Embarking at the port we approach a splendid craft, dining-room ablaze with chandeliers, and a white-uniformed and helmeted brass band blaring away on the quayside. Surely our budget does not stretch to this opulence? Indeed it does not. We slope on despondent to the furthest dark reaches of the dock, and pile on to a fleapit of a boat. Fleas would have been the least of our travails. Within minutes of entering our ghastly dingy berth David has killed our first cockroach, gallantly. And then came the rodents. Difficult to know if they are modest rats or supermice, such a scuttling and scrabbling is there in the ceiling. We pull the foetid bedding closer around us, and I remember with horror the Sukhavati Rat. It entered, unbidden, our Buddhist community in Bethnal Green, and caused havoc for days. One night I returned and everyone on my floor had decamped to other quarters. The rodent had last been seen on my bed! I went to sleep tremulously. At some stage in the night I imagined ,or actually felt, a creature run over my head, and my screams woke the neighbourhood. How many Buddhists does it take to dispose of a rat? In the end we fudged and summoned Tower Hamlets Pest Control.
Was history to repeat itself in this riverine context?
On our last evening aboard our sordid craft we see evidence of a visit. A dropping or two, and macaroons scattered cavalierly about the room. David goes storming about asking the startled staff (who speak little English) what their 'rat procedure' is. We are assured, after much miming and leafing through a dictionary jabbing at hieroglyphics, that mice bring luck ( the rat word is never mentioned). Chinese smiles and titters (what are these whitefaced creatures making such a fuss about?) David, enraged, decides to dismantle the antique central heating system, from which we have heard much scuttling. I retire to my top bunk, wanting only to read my novel, a very good one by Xiaolu Guo who almost won the Orange Prize last year. The rat has clearly scarpered by now, seeking respite from this unwelcome and unaccustomed attention Our pleasant roommate reassembles the heater.As I gingerly go to sleep, I am less concerned with the tectonic plates far beneath me shifting in the night ( some scientists claim that the Three Gorges Dam, which is downstream from us, is responsible for recent earthquakes and will certainly precipitate further ones) than with whether ratus ratus will choose tonight to gnaw its way through the plasterboard above my bunk.
Apart from these inconveniences (I'm sure Colin Thubron would not have made such a fuss) we had a lovely time, although grey-glaucous sky like phlegm hung over us for the duration, and the waters of the Yangtse were a ghastly glabrous green.. We passed hideous vertiginous cities, sprouting high-rises which clung to the steep slopes. Belching chimney stacks wafted thick smoke over the river. Improbably, heavily- laden orange trees and bananas flourished here too. We stop at Ghost City. An empty place. The river will have risen a staggering 175 metres when the filling behind the dam is complete. There are only 3 metres to go! Hundreds of thousands of people have been rehoused in other provinces, while remaining communities creep further up the mountainsides. At Ghost City you see roads and lines of lampposts disappearing into the water, and muse on these massive displacements of populations, which seem to characterise our times.
The folk on the boat, apart from half a dozen of us Europeans, are all Chinese. And mostly men in large groups, returning from training trips. We befriend a few.
'John', who works for the Government speaks bizarrely excellent English, although he has not practiced for five years and has never been to Engand and on his wage is unlikely to for 30 years, and is our articulate guide to contemporary Chinese reality, for which we are very grateful. He is charming, and once he has the linguistic bit between his teeth is unstoppable.
The Gorges were great , and the Dam itself stupendous.
We are now apparently in Wuhan. I have just had to ask David, as with all these displacements over huge expanses of terrain, I had lost the plot. I'm not sure where we are going to next , but there is a train to catch in the afternoon, and mosquitoes are in evidence and it can't be long till we start on our anti-malarials. The joys of travel!