Visiting The Three Gorges Dam

If you have a thing for world’s first and engineering marvels then this is one trip that you would want to make this Summer, and have it ticked off the bucket list.

Architectural Model – Photo taken at the Three Gorges Dam Museum showing the 5 ship locks bringing a boat downstream into the main river

The Three Gorges Dam or the Sanxia Da Ba (三峡大坝) is the world’s largest hydroelectric dam created to both produce electricity and increase the Yangtze River’s shipping capacity as well as reduce downstream floods. A project that started construction in 1994, it was fully functioning from 2012 complete with five ship locks and fully completed with a ship lift in December 2015. See TEN interesting facts that you may want to note about the Dam project here before you book those tickets.

As for us, we were curious to see what a project that saw China relocating 1.24 million people in 2008 to achieve, costing them US$27.6 billion or RMB180 billion to construct-looked like in reality.

Getting there was easier than expected, there is a 3 hour train ride option from Shenzhen but we decided to fly domestic. So we took the train from Hong Kong to Shenzhen via Lo Wu. From there, boarded a 2 hour flight from Shenzhen’s Airport into Yichang.

A map of the tribal villages living along the Dam – at least 360 million people live here in the stretch from Yichang to Chongqing

Seeing the entire Dam and the expanse of land that is home to almost 360 million people is no mean feat and the most common way to fully appreciate it is to take a 4 to 6 day cruise and there are many cruise companies that arrange tours with English-speaking agents and guides.

With limited off days from school and work, we opted for the shortest way to see the Dam – via a Day Tour and got it arranged via the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Yichang (where we were staying). They recommended an English speaking tour guide, Christine who turned out to be a real gem. With a good command of English, knowledgeable, friendly and passionate about her job, she arranged a 2 day itinerary which included a day out on a tour boat down the Yangtze river and a second day out to see explore the Ba tribal village, one of the many small ancient villages that snake around the Yangtze.

Day 1

Saw us getting on to a tour boat that would take us on a leisurely cruise down part of the Yangtze to cross the ship lock of the Gezhouba Dam, go inside the Dam area, view the museum, have lunch, and then take a bus back to Yichang.

The Boat Tour – TIP: For better all around views – pay the extra 40RMB per person and sit on the top deck which is shaded with a canopy
Scenic views along the way

Entering a SHIP LOCK – think of it as an elevator of sorts but this SHIP LOCK allows the vessel to sail in and brings you 22 metres down stream in 20 mins (about the rate of 1 metre per minute). The ship is literally “locked” into the contained area that you see ahead to prevent the water from rushing in and then carried down stream.

CLOSE sesame! We are inside and the doors lock shut once the vessel is in. Water tight – our 20 minute journey via the ship lock brings us another 22m further downstream the Dam

You can’t fly over the Dam because of security issues and you need special military permission to do that – so a bird’s eye view of how the Dam operates and comes together is pretty much out of the question. Thus, a visit to the Dam museum to look at the model of it and how it all works and comes together is mandatory.

Day 2

We headed by bus to the catch another boat that would bring us to see the Ba Village, a  tribe of people who have lived in the region for centuries and in a village built by the banks of the Yangtze River. After which we would catch a bus to eat at the famous cliff side Weng Restaurant, one of the only 8 cliff restaurants in the world.

The boat moors at the Ba Village dock. We have travelled up stream to  visit the BA tribe to see how they live, explore local customs and experience the geography in the area.
The BA Tribe – a breathtaking ancient Kingdom built alongside the banks of the Yangtze
A river runs through the village ending in a stream and a waterfall at the heart of the village
The Coffin Caves were where the Ba Tribe buried their dead – Do you see two coffins in this shot?
Inside the village

Leaving the serenity of the Yangtze behind, we hopped on a tour bus back into Yichang city but not before stopping for dinner at the world-famous hanging Fang Weng Restaurant.

This restaurant is built into the side of a cliff – one of only 8 cliff restaurants in the world
The inside is a cavern that has been converted into a spacious dining room

The most famous dish there is a fish dish in milky soup where the fish has a distinct gelatinous texture. Look out for our detailed review later.

Total cost for the 2 day itinerary – 500 RMB per person (inclusive the boat and bus transport and minus a tip for the guide, the meals, an Uber or what China calls a “didi” back to the hotel). Definitely a great way to spend a long weekend.

(This trip was my own personal holiday, paid fully by myself. Recommendations here are not paid for, simply that we want to share the great finds.)

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City Guide – A Few Things To Do In China’s Scenic Guilin

From Shenzhen via a high speed train, Guilin is only about three and the half hours away. An easy escape, if you are looking for an easy weekend break, even if you are planning to travel out of Hong Kong, which was just our plan.

Why Guilin? This city or prefecture is situated on the west bank of the Li River and borders Hunan to the North. Its name ‘Guilin’ means “Forest of Sweet Osmanthus” as there are a large number of fragrant sweet osmanthus trees located in the city.

Does the landscape looks familiar? Well, take that RMB twenty dollar note and turn it around – that idyllic scene with the craggy mountains and the boat meandering through the river, really does exist – in picturesque Guilin. The above shot shows a slightly different angle but hey the boat’s there and the same mountainous peaks – well, almost.

So over the recent Halloween weekend, whilst revellers were carousing Lan Kwai Fong, we decided to head over to Shenzhen on Friday evening, stay the night at the border in Luo Wu and catch the High Speed Train (about a three and the half hour ride) the next morning from Shenzhen’s Main Railway Station straight into Guilin and then explore the Yang Shuo area from there.

 

TAKING THE HIGH SPEED BULLET TRAIN 

I did not personally book the tickets as we got a tour agency to do it for us so I can’t share much details with you on the how and what to dos. But the High Speed trains can be booked and boarded at Shenzhen’s North Railway Station. I found this website that I am sharing – particularly helpful as it was in English. So if you are reading this and asking the ‘how’ question – look HERE!

Very modern, clean and comfortable, China’s high speed trains are comparable to the high speed bullet express trains that you get in Japan. There is a food car for snacks and drinks and rotating tables and plush seats that allow you to face each other. We must have been in second class seats as the toilets we encountered though clean, were strictly of the squat variety. I am sure that there are Western style toilets but these are possibly in first class or business class. Also make sure that when you book a seat, you have an actual seat and not a standing space, which they also sell.

Get your camera out and have your phone ready to snap scenic shots like these along the journey. All the pictures in this post were taken on my iphone 6 (plus-minus some reflections) which I thought turned out pretty decent.

GETTING A TOUR GUIDE

You can be brave and do the research on line – in which case, do use an online tour planner like this one or you can book one of these tours or google how to book a local English speaking tour guide – for a more free and easy plan.

We went with a local tour guide from a local tour agency and took his recommendations on where to go. Whilst Mr. Tour Guide was very well informed and resourceful, he also spoke only Mandarin, so I had to figure things out along the way. Good practice for my rusty Singaporean-standard Mandarin but in the end, we managed to figure it all out. Some of the places he recommended are mentioned below. The amazing thing – he managed to arrange it so that we could cover everything in a matter of 2 full days which was great if you have only a weekend ahead of you, that you need to maximise.

ZIZHOU PARK

This sprawling park is located in the city center along the east coast of Lijiang River Guilin. There are several attractions within it so I don’t recommend you walk it. Instead 20 RMB gets you on one of these mini trams with a designated few stops so that you can get down and snap some souvenir shots.

The tram route takes you to see several famous sculptures of the Tang dynasty’s poets, philosophers and writers. One example is Tang Dynasty writer Liu Zongyuan (柳宗元) who wrote (訾洲亭记), a famous description of his impressions of the beautiful scenery in Zizhou, carved on this massive monument, for posterity to reflect upon.

Below, a statue of the same poet, Liu Zongyuan, who in his lifetime produced many poems, fables, reflective travelogues and essays, synthesizing elements of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The local belief is that good luck follows anyone who touches the tip of his beard, so yes .. do reach out and ah hem, stroke it!

 

ELEPHANT TRUNK HILL

Another drop off point within the Park, is a spot where you get a clear view of the Elephant Trunk Hill. Standing from a certain spot, this hill supposedly looks like a huge elephant stretching its trunk drinking water, hence the name – Elephant Trunk Hill. The hill has been the symbol of the karst landscape in the area and there is a cave eyelet that you can hike up to via a stone path that affords a good view of the surroundings.

BAMBOO RAFTING

Not quite finished with the Park, we were ushered further along to take a bamboo raft ride along the scenic and serene Li River to just enjoy the great weather and take in the sights. You can stop the boatman and take over the oars, if you want to pose for pics.

Much like the experience you get on the Venetian canals, the boat-man or woman croons a folk song and you are most welcome to join in if you can read from the book of lyrics on board the bamboo raft.

Along the way, catch sights of the locals washing veggies by the river …

Or see how the locals go fishing with Cormorants, a breed of birds that reaches into the water to catch a fish with their beaks and then skilfully deposits its catch into a waiting basket.

 

SILVER CAVE

The Silver Cave is Guilin’s largest karst cave. Karst being a type of landscape that characterises this  region. The cave is located in Maling Town about an hour plus from the city center of Guilin.

It takes about an hour to walk through this multi-level cave which apparently ascends up to 16 storeys and is divided into three main parts with 28 scenic stopping points. There are lots of stairs, so think of this as a bit of a hiking adventure where wearing comfy shoes is a must and ditch that heavy back pack. Carry as little as you can so that you are not weighed down and please do visit the loo before you get started.

The cave features crystal stalactites that extend from the roof of the cave and stalagmites that grow from the ground up. The inside of the cave is lit up by different colourful lights making these natural formations glitter like silver and diamonds hence its name, ‘Silver Cave’.

Below, one of the scenic spots inside the Silver Cave. This spot (direct translation from Mandarin to English) is called ‘Fairy Wonderland in a Jade Pool’.

 

WEST STREET, Downtown Yang Shuo

We ended up spending the first night in Yang Shuo Town (about 63 km North from Guilin) where there is a popular local and tourist street called West Street.

Yang Shuo’s West Street is located in the heart of the town and on a weekend the street is so packed that walking through its lanes is a challenge so watch your wallets as you wander through.

Above, note the many dessert and sweet stores demonstrating how local candy is made. There is also an array of shops selling souvenirs, paintings and calligraphy and traditional folk craft like embroidered silk, woven goods and embroidered shoes for women.

There are also restaurants, cafes and even bars with disco music blaring and lithe girls pole dancing.

LIJIANG RIVER BOAT RIDE

The highlight of any visit to Guilin and Yang Shuo is this 2 hour boat ride.

Expect breathtaking scenery that is completely photo worthy. You sail past different river bends, passing hills and formations that have been given names like the Spiral Snail Hill, the Lohan Hill, the Yellow Cloth Shoal into the vicinity of an ancient village with a history dating back 1,400 years, called Xing Ping, where you behold what is probably one of China’s most characteristic landscapes – what you see at the back of the RMB 20 note.

Sailing into the area is like suddenly morphing into a classical Chinese ink painting. Completely surreal!

Not short of photo opportunities, for a small fee you can snap a shot like this with a Cormorant sitting on the end of a bamboo pole that you carry, hat props and all.

LONGTAN ANCIENT VILLAGE AND THE DRAGON POOL

Stepping into Longtan village is like stepping back into time. The village has been in existence since the Ming Dynasty and one of the four ethnic minorities – the Dong clan continue to live in this village and survive up to this day, as silver smiths.

Just before you walk to the village, you need to pass a deep ‘pool’ just in front of a hill that resembles the head of legendary dragon inspiring it’s name – Longtan (Dragon Pool), and the name for the area, thus called, Longtan Village.

Part of Dragon Pool has a silver dragon built to look like its floating on the water. This is a reminder of the legend of the supernatural dragon that once lived in the pool who could command thunder and rainfall.

More than fifty ancient dwellings built in China’s Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties still stand in the village, and part of the tour is an invitation into one of these ancient family homes to listen to a rather long history lesson about the customs and traditions of the town, its craft – silver smithing and the healing and restorative powers of silver. What follows and marks the end of this visit, is nothing less than a compulsory walkthrough their touristy silver shop where a bracelet starts at a price of RMB500 and no less.

FAMOUS LOCAL MUST-EATS 

No visit is truly memorable till you try some of the local fare. The local must-eats are these two delicacies which almost every Guilin and Yang Shuo Chinese restaurant offer – Beer Fish and Guilin Mifen (a white rice vermicelli noodle that looks like laksa noodles). If yours is an adventurous palette, other exotic local specialties to sample are the Stuffed Snails, Lipu-style Taro Pork and the Lijiang Shrimp.

Above, the mifen noodles cooked with the beer fish, diced long beans, chilli and scallions. Not my favourite but a definite hit with locals.  

Above, Beer Fish Alla Pomodoro. Takes some getting used to (in my case) but don’t let that stop you dropping by one of their local restaurants and trying it just so that you can at least say that you have tried one of Guilin’s much coveted culinary delicacies.