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|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.
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
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
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
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.
For information about how to arrange your memorable Yangtze River adventure,