Cruise Along the Yangtze

   The Mountain of the Three Sisters (center) in Xiling Gorge

  The Mountain of the Three Sisters (center) in Xiling Gorge


Sunday, October 31, 1982

   The name means "long river," and the Yangtze is the longest in China. Rising out of the Tibetan highlands and skirting the foothills of the Himalayas as it winds southward toward Burma, the river flows across the Yunnan Plateau and into the vast Sichuan Basin. Curving through the provinces of Sichuan, Hubei and Anhui on its 3,340-mile course, the Yangtze roughly bisects the country before emptying into the East China Sea near Shanghai - the greatest artery into China's heartland and its major link to the maritime routes of the Pacific. 

Knowing little more about the river than those facts, I was eager for a two-day riverboat trip through the Yangtze Gorges on my first journey to China. On a cool, gray morning in October, my anticipation was not dampened by the mist that shrouded the harbor at Chongqing (formerly spelled Chungking) as seven family members and I waited on the pier.

  At 6:30 on a Sunday morning the harbor at Chongqing was bustling. Dozens of small craft, mostly ferries and tugs, fought the powerful current, edging almost sideways across the half-mile width. At Chongqing, roughly midway on its journey from Tibet to the Pacific, the Yangtze is already - a broad muscular stream. With its enormous burden of silt, the water is a thick light-brown color - the rusty clay color of the earth of western China. In the harbor, debris from 1981¹s floods gave witness to the river¹s power: In places the water had risen 75 feet above its normal level in one of the worst flood seasons of the century.

  Situated at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Jialing, a major northern tributary, Chongqing looks gray and drab in early morning. The capital and largest city of Sichuan Province, this metropolis of two million has its own discreet romance with dramatic hills and vistas plunging to the river banks. The city is renowned as the wartime capital of China's short-lived united front between the Communists and the Kuomintang under Chiang Kaishek and headquarters for Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault's Flying Tigers,in what the Chinese call the Anti-Japanese War.

  Today Chongqing is a major industrial center, and smog mingles with the river fog. The hillsides may at first suggest Kiev or San Francisco, but despite its contours, its semitropical climate and ubiquitous banana trees, Chongqing looks more like a Chinese version of Pittsburgh.

  Tied up at the pier that Sunday morning was a large riverboat, and ancient-looking steamer about 200 feet long with three passenger, decks. One of 50 or so identical boats that carry Chinese travelers and foreign tourists on the Yangtze, this one had been christened No.49. As we boarded her and peered out across the harbor from the starboard rail, the river looked vaguely exciting and strange. A chance to see a different China, not visible from tour buses or gleaned from prepared briefings at factories and communes, not felt or heard in the relative isolation of the hotels for foreigners - to see China itself and some of its best scenery: Those were my expectations as the chill mist hovered over the Chongqing wharf.

  All reverie was interrupted at 7 o'clock sharp as a tinny loudspeaker on the boat, erupted in a crackle of Chinese music - hurried, frenetic popular tunes intended to fill the ears and wake them up. Then the music suddenly switched to a Chinese rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The incongruity seemed enough to jar the boat loose from her moorings. Filled with high, if not quite Christmas, spirits, we watched from the deck as No. 49 slid away from the pier and joined the current of the Yangtze in mid-river.

  We were not due to pass through the gorges until the following day, so after breakfasting with the other foreigners (100 or so Americans, Canadians, Britons and Australians) in the after cabin that was our dining room, we wandered leisurely through the boat and settled in the forward lounge. This crescent-shaped room, like its counterpart astern where we ate, was restricted to foreigners. With its overstuffed armchairs and sofas, its white tablecloths and thermoses of tea, and its ample views across the forward deck, it was cramped but comfortable. Aside from the dining room, it was the only place where one could sit indoors and look out at the river.

  There appeared to be several classes of accommodations aboard No.49, though the distinctions were blurred in the dank corridors. Simply appointed cabins, each with a wash basin and two, four or eight bunks, were scattered among the three decks, some of them inboard and windowless, others along the port and starboard walkways. Foreigners were billeted on the middle-deck along with some of the several hundred Chinese on board, and I shared a cabin with my cousin and our Chinese guide.


  But if we were touring, and felt lucky that our tour included this river passage, the Chinese were clearly traveling. Most of them crowded into the lower deck, a veritable steerage hold where they passed the time milling about, squatting and talking and eating bowls of wet noodles. Many simply lay in their bunks, for aside from the lounge reserved for foreigners and the walkways, there was nowhere to go or sit. That evening many of them slept in the corridors, creating a hazard for pedestrians.

  Through the morning and afternoon we watched from the forward lounge and the small forward deck as No. 49 glided downstream through sparsely settled countryside, broken only by occasional villages and some large factories at the water's edge. At each factory we could hear music blaring, as if in answer to the Muzak-like music of the ship's loudspeaker.

  Nestled into the rolling hills were fields of rice, tea, bamboo. lotus, jasmine. One saw occasional figures along the shore: water buffalo or men and women bearing heavy loads on yokes across their shoulders, but there was little sign of human activity on the banks, where precious acreage for cultivation has been carved out of the hillsides.

  After we floated downriver, the Yangtze seemed empty and still. In wider places the current was barely detectable, the water as smooth as a lake. Every so often a tug or barge would pass, an occasional sampan or fishing junk, but there was little other traffic. Our guide said that fishing was mostly done in the evening, but junks were not much more in evidence as dusk settled. (Despite its silty water, the Yangtze contains a variety of edible fish, ranging from carp to sturgeon.)

  From the stillness of the river, the skyline was particularly striking; Everywhere one looks along the Yangtze are thin groves of tung trees, from which the Chinese derive tung oil. The irregular shapes of the trees give the ridges and hills a strangely jagged edge, eerily silhouetting the horizon like paper cutouts

  By late afternoon the landscape became more rugged and was empty of life. Here and there we noticed towering pagodas and long cascading waterfalls. The river was nearly deserted now, and so were the outside decks. The weather had turned wetter, and most of the foreigners were crowded into the forward lounge, which grew smokier and dirtier with each passing hour.

  After breakfast and lunch my family was not particularly savoring the prospect of dinner. Unlike else-where in China, the food and accommodations aboard No. 49 were austere at best, and the sanitary facilities similarly Spartan. Meals consisted of assorted platters of meat, fish, fowl and greens along with a reliable complement of rice, tea and beer; after the first taste, I concluded that the soups were for more adventurous pal-ates. Breakfast included sweet rolls and pastries, a tasty yellow sponge cake and boiled eggs along with hot milk, tea and coffee.

  We tasted all of these - with relish, indifference or tact - as the ever smiling chef hovered around the eight large tables, taking requests for seconds. Keyed to the adventure of it all, we kept a stiff upper lip through each meal. 

  By 7 o'clock that evening, having finished dinner, we returned to the forward lounge in time to see the approaching lights of Wanxian, where we would dock overnight. In an improbable setting, surrounded by steep hills on all sides, Wanxian looked dark, crowded and mysterious as we swung in toward the pier. Out of curiosity, and hoping to find some bananas to supplement the ship's fare, we filed off the boat and climbed up a huge bank of steps, slippery with mud, into the center of town.

  If the steps are like those from Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 movie "The Battleship Potemkin," Wanxian itself reaches back into the 19th century; dark, winding streets slick with mud, bleak old buildings and throngs of gaping Chinese. We spent a pleasant hour walking through the town, wandering into drab food and department stores and sampling the nuts and pastries of street vendors.

  At 6:30 sharp the next morning No. 49's loudspeaker began blaring its Chinese reveille; a minute later it was giving a rush of instructions in, Chinese, and the vessel, as if to obey, cast off from the Wanxian pier and headed downstream toward the gorges.

  The morning air was again gray. and the grayness soon gave way to rain. The landscape was desolate now, with steep slopes on either bank, great striations of sedimentary rock and seldom any sign of cultivation. By 10 o'clock we were in Qutang Gorge, and in spite of the rain we enjoyed magnificent scenery through the rest of the morning and afternoon.

  While not the Grand Canyon, the gorges are strikingly beautiful: huge,looming green shapes rising hundreds of feet like walls around the water, leaving only a narrow roof of sky. Distant mountains rise like islands out of an ocean of mist. Goddess Peak,in Wu Gorge, does appear to offer a woman's shape to the heavens and is lofty and misty enough to be China's Olympus.

  Perhaps sunlight shows the gorges at their best, but they are not less dramatic in stormy weather. A stiff wind funneled through the narrow slot, and great thunderheads in the distance heightened the effect. Equally impressive was the single human mark, thousand-year-old towpaths. Visible along most of the length of the river, the paths were used until recently for hauling boats upstream by human muscle; here in the gorges the paths are carved out of nearly vertical cliffs.

  Like all scenic delights, however, the gorges lose their fascination after a few hours. As I looked out at the empty grandeur, I began to think of returning to the swarming, fascinating human landscape of China. What I missed in the gorges, was the constant variety and challenge that meet the eye on a crowded city street or even in glimpses of the settled countryside.

  The hours began to pass more slowly aboard No. 49; cameras clicked,less frequently, and the weather deterred us from venturing outside. In the stuffy lounge, two Chinese guides were absorbed in a game of Go. Though no one was grumbling, many were reading, and a few played bridge. As we reached the port of Yichang in the late afternoon and waited to pass through the massive locks there - part of a new hydroelectric dam and irrigation system - we were relieved to be getting back to dry land, though not at all sorry for having made the trip.

  The boat would continue down the Yangtze; we would fly on China Airlines turboprops, first to the industrial city of Wuhan, farther downriver, and then a few days later to Shanghai.

  If not quite as enthralling as 1 had hoped, the 36 hours spent aboard No.49 are not to be forgotten: the austerity of the boat and her Chinese passengers, the occasional mental snapshot of a junk or a sampan battling the current, the far-off villages and pagodas and the towering crags of the gorges. This is another China, a China of wind and water and time.