the fish went at him.

I eventually settled down as my feet became numb to the tickling, until I lifted them and gave the fish access to the undersides, which triggered a whole new bout of giggling, laughing, and pointing.

There's plenty of debate as to whether this sort of treatment is actually good for your skin or not—the fish supposedly eat dead skin cells, leaving your feet smooth and refreshed. Our feet did feel smooth, but perhaps that was just a function of the 30-minute soak. We'd have to do some rigorous side-by-side testing, but I'm not sure I'm cut out for that particular job.