Slow Boat Through CHINA : Cruising Upstream in the Three Gorges Region of the Fabled Yangtze River, Past Misty Scenery That May be Doomed

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

If this river ran past nothing but 3,900 miles of low, lumpy hills and muddy banks, it would still be an unsurpassed wonder. It stretches farther than any others but the Nile and the Amazon, and lies so wide in some stretches that Marco Polo lost credibility when he reported to the Europeans that a man could stand on one shore and not see the opposing bank. On or near the Yangtze's edges, more than 350 million people reside--a third of China's population and, roughly, one in every 15 human beings on the planet. The river's tortured, silt-brown path is strewn with sampans, barges and ferries carrying coal, fruit, rocks, cows and people in very nearly unthinkable volumes. It's the world's longest Main Street. In the slow lanes, amid litter, swim rare dolphins. On the shoulders perch ancient pagodas. At one end lies the East China Sea; at the other, Tibet.

But the Yangtze's banks do not stay low and lumpy for long. Follow the river upstream from its wide, commerce-choked mouth near Shanghai, and it rises from broad plains to terraced hills dotted with straw-hatted peasants whose farms tilt at what seem like 45-degree angles. Then come dense, grimy towns and a rusting, overloaded ferry. The sound of chisels breaking rock on shore rings across the water.

Then, in the Yangtze's middle reaches, a mist descends. When it thins, the river has evolved again and the brown currents now mediate a staring match between stone-faced canyon walls. A thousand feet high. Two thousand, with ancient inscriptions etched in the rock and 2,000-year-old coffins wedged into caves 1,000 feet up. Throughout a 125-mile stretch known as Three Gorges, the Yangtze gathers gaping Westerners in ant-like congregations on the Astroturf decks of their cruise ships.

Here, however, is where the trouble starts. Over the next two decades, if China's leaders have their way, a 600-foot-high dam will rise amid the Three Gorges. The river's currents, newly harnessed, are to generate more hydro-electric power than any dam in history, reducing the dependence on inefficient coal-burning that has cursed much of China with abysmal air quality. For more than 350 miles above the dam, water levels will rise as much as 300 feet, forcing an estimated 1.2 million villagers to relocate, putting countless ancient villages and landmarks under water.

These plans have set off a round of international debate over environmental risk, energy policy and the right of industrialized nations such as the United States to meddle in China's affairs. The pleasant irony here for Chinese tourism officials is that while those arguments resound and the earthmovers begin their scraping, a trickle of Western tourism on the Yangtze is growing into something like a torrent: Show us thirsty Americans a jeopardized natural wonder and a deadline, and we'll come running.

Twenty years ago, the story goes, there was one fancy cruise ship here, and Chairman Mao Tse Tungwas its only customer. By last year, 19 cruise ships were catering to international travelers, most of the ships operating from early spring to late fall, carrying passengers on journeys of three to five days through the Three Gorges between Wuhan and Chongqing. This year, Chinese officials say, there are 35. By most accounts, the conditions aboard even the most luxurious of these cruise vessels are suited more to adventurers than comfort-seekers. But the dam deadline seems to have done more for tourism than any ad campaign could have, and these days the Yangtze stands alongside Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and Guilin as among the top stops on Chinese itineraries.

I booked onto one of the last departures of the fall 1993 season, a four-night October excursion that would run westward against the river's current. (Downstream voyages usually take a day less and cost a bit more.) I flew to Tokyo, then to Hong Kong, and then to the industrial city of Wuhan, about 700 miles upriver from Shanghai, where my prearranged guide never materialized and I spent my first two hours staring through a taxi window at the back end of a blue dump truck. For miles we crawled past gray, huddled buildings and gray, huddled people. That night in the bar of the Yangtze Hotel, two British engineers asked my mission and then advised me to expect, as I made my way upriver, the occasional floating human corpse.

Thus briefed, I rose early the next morning, inched by cab to the waterfront and climbed aboard the Yangtze Paradise.

The first pleasure of a westbound Yangtze cruise is that no matter what else might happen, you're out of Wuhan. The next pleasure, for me, was realizing I was the first passenger aboard, free to snoop. While crew members mopped and scrubbed the halls of the 285-foot-long ship--then tossed the trash overboard into the river their customers had come to admire--I wandered.

Though just 2 1/2 years old, the ship looked at least 10. My single cabin was a tidy cubicle with a 180-degree view of the river, a private balcony, a rust-stained and wrinkled carpet, a tiny desk, a toilet and shower. The swimming pool on the top deck was dry, and remained so for the next five days. A few paces to the fore, someone had laid out a mini-golf course, which also remained idle.

It fell to the cruise director, an earnest, adept, multilingual 25-year-old named Ben Chen, to reconcile 63 American passengers, and 67 others from points all around Asia, to these circumstances. He did quite well, considering.

The ship's dining room offered Western breakfasts to those of us who wanted them, but otherwise stuck to a satisfying range of Chinese fare: fried shrimp, sweet-and-sour pork, mushrooms, cucumbers, various greens, dumplings, cabbage, rolls. In the bar, a karaoke video machine had been installed. In the playroom stood a massive billiards table, balls subject to rearrangement with every strong swell of the river.

The river: Barges and sampans, sliding past low on the water. No corpses. Apartment buildings and industrial sites towering and groaning on the banks. The dense order of green row crops. And haze, enduring even through the warm midday hours. Later, when clouds crowded in, the sky seemed murky as the silty water below. Even for a fresh pair of eyes, the boatmen in straw hats and the yellow-green pallor of barge-top orange shipments all resolved into workaday melancholy. An hour on the Yangtze here, and a stranger can take it for granted. But it's all a matter of luck--the same stranger might then glance to shore and glimpse the outline of two men with a water buffalo and acres to plow before they sleep, a 1,000-year-old profile.

"It's more than just the river," said veteran China tour guide Johanna Koeleman-Walk a few minutes later on the observation deck. "This is really the only way most tourists can get out to see the countryside."

*

Day two. In a chill wind on the top deck, Ben Chen led a dozen hardy Americans in a beginners' round of tai chi chuan. Three-and-a-half hours later, we docked at Shashi, a bustling, muddy, textile-producing town of 400,000, which is immediately neighbored by a 2,100-year-old canal and the smaller historic town of Jingzhou.

In Shashi's regional museum, we filed through dimly lit rooms and peered at ancient jade carvings, pre-Christian enamel work, a 2,300-year-old example of silk brocade work and a remarkably well-preserved corpse, now pickled in formaldehyde, believe to have been buried in 167 BC. We prowled beneath the tiled roofs of a calligraphy museum. We climbed the Jingzhou City Wall, which historians believe was built about 700 BC. And we evaded "the artistic waxworks"--a new tourist attraction that announced itself with a boombox blaring Asian rock. China's changes have already reached far beyond its principal cities.

We also ate lunch, with varying degrees of satisfaction, at local restaurants. Dining in ignorance, I was perfectly happy with my pork, vegetables, rolls and rice. Fellow traveler Terry Halberg, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., peeked into the kitchen and returned to his table reluctant to eat anything but the steaming soup. He resolved to do no more kitchen inspections for the rest of the cruise, and was fine. (Others among the American cruisers proved less adaptable. When dining out in the province of Sichuan, home of one of the most famously spicy cuisines on the planet, several Americans loudly complained that their dishes were entirely too hot. The Chinese were too polite to throw them in the river.)

By 10 p.m. on the second night, almost all the Americans were asleep in their cabins, and a tour group from Taiwan had taken over the karaoke machine in the lounge. One of the ship's employees stepped up to croon a note-perfect version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way." Several couples danced the cha-cha. Outside, the crew played spotlights along the water's edge, rough contours began to rise, and a new riverscape took shape.

*

In the dark, misty and early hours of Day Three, steep slopes began to rise on either side of the ship, some rock-faced, others sculpted into terraced crops. Then, directly ahead, our spotlights fixed on a wall of concrete.

This was the first lock of the Gezhouba Dam, completed about five years ago as a sort of smaller-scale dress rehearsal for the Three Gorges dam. Local authorities say the Gezhouba project forced relocation of 200,000 local residents and has raised water levels 70 feet in some areas, providing power, smoothing navigation in formerly perilous passages of the river and stabilizing river flows.

An hour or two after our arrival there, having waited our turn among a dozen large and small vessels and then edged our way through the locks into the higher water, we came to the beginning of the river's marquee attractions: Xiling Gorge, 47 miles long, 1,000 or so feet deep near its eastern end, and until the opening of Gezhouba Dam, the gorge most feared by boatmen.

While we glided beneath the rocky green-and-gray slopes and the morning light slowly gained strength, a hawk tracked us from above. The scene was reminiscent of Yosemite, robed in mist, robbed of its waterfalls, the symmetry of Half Dome scrambled, the valley half-flooded. At a bend in the river, the wooden skeleton of an unlucky old ship lay lodged and splintered between sharp rocks.

Amid all that, the site of the new dam project a few miles upstream seemed downright piddling. On an island called Zhongbao, heavy equipment had dragged the ground bare, and a neighboring town teemed with workers facing a profoundly odd job: If they do their work properly, their town will disappear forever beneath about 300 feet of water.

Chinese leaders, who formally embraced the project in 1992, say thousands of rural residents have been relocated already. The government forecasts that the dam's power potential could mean 40 million fewer tons of coal to burn each year.

But realistically, the future of the project is no easier to see than the misty peaks of gorges on a gray day. Cost estimates reach as high as $30 billion. Financing from the World Bank, thought by some to be vital for the project, is far from assured. The death of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, said to be 89 and ailing, could radically change the nation's political landscape, as could the country's hurtling economic expansion and liberalization.

*

At Badong, beyond Xiling Gorge, we debarked, scrambled onto buses, then found ourselves prisoners in the chase scene of an IMAX movie. Outside the windows of our careening bus lay 2,500-foot slopes, terraced and planted in rich green crops from top to bottom. A stone house here, a curl of smoke from a chimney there. Three children up the road, straggling home from their country school.

The dirt road, 30 miles long, had only been cut two years before. It led through one-lane passages, across deep puddles, around blind corners and down steep hills. Sitting up front, I watched the driver kill the ignition on the downhill stretches, presumably to save gas. I never asked; I didn't want to distract him. At the end of the road came a 400-step descent to Shennong Stream, a deep, narrow Yangtze tributary that, until the building of the road, was the principal commuter artery among the hamlets of the area.

It remains a commuter artery, but it's also a stop for fortunate foreigners on the Yangtze. Down I stepped, while those uninterested in negotiating the 400 steps paid $6 or so to be carried in thrones by pairs of local young men. At the bottom, the boatmen of Shennong stood smoking in the shallows.

Each of the sampans held 17 travelers and was propelled by four or five boatmen who pushed, pulled and poled the vessel across stones in shallow water, delicately guiding us between narrow gorges, through emerald pools, past delicately balanced boulders. Soon the only sound was rushing water, panting boatmen and racing motor-driven camera mechanisms. The boatmen brandished steel-tipped bamboo poles, wore Speedo-style briefs and wrung out their shirts and sweaters during calm passages.

The sampan voyage covered eight miles and about three hours and brought even the laziest throne occupant into an intimacy with the landscape that was impossible from the ship. By the time the Shennong emptied into the Yangtze and we returned to ship, light was fading.

Most cruises for foreigners now offer either the Shennong side trip or a small boat trip up "Lesser Three Gorges" of the Daning River a few miles west, and the occasion is often a highlight. On the morning after our small-craft excursion, 74-year-old Paul Bergquist of Saddle River, N.J., a traveler who has seen Alaska, Europe, Australia, Africa and South America, pronounced the sampan journey "one of the best days of my life."

*

The second gorge on the upriver route is Wu, also known as Witches Gorge. We reached it early on Day 4, and stood squinting on deck, trying to distinguish among the dozen peaks that tower over its 25-mile length. Goddess Peak. Ascending Dragon. Wise Man Springs. Congregated Immortals. Reaching more than 2,000 feet above us, some amounted to faint lines in the mist. The last gorge, Qutang, slipped past later that day, the narrowest of the three and the shortest, at about five miles long.

"Look one direction, and you're in Bryce," said Rod Zook, an amateur photographer from Seattle. "Look another, you're in Yosemite. Another, you're in the Grand Canyon."

The gorges were certainly spectacular enough for me, and they seemed to be enough for those who stood alongside me craning their necks, juggling their still and video cameras and gently cursing the same dim, misty light that gave the scenes such gravity. But these gorges, I gather, don't do it for everybody.

From the Lonely Planet guidebook: "Don't expect to be dwarfed by mile-high cliffs! A lot of people find the trip quite boring, possibly because of over-anticipation." Another newspaper correspondent, who took the same ship five months before I did, found the Three Gorges region "certainly scenic, but not so spectacular that I would advise someone to travel halfway around the world to see it."

Maybe the problem here is people. For all its epic dimensions, the Yangtze River is not one of those natural wonders, like the Grand Canyon, that seem impervious to human presence. Country hovels and filthy cities intrude at its edges. Farmers traipse up the slopes. Cruise ships ply and pollute the water. For strictly aesthetic appeal, a traveler is probably better off about 500 miles to the south, among the curvaceous peaks along the Li River near Guilin.

You could say, entirely accurately, that the middle Yangtze is an impure, melancholy place. You could also say it's the place where, right now, the planet's most populous nation is confronting, for better or worse, its premier natural resource. Decide which of those observations you'd make first, and perhaps you've decided whether the Yangtze is for you.

By the time we'd cleared the last of the gorges, Qutang, the cruise had covered more than 600 miles and we had entered Sichuan province. In Wanxian, a city of 300,000, about half of whom are to be relocated as part of the dam project, we ate a local dinner and browsed through an evening marketplace. In Fengdu, fabled as a "ghost city" and disquietingly self-conscious of itself as a tourist stop, some visitors boarded a tramway, viewed torture instruments in aged temples and peered down from a scenic bridge between peaks. Others sampled the city's free market, a free-for-all of geese, chickens, eels, produce, bright colors, pungent odors, grinning butchers and haggling farmers.

Eventually we came to Chongqing, our final port, and it emphatically finished the job of delivering us from landscape to cityscape. Greater Chongqing straddles the river and houses about 15 million people amid traffic, grit and closely built, cloud-covered hills. We debarked in late evening, five days and 840-odd miles after we'd begun, and were immediately absorbed by local traffic and delivered to a lavish, five-year-old Holiday Inn for our last night. Nearby, a massive concrete bridge, opened to much fanfare in 1980, spans the river.

My last look at the Yangtze, through the window of an airport-bound van, was from atop that bridge. The river moved slowly, obscured by mist, clogged by idle boats, conquered by the city. But that's not the way I intend to remember it.

GUIDEBOOK

The Yin and Yangtze of China

Finding a tour: Unless you speak Chinese or have a companion who does, a guided group tour is the most sensible way to get around China. Three veteran operators in China, each of whom offers Yangtze cruises, are Pacific Delight Tours (132 Madison Ave., New York 10016; telephone 800-221-7179 or 212-684-7707), InterPacific Tours International (111 East 15th St. at Park Avenue South, New York 10003; tel. 800-221-3594 or 212-684-7707), and Abercrombie & Kent International (1520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, Ill. 60521; tel. 800-323-7308 or 708-954-2944.

Pacific Delight's 1994 prices give an idea of overall cost: A 24-day tour including a four-day Yangtze River cruise, fully escorted by an American tour manager, visiting 16 cities, ranges from $3,990 in mid-March to $4,720 in late September-mid-October (prices are per person based on double occupancy, and include air fare from the West Coast, most meals). Best times to visit are spring and fall, avoiding the steamy summer and cold, wet winter.

Getting there: United Airlines offers Los Angeles-Shanghai connections via San Francisco or Tokyo. Northwest Airlines offers a connection through Tokyo. Both carriers charge restricted fares beginning at $1,532-$1,660, depending on the season. China Eastern (tel. 213-384-2703) offers a one-stop direct Los Angeles-Shanghai flight twice weekly for a restricted economy fares of $1,332.95 (tax included), depending on the season. Discount fares may be available (tel. 800-423-7777).

China Eastern, China Southern and China Southwest airlines offer flights between Shanghai and interior Chinese cities. (Travelers should note that the International Airline Passengers Assn. has warned of maintenance, management and piracy problems in the Chinese aviation system.)

Yangtze cruises: For those who assemble their own itineraries instead of relying on a tour operator, Yangtze Paradise quotes the following 1994 rates: In peak season (April 16-June 17 and Sept. 5-Oct. 25), a four-day downstream cruise from Chongqing to Wuhan runs $820-$1,200 per person, double occupancy, depending on the cabin; for the five-day upstream trip, $720- $1,080. In shoulder season (March 21-April 15, June 18-Sept 2 and Oct. 27-Dec. 6), downstream fares run $620-$980; upstream fares, $560-$900. Further details: Hubei Yangtze Cruise Corp., 110 Qintai Road, Hangyang, Wuhan, P.R. China 430050; tel. 011-86-27-484-6940, fax 011-86-27- 484-6914. A list of several other cruise companies is available from the China National Tourist Office.

For more information: Contact the China National Tourist Office, 333 W. Broadway, Suite 201, Glendale 91204; tel. (818) 545-7504 or (818) 545-7507 (9 a.m.-noon and 2-5 p.m.); fax (818) 545-7506. One good guidebook (and there aren't many that treat China at length) is Lonely Planet's "China--A Travel Survival Kit" (fourth edition, 1994, 1,100 pages; $25.95).

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