Shipping Out

By Jane Mountain | November 11, 2013

7,593 km so far.

It was not a good morning. I woke early and lay in bed, pretending that I could fall back asleep. I didn’t want to get up, I didn’t want to get on my bike, I didn’t want to do anything.

Cycling in China is not what we’d hoped it would be. Maybe some people love these kind of conditions: dirt, smog, maniac traffic, trucks blasting their horns and spewing black clouds of exhaust in their faces… I am not one of those people.

If I could have wished myself home (wherever that is) I would have, no doubt about it. If I could have wished myself anywhere else besides this dingy hotel room in another noisy city somewhere in China, I would have. I did not want to face today. Not at all.

Oh, and did I mention, it’s my birthday?

Bye Bye Boaties

It seems as though all the information we can find about this region is either out of date, incomplete, incomprehensible, or just plain wrong. Not speaking any Chinese means we can only ask the most basic questions, and even getting a response to those is tricky. Nonetheless, we headed down to what we thought must be the ferry dock this morning to see if we could start the lengthy process of getting out of China.

Small side note: For clarity’s sake, I want to stress that I think China is an amazing, rewarding, wonderful place to travel. It’s just not a great place to travel by bike.

We thought maybe there would be a local ferry to take us a few towns downstream (since we’d read about just such a thing), and sure enough, as we arrived at one dock, a small barge-ish ferry was just pulling in. We watched as people disembarked and made their way along the long string of rusted steel, floating docks.

People disembarking from what may have been a ferry.

People disembarking from what may have been a ferry.

Then we watched as the boat immediately pulled away.

There was no ticket office, no information, and no sign that this might be a public ferry, so we just had to let it go.

If only we could read this sign, we might know how to get a ferry.

If only we could read this sign, we might know how to get a ferry.

Our second option was to try and get on a river cruise ship. The normal way to do this is to board in Chongqing and disembark in Yichang, four days later. Again, we’d read that it is possible to hop on and off as you so desire. Because of some labelling errors on our map and confusing terminology used in our guide books, we’d thought that cruise ships would be docking in Fengdu this morning.

Arriving at the port, we realised that ships actually pull in across the river from Fengdu. We could see them all neatly lined up just across the Yangtze, far out of our reach.

Last night we’d found the dock where the water taxi lands to take people back and forth across the river, so we headed there. Just as we were getting there, the little blue boat pulled away. There was no hope of running to catch it, since the gangplank was 300 metres of rusty, narrow floats, on which our bikes would barely fit.


We had no idea when the next water taxi would come, we had no idea if we could even get a boat on the other side, and we had no idea what we’d do if we couldn’t get on a ship.

The only sure option we had was to climb back on our bikes and ride 80 km to the next town. As usual, Stephen voted to stay put, try our luck with the water taxi, and see if we could join a cruise. As usual, I voted to keep moving, not because I wanted to, but because it seemed like the only sure way to get anywhere. Since I was in no mood to even exist today, it wasn’t hard for Stephen to convince me to wait.

Stephen’s note: I knew Jane really wanted to, and needed to, get on a boat today. I thought we should give it the old college try.

We wheeled ourselves out to the floating dock and sat. As more and more people arrived at the dock, we started to feel more confident that we’d at least make it across the river.

boat on the yangtze river

Garbage boat on the Yangtze.

After about half an hour, the water taxi came back and we all piled aboard.

Ship Shape

On the other side, we hopped on our bikes and rode the few hundred meters down to the cruise ship dock. I recognised some of the boat names from my online research, and knew these were the fancy “Western” ships, and not the more basic (less expensive) Chinese ferries.

There was an English-speaking woman at the dock, who started to chat to us as we pulled up. From her, we learned that one ship, the Victoria Jenna, was definitely going downstream, but she doubted if we could board it, since people all pre-book and board in Chongqing.

View of the Ghost City Of Fengdu from the water taxi.

View of the Ghost City Of Fengdu from the water taxi.

That didn’t mean we weren’t going to try. Off Stephen went, down 400 m of shaky, wet gangplank, armed with a few phrases we’d created that morning in Google Translate. “We want to go downstream.” “How much will it cost?” “Can you give us a special price?”

As Stephen disappeared down the lengths of dock, I started chatting with our new friend, who it turns out is an English tour guide. From her, I discovered that the manager of the ship is American, and that he definitely speaks English. These two facts gave me hope.

I assumed American meant American business sense – as in, if the ferry isn’t full, he’d pull out all the stops to add a couple more customers. English-speaking meant that Stephen would have an easy time getting all of the information we needed.

All Aboard

After 20 minutes or so, Stephen came trundling back, with some good news and some bad.

First, the good. We could get on the ship, have a private cabin, and even use a spare cabin for our bikes. Then, the bad. The price was eye-watering compared to what we would spend if we kept travelling under our own steam.

We chatted for a few minutes, weighing the pros and cons, taking into account our increasing sense of hopelessness at the cycling conditions in China. The decision was pretty easy; sometimes money can buy happiness.

Oh, and did I mention, it’s my birthday?

Special thank you to Mom and Dad who sent me some birthday money a few days ago, specifying that it should go towards a nice place to sleep and a good meal. They’ll be genuinely thrilled to hear that we spent it on a cruise!

View from our cabin, minutes after boarding the Victoria Jenna.

View from our cabin, minutes after boarding the Victoria Jenna.

Our cabin is easily the nicest place we’ve stayed in China, our meals are all included in the price, as are our shore excursions. The ship’s manager, Dick, has introduced us to the crew, with whom we’ve chatted about our trip. Everything is at our fingertips, and we have multiple crew members at our beck and call.

Getting on a cruise ship is not at all in the spirit of bicycle touring, which is supposed to be about forging our own path, not taking the beaten path. It should be about spending our money with local people and preserving the environment, two things which a cruise ship definitely does not accomplish.

Today, I can’t bring myself to care.

Our little cabin on Victoria Jenna was so comfy, it was the best room we've had in China.

Our little cabin on Victoria Jenna was so comfy, it was the best room we’ve had in China.

Stephen’s note: It turns out that we are actually spending money with local people. Almost all of the crew members are young people from the Chongqing countryside making a go of a new life away from their rural parental homes. Tourism is one of the few industries in the area.

cruise entertainment yangtze river cruise

Crew members doubling as models in the show of traditional Chinese clothing.

For the next two days I don’t have to think, or plan, or do anything. I can just lie in our cabin and sleep all day if I like. In fact, I think I’ll take a nap right now.  

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  1. Comment by Patti

    Patti November 19, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Happy Birthday! I know I am about two weeks late! So, so sorry. I think I was at a soccer tournament the day of your b’day. Things are in a constant frenzy here – so, I am sorry!
    Hope you are well.

  2. Comment by Roxy

    Roxy November 14, 2013 at 9:56 am

    Happy belated Birthday, Jane!
    Did I mention that cycle touring is *huge* in NZ??

  3. Comment by Diane

    Diane November 14, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Wonderful. I have thought we should try the Victoria Jenna. Not so much anymore. However cruising works for me so glad you had a chance to experience it.

  4. Comment by Cassie

    Cassie November 14, 2013 at 7:38 am

    Sounds perfect; glad you had the opportunity to recharge and relax on the day you were born. Did you have any birthday cake? :))

  5. Comment by Kimberly

    Kimberly November 14, 2013 at 6:02 am

    Belated birthday wishes and it sounds like the two of you chose the option that was supposed to be…embrace it and relax into it!

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