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Envoy Travelogue:
Cruising China's Yangtze River

The Chinese call it the Chang Jiang--the Long River. By whatever name, a trip down the Yangtze is a voyage through the heart of China.

The Yangtze River is famous for its magnificent gorges depicted on many a Chinese scroll. But along the banks of this second longest river in the world we also found primitive rural towns, grim concrete cities, and green terraced farms--all the elements that form the backbone of this nation struggling to make its place in a modern industrial world.

A boat trip on the Yangtze is also, we discovered, the best way to see and be with the real treasure of China--it's people.

We began our river adventure at the city of Chongqing (formerly called Chungking), a place where two major tributaries join to form the 4,000-mile long Yangtze. The headwaters of these Yangtze tributaries lie in the high mountains of Tibet, where melted snow and monsoon rains cascade down the slopes and run through agricultural fields, picking up silt and soil along the way. The tributaries merge and grow in size until at Chongqing they form the Yangtze, a muddy orange band that slices China into north and south.

The Yangtze current is so swift that when we boarded the riverboat and looked down at the water it seemed that the boat was clipping rapidly along--even though we were tied up at the dock. Fighting or flowing with the current all around us were rusty sampan-like barges carrying coal and ore out to feed the factories or carrying goods and agricultural produce out to feed China.

Setting off
Our riverboat and eased out into the main channel of the Yangtze River. In the grip of the powerful current, our boat vibrated and rolled as it crossed a section of whirlpools and rapids, then swung wide into the channel to negotiate a bend. Travel is not possible on the Yangtze at night. The river is far too treacherous even for the very skilled pilots of the passenger boats. In many ways, Yangtze River travel is reminiscent of the early riverboat days along the Mississippi.

There are several Yangtze riverboats reserved for foreign tourists, and all of them are quite comfortable. Most cabins are equipped with twin beds and private bath. Some of the newer boats even have suites. All of the boats have large public rooms, which include a bar/lounge, an upper observation deck, a dining room where all meals are served and included in the price of the ticket, and some boats also have libraries or other small lounges for reading or playing cards. Air conditioning is essential, and most of the viewing space is enclosed with floor-to-ceiling windows because summer temperatures soar up to 105 degrees. The trips operate between March and November.

Slices of Chinese Life
The broad sweep of the Yangtze River provides a broad sweeping view of Chinese life today, and also provides graphic evidence of the progress being made in the quality of life. Toward the western end of the river, the banks are lined with grim gray towns and smoke-belching factories. The over-all impression is "utilitarian," people whose main concern is to get the job done. The only color gracing their concrete apartment houses, ten or more stories tall, is provided by wash hanging on balconies to dry in the polluted air.

But around any bend in the river can await a pleasant scenic surprise--a pagoda perched on the edge of a cliff, a banana plantation lush and tropical, the head of a water buffalo cooling itself in the water near the bank.

At least once a day our boat would stop so we could go ashore. One of our most interesting stops was the village of Shibao Zhai or Shibao Block, a place where time seems to have stood still for hundreds of years. Here on a large buttelike rock is a pagoda constructed to the memory of an ancient Chinese warrior. After a climb of more than 200 steps, we were treated to a stunning view of the surrounding countryside. On the inner pagoda wall, was a large target in the form of Chinese characters that according to tradition could predict one's fortune. The directions: Close your eyes, point straight ahead and walk till your finger touches the wall. Scoring a "bullseye" in the center of the character means good luck.

The village below the pagoda site provided a real slice of Chinese peasant rural life. One ancient stone-paved street circled the town, and a short walk around it revealed a barefoot doctor doing acupuncture on the ears of an old man; a woman herbalist prescribing medicine for a sick baby; carpenters building cases in their open-front shop; and a mask-maker creating papier maché liknesses of characters in Chinese opera. Everywhere were market stalls, chickens, and pigs. A town like this, served neither by major roads nor airports, would be impossible to reach by any other route than water.

History along the River
The Yangtze River is also rich in history from a period called the Three Kingdoms, a time of heroes and deeds that inspired myths and legends similar in spirit to the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

A memorial to the Three Kingdoms heroes has been constructed at White King City. Reaching this site required a climb of 800 steps--which sounded much worse than it turned out to be. The steps sloped up a forested cliff, and there were plenty of landings and benches on which to rest along the way. At the top was a small hotel, where we stopped for a hot, spicy Sichuan lunch, and the monument building displaying plaques and dioramas of scenes from famous Three Kingdoms stories. Some fascinating Chinese masks were for sale in an adjacent shop.

The Yangtze River Gorges
The highlight of any Yangtze trip is, of course, the passage through the gorge area, soon to be flooded by a massive hydroelectric project. Our large riverboat was able to negotiate the three major gorges--the cliffs towered hundreds of feet above us, shrouded in mists, while the river swirled in whirlpools and rapids below. But to view the three small gorges on an adjacent river we boarded a small sampanlike motor launch and set off for a day of what turned out to be the best natural sightseeing of the trip.

It was also a fabulous boating adventure with some of the thrill of white-water rafting, but none of the strain or danger. Three boatmen in the bow of the launch bent and strained using iron-tipped bamboo poles to steer the boat over boiling rapids or swing it around a tight bend or squeeze it between two outcroppings of rock.

On either side we saw the terraced farms that inspired so many Classical Chinese scroll paintings. Looking closely, we could see that the hills were alive with farmers tending their wheat, rice, and sweet potato crops. Everywhere, they were aided by their water buffalo. Almost unknown in the United States, the water buffalo is the all-purpose beast of burden in southern China, pulling plows, hauling carts, and carrying loads of both people and goods on their backs.

River's End--Shanghai
The Yangtze River ends its 4,000 mile journey at the port city of Shanghai, where it empties into the China Sea. Our trip down that great river was a memorable adventure, indeed.

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