Cruising the New Yangtze

Drex Heikes is executive editor of the magazine.

We can't see anything. We've traveled halfway around the world, cruised the Yangtze River for two days and are about to enter into the belly of the beast, but we can't see it because the sky has gone from twilight to sable. The closest we'll get tonight to Three Gorges Dam, the brutish concrete monolith China has built across this ancient valley, is the lock system our ship is approaching to carry us around the dam.

We ease into the first lock. It's as wide as the 405 Freeway and lit up like night baseball. Joining us are six other cruise ships and a gravel barge, four vessels down each side, in pairs nearly touching. The mood is festive. Passengers crowd the open top decks, staring up at the concrete massif surrounding them and peering into the teeming ships a few feet away. Yawning doors many times the height of our 206-passenger ship, the Victoria Queen, swing shut behind us and the lock's grooved, mouse-gray walls, not yet slimy from age, seem to rise as the water falls. Repeat this four more times and we'll be below the dam, where we will tie up for the night anticipating the spectacle awaiting us tomorrow -- a tour of the largest public works project in history, a dam a generation in the building and longer than the Miracle Mile, big enough, China hopes, to help transform the nation.

I've come not only to see this beast but also the beauty of the Three Gorges region -- and more to the point, changes wrought by the wedding of the two. A five-day cruise from Chongqing in central China to Yichang, just below the dam, will carry us through the Three Gorges, whose limestone palisades and misty peaks have awed travelers for millenniums. The river's treacherous course through the mountains isolated the poor communities on its banks, sheltering them from many of the changes that buffeted China in the 20th century, even protecting them from Japanese invasion in World War II.

Then a decade ago, China began building the dam, which is now two-thirds complete. When finished in 2009, it is expected to provide one-tenth of the power to an electricity-starved nation and hold back floodwaters that have killed an estimated 330,000 people since the 1940s. Behind the dam, the world's largest reservoir is slowly filling to its eventual length of 360 miles. The new reservoir is not only forcing relocation of 1.3 million people but also is creating a leisurely waterway out of a stretch of the Yangtze once so rocky and turbulent that, for thousands of years, small boats were dragged upstream by trackers shouldering bamboo hawsers.

When water levels peak in 2009, China will have a new, 1,500-mile shipping route to carry oceangoing vessels between Shanghai on the coast to hundreds of new manufacturing plants inland as far as Chongqing. There, farmers have left the fields to become the makers of motorcycles, mobile phones and cruise ships for the fastest growing economy in the world.

Before long, this remote region will resemble other parts of contemporary China. But for now, it is a place of arresting and captivating contrasts. In a mere decade, the very old is being elbowed out by the very new in perhaps the most rapid modernization of a people in history. You can see it all from the deck of the luxurious ships that cruise the Yangtze. If you're willing to get your fingernails dirty, you can also touch, hear and smell it in villages and cities along the way.

Ccruises heading downriver on the Yangtze depart from Chongqing, a bustling city worth exploring before boarding the ship. The first thing I notice, aside from the city's faintly acrid air and forests of bamboo construction scaffolds, is the absence of the bicycles so popular in China. The reason is the terrain. Chongqing is San Francisco on caffeine and stilts. Only three kinds of people ride bicycles here, explains Jimmy Gu, a private guide hired for the day: "Postal workers, exercisers and idiots." The vertical landscape offers few level building sites, so high-rises are ubiquitous, including the apartment building where Gu and his family stay in shape involuntarily (14th floor, broken elevator).

Our car winds uphill through narrow streets and stops near the city center. We walk through a shanty-like open-air market where you can buy a duck and have it killed and plucked right there in the mud. We emerge at a new five-star Marriott Hotel, with crisply uniformed doormen, soaring ceilings and a cigar bar touting Cuban imports. Munching mahuai, a local popcorn-sized treat of twisted and fried wheat dough, we walk past volunteers restoring a Buddhist temple and spy a woman in a green tweed jacket, lime pedal pushers and spotless khaki sneakers shoveling sand into a cement mixer.

A short drive takes us to engraver Lin Jun, one of the original artists in "Painter's Village," a commune created in 1954, five years after the Communist victory. Lin shuffles out through a light rain to lead us to his studio. Inside, he tugs a string overhead and a dim fluorescent light flickers on, illuminating walls lined with framed woodblock prints, black on white rice paper, all scenes of China a half-century ago -- revolutionary war, villagers in victory celebration, smiling peasants striding to the fields, an avuncular Mao Tse-tung.

Lin is 83. His toothy smile has turned as yellow-gray as the Yangtze, but his cluttered studio seems not to have aged at all. It is small, the size of two parking places, and seems frozen in the 1950s, with pinging radiators and cloth-insulated electrical wires tacked to the door frame and ceiling. Lin unearths a bulging manila folder worn soft over the years. Inside are two dozen prints, inspired by a friend who fought with Mao's forces. Here is his friend fighting, here being captured, here being tortured, here escaping, here fighting, here being captured. "He died in 1949, just before the liberation," he says.

Back in the car, we plunge again into the tangle of the city, turning so many times under skies so sodden that we have no chance of navigation by the sun. Our driver becomes lost. Workers are building a monorail system that, by 2010, will sail above this arabesque of streets. By then, Gu says proudly, the city also will have 13 new sewage treatment plants, which will help clean the famously filthy waters of the Yangtze.

Eventually we find our destination, the People's Assembly Hall, built in 1951 by the man destined to become Chinese premier, Deng Xiaoping, then mayor of Chongqing. The hall is a sprawling red-and-white structure in the style of Ming palaces. From across a broad plaza come the faint sounds of workers building the Three Gorges Museum, which will house relics rescued from the rising water. (About 80% of those treasures will not be saved in time, a loss historians and archeologists have condemned.)

Daylight is fading when we arrive at Eling Mountain, the highest point in this exploding metropolis of 16 million and an ideal place for perspective. In a 360-degree turn, I count 44 construction cranes, certainly more if I could see farther through the sooty air.

To reach the ship, we park on a road above the Yangtze. Porters with bamboo poles carry luggage down steep stairs and across a network of planks set on the sandy muck of the river bottom. The scene is old world, until a porter's mobile phone rings.

Cruises on the Yangtze have become enormously popular among Westerners and, mercifully, conditions aboard ships have improved vastly in the last decade. (In 1993, a New York Times correspondent noted that a passenger on his boat woke up when a rat nibbled on his hand.)

Today it's possible to explore the river on four- and five-star vessels. Cruise lines offer four- to nine-day trips that include Chongqing, the Three Gorges region and even the gentle lower river to Shanghai. I chose Victoria Cruises, last trip of the season in mid-November, five days from Chongqing downstream to Yichang, just beyond the dam.

The morning after boarding, our five-deck ship noses into the swirling current, gently turns a half-circle and leaves the gritty city behind. We pass between gentle hills dotted with ancient villages, construction cranes and terraced farms. Here and there are ribbons of concrete flanked by hand-chiseled stone retaining walls, the first bones of a freeway that will provide the region with its first high-speed land link to the rest of China.

Over lunch in the dining room, a tablemate, Quin Nai Lin, introduces himself. He has a wry smile, spreading from the eyes, and he prefers listening to talking, despite his fluent English and a deep knowledge of Chinese history. At 54, he is a generation behind Lin in his experience with Mao's China. In 1968, Quin was one of 17 million urban students sent to the countryside for five years to learn from the farmers. "Chairman Mao said that students needed to be reeducated by the poor and lower middle-class peasants because students were wrongly educated by the teachers, who had wrong ideas in their minds." His voice is concise and factual. Were it not for the clipped pronunciation of "Chairman Mao" and "wrongly educated," you would miss the contempt.

After lunch, the ship docks at Fengdu, or what remains of it. Across the river we see the tall buildings of a teeming city carved out of wild land in just four years. The new Fengdu. What remains on this bank is below the eventual high-water line of 175 meters (578 feet) above sea level. The line is marked by one of hundreds of red signs dotting the Three Gorges region that say, simply, "175."

We step off the boat and into a city of rubble, poverty and, oddly, much laughter. Fengdu is one of 13 cities and 1,392 towns and villages being razed, every last piece of wood and iron snapped up for reuse before it slides beneath the water, along with 10,000 years of Chinese history. Above the old city stands a temple related to Fengdu's history as the "City of Ghosts," a story of superstition, well-preserved for tourists. The cruise line has arranged for a guide and an excursion to the mountain, which is above "175."

Quin and I choose to walk the dying town. Joining us is Tim Powell, a lanky, quick-witted 31-year-old Aussie, our cruise director. Like the cruise itself, the stroll is a journey along the vanishing line between future and past.

It is also eerie. Only 10% of Fengdu's citizens remain, the ones the local government deemed last to move. Many of them are now engaged in the assisted suicide of their village, much of which is already demolished. In portions still standing, the streets are mostly empty, except for a single lively intersection where seven men huddle around a chess-like game, Xiang Qi, and the smells of cooked yam, fermented bean curd and burning charcoal mingle with an occasional whiff of sewage. The players smile and nod.

There is a dignity among the ruins. Many of the men wear soiled suit jackets and slacks and dress shoes coated with gray dust. Not one puts out a hand for money. On a deserted street, a stooped man with a bamboo broom stirs clouds of dirt inside a vacant storefront, as a sailor might polish the rail before scuttling the ship.

On a side street of shuttered buildings, we find one store open. It is stocked with three things: thousands of colorfully painted pencils, bins full of plastic guns and zippers -- stacks and stacks of zippers, all brown. "You wonder what the buying strategy was," Tim says. You also wonder who is left to buy. Inexplicably, the proprietor leaps from her squat wooden stool, grabs a toy gun and thrusts it playfully into my ribs. We laugh. Several people emerge from adjacent doorways, smiling, and follow us. As we Pied Piper along, a figure appears in the middle of the street. He is a short man, impeccably dressed in a dark-blue Mao cap with matching, crisp blue jacket and pants.

He wants his picture taken and will talk to us if we promise to send him a print. He has lived in Fengdu for 65 years. The government has told him he must move to Wuhan, 700 miles downriver, but has not yet set the date. So he waits, accustomed to the whims of a government that not only sends you packing but tells you when and where to unpack.

I ask him to write his name and address. He falters several times on the second character. "You see this often with this generation," Tim says, offering an explanation that twice includes the phrase "Cultural Revolution." Eventually, a name emerges, which Quin translates. Ni Zhi Le. Tim extracts an address.

A chill wind kicks up more dirt. The sky is drab and the light is failing. We head for the ship, passing three children in torn, soiled clothes playing leapfrog, their laughter following us down the street.

The ship is ablaze with lights. We step into the warm lobby, greeted by hot towels and tea, and head to cabins to wash away the grime, though not the stark images of the afternoon. The shower is hot and strong and, as with everything on board, it is in excellent condition. The four-star ship is newly rebuilt and posh compared to some of the other vessels we have seen.

Dinner is a feast, a blend of Chinese and international cuisines and ceaseless ribbing from Chinese tablemates.

"Try this," Quin says.

"What is it?"

"Meatball with egg inside."

"What do you call it?"

Grin. "Meatball with egg inside."

Quin is restrained in remarks about his government. Others at the table are not. "All government officials have their hands out," one says. The result is a society built, Enron-like, on economic deception. "Look at the average reported income in Beijing," one diner says with a tight smile. "No one can afford the car. So who is buying the car?"

Quin perks up as he relates the fate a month earlier of a tax official near Beijing found to have embezzled money from the government. "He was executed." Others around the table nod their approval.

After-dinner entertainment is upstairs in the lounge, where crew members who waited tables or dusted wood-paneled walls become entertainers, staging a fashion show one night, performing traditional Chinese dances on another. It has the feel of a family celebration, for I've spoken with many of these young workers and know the shy ones from the jokers, and I can see those traits on the dance floor.

The Victoria Queen has a crew of 110 -- about one for every two passengers, an enviable ratio. River cruises in Europe generally feature smaller crews and cost more than the $750 price for four nights in this ship's standard cabins, which at 211 square feet would pass for a suite on some European cruises. Here the grand suites top out at 622 square feet, larger than some apartments I've had, and feature Jacuzzis and walk-in showers.

The luxury grows directly from the economics driving China, particularly this region, where the heart of entrepreneurship beats on an adrenaline rush of raw opportunity and cheap labor. In many ways, it's the American West of the 19th century. Anyone with an idea, a strong back and a little capital can make a mark.

The evidence is literally underfoot. James Pi, owner of Victoria Cruises, made his money on photo-processing stores in New York, then in real estate. Although he knew little of the cruise industry, he saw an opportunity for better service on the Yangtze. Ten years ago, he started with one leased ship. With the exception of last year, when SARS devastated the Yangtze cruise business, the company has grown 35% to 50% a year, says Bensen Wu, vice president of the cruise line. It now owns five rebuilt luxury ships and is to launch a sixth, for 266 passengers, in China today. That ship, expected to draw a five-star rating, was built from scratch in just 11 months by laborers working around the clock. How long to build that ship in the United States?

"Four years," Bensen replies.

The next day, we rise for a predawn breakfast to be ready at new light for Qutang Gorge, the first and most beautiful of the three defiles. At five miles, it is also the shortest. We have sailed all night, past the red pavilion of Shibaozhai, where a new sea wall around the lower levels will keep the ornate, nine-story wooden structure safe from the rising waters. We also have passed Zhang Fei Temple, relocated stone by stone to higher ground. It commemorates a fallen general from two millenniums past whose head, severed by two mutinous officers, was said to give advice to the lonely.

As we approach the gorge, it's obvious from the placid water that we have passed the point where the river becomes a reservoir. Cruise operators fear that the higher water will diminish the beauty of the gorges. Perhaps the late author John Hersey can help me decide. Hersey's classic 1956 novel "A Single Pebble," about an American's journey up the Yangtze in search of a site for the Three Gorges Dam, offers this description of one of the gorges:

"The river, which in that fantastic stretch seemed not great but actually puny, had somehow during the ages cut its narrow brown way straight through vast rock mountains, which rose vertically from the water for hundreds of feet, then, falling back at knee-, hip-, and shoulder-terraces, rose again, and again, and again, all but perpendicular, until, seen through sudden clefts, they reached craggy pinnacles, like those of the Tetons."

As we move through the mist, the river narrows to 500 feet and the walls rise steeply, marching away from the banks in ever higher peaks that reach 4,000 feet. Expecting Hersey's awe, I'm mildly disappointed. The deeper water has robbed a river, once feared for its sinister rapids, of any lingering drama. Certainly the scene is lovely and serene, but as a nature experience, it's not the Grand Canyon. This feels drowsy.

A few hours later, however, we stop at a tributary, the Daning River, and transfer to a smaller ship for a two-hour trip into the Lesser Three Gorges. This is more like it. Here the higher water improves the experience, allowing us to penetrate deep into the mountains through passages so narrow you could throw a stone from one bank to the other. The Daning slices between canyon walls the color of ancient Chinese paintings -- pale pink limestone streaked black by minerals leached from the soil above. We sail under Half Dome-like monoliths that lean ominously toward us through the mist, as if cantilevered from Tibet. Sharp eyes find ancient wood coffins, held to the canyon walls by wooden pegs, and a pathway the height of a man carved into the vertical rock faces. Bands of macaque monkeys, whose melancholy cries inspired ancient Chinese poets, dart through brush along the riverbank.

Returning to the Yangtze, we notice what the slanted morning light had obscured. The water has gone from yellow-gray to green. The filling reservoir has slowed the current and the silt has settled, leaving the water clearer than it has been since the Great Leap Forward, when Mao ordered the cutting of entire forests on the upper Yangtze to power steel mills in the late 1950s. The resulting erosion damaged the Yangtze's ecology so severely that the customarily jovial and gracious Chinese people I meet can scarcely speak of it without anger. Today, the nation is reforesting those landscapes in hopes of holding fast the earth.

Minutes after easing into the main Yangtze channel, we pass through the second great cleft, Wu Gorge, and by late afternoon reach the third. At 76 miles, Xiling Gorge is the longest of the three, but its middle reaches are a topographical sigh, save for its astonishing new feature. When complete, Three Gorges Dam will have fulfilled a vision first advanced by Chinese President Sun Yat Sen in 1919 and echoed a half-century later by Mao in "Swimming," a poem he wrote in 1956 after he swam across the befouled river to display vigor and renew the Communist purpose.

Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west

To hold back Wushan's clouds and rain

Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.

The mountain Goddess, if she is still there,

Will marvel at a world so changed.

Marvel we might, except that we can't see it until morning.

Depending on your point of view, the dam is either the electrical engine for a prosperous new China or the preposterous folly of a stubborn regime ignoring engineering realities. Its boosters intend it as the engine for a nation so starved for energy that it schedules blackouts -- with new manufacturing plants opening every week. As a flood-control structure, its purpose is to hold back waters that about once a decade create disaster downstream. (A 1998 flood killed more than 3,000 people and caused an estimated $20 billion in damage.) As a waterway, it is to provide shipping through a watershed that is home to one-tenth of the world's population.

But scientists, engineers and environmentalists warn the dam could fail in every promise, with silt fouling the turbines and plugging shipping lanes. Worse, some say the engineering is flawed and the dam may burst. It's hard not to wonder as the ship rocks you to sleep during its three-hour journey through the locks.

No slow awakening this third morning. Breakfast is fast. we're about to see what the fuss is about. So we're off on a short bus ride with a long monologue scripted by the Chinese government.

The bus winds through drab military-style barracks housing the more than 20,000 laborers building the dam, then alongside enormous piles of granite, which our tour guide touts as "Asia's biggest rock pile." As we approach the northern end of the dam, our guide points out an enormous elevator shaft for lifting smaller vessels. Boats will enter on a cushion of water to be whisked up the face of the dam, avoiding the slower lock system. To small shippers, this is a vital feature.

Except that the elevators must depend on enormous cables, so enormous that they exist only in the imagination of engineers. When pressed, the guide concedes that serious problems have arisen in manufacturing the cables. The elevator may never work. This has nothing to do with the structural integrity of the dam, yet it is faintly unsettling, the strange bump in the belly of the aircraft.

Our bus crests at Tanzling Mountain, a tall hill really, on an island in the Yangtze that has been incorporated into the project. A visitors center features a large scale model of the dam and a few refreshingly crude souvenirs (no snow globes). Outside, at the highest point, stands a circular observation tower. Four Chinese men, stubble-faced and shabbily clad, slowly make their way up its 74 steps to find, at the top, a commemorative white pylon with red Chinese characters. What does it say? I ask. Quin grins. "It says, 'This is a marker. Do not touch.' "

These old men aren't looking at the pylon. They light cigarettes and gape at the monster, a thuggish torso of gray -- 26 million tons of concrete disappearing into the fog. It seems wildly out of place for the landscape. Americans who marvel at the engineering of dams appreciate the grace of Hoover Dam as it dives between steep canyon walls, or the way Glen Canyon Dam tucks into the horizon lines of the surrounding desert. This is an anvil on a wedding cake.

But here in emerging China, perhaps beauty is in the eye of the builder, and certainly many Chinese are proud. A nation whose history is riddled with meddling by outsiders has built the largest dam in history with relatively little international help.

A bus ride takes us across a graceful steel suspension bridge, swept by workers with bamboo brooms, to the south side and the unfinished part of the dam. We stand 40 feet above the water and stare at a wall that begins in a pit dug well down into the riverbed and rises above it more than 50 stories, nearly the height of the old First Interstate building in downtown L.A.

The pit is alive with bulldozers and cranes and hard hats, which at this distance are the size of pinheads. To the right, the dam's giant spillway is in full relief, as are the eight north bank electrical turbines. Note also the slight churning in your stomach, for from this angle, staring up and up and up, you sense the enormity of the wall of water piling up on the other side.

We're back on the ship at noon and soon power through the last of Xiling Gorge to dock at Yichang. After dinner, passengers retreat to the lounge for Chinese dances performed by crew members, including bartender Amanda Zhang. At 24, she is far removed from Mao's old China. Her parents work at a chemical plant in Chongqing. What do they think of the industrialization reshaping their city? I ask. "It makes more opportunity for the children," she says.

As with many people in China under 30, she speaks English, and she isn't waiting for instructions from the government about her life. She is certain of her goals, which includes a pending move into management aboard the company's new ship.

And what of her dreams?

"To go to America," she says, flashing a broad white smile.

*

GUIDEBOOK

Cruising Down the Yangtze River

Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for China is 86. The city code for Chongqing is 23. All prices are approximate and computed at a rate of 8.28 yuan to one U.S. dollar.

Getting there: From Los Angeles International Airport, China Eastern offers nonstop service to Shanghai. Connecting service is offered by JAL, All Nippon, Northwest, United, Air Canada, Thai, China Southern and Asiana. Air China, China Southern, China Eastern and Shanghai Airlines offer service from Shanghai to Chongqing.

Major Yangtze cruise lines: Victoria Cruises, 57-08 39th Ave., Woodside, NY 11377; (800) 348-8084, fax (212) 818-9889, www.victoriacruises.com. During the high season, which is the months of April, May, September and June, cabins start at $820 for double occupancy and go to $2,150 for the Shangri-la suite. Also offering Yangtze service are the U.S.-based Viking River Cruises, (818) 227-1234, www.vikingrivercruises.com; and China Regal Cruises, (800) 570-4487, www.chinaregalcruises.com.

Where to stay: Chongqing Marriott Hotel, 77 Qing Nian Road, Yu Zhong District, 400010; 6388-8888, fax 6388-8777, www.marriott.com. New five-star hotel downtown in modern Chinese style. Rate: from $86 a night, including breakfast.

Holiday Inn, 15 Nan Ping Bei Lu, Nan An District, Chongqing, 400060; 6280-3380, fax 6280-0884, www.holiday-inn.com. Pleasant hotel five minutes from downtown with spacious and inviting lobby. Rate: from $60 a night, including breakfast.

Harbor Plaza Hotel, Wu-Yi Road, Yuzhong District, Chongqing, 400010; 6370-0888, fax 6370-0778, www.harbour-plaza.com/hpcq. Beautiful five-star hotel downtown. Rate: from $92 a night, including breakfast.

For more information: China National Tourist Office, 600 W. Broadway, Suite 320, Glendale, CA 91204; (800) 670-2228 or (818) 545-7507, fax (818) 545-7506, www.cnpo.org.

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