As a Cruise up China's Yangtze River Shows,
The Best Voyages May Not Go as Planned
Back home, summer headlines told of grim times in China. Floodwaters had defeated Yangtze River levees. Cities were in peril, forcing inhabitants to flee. Soldiers battled ravaging torrents in a "fight to the death."
My wife read of the anguish and feared for my safety. She knew I was in China for Victoria Cruise's maiden voyage up the Yangtze from Shanghai to Chongqing. She anticipated a catastrophe, but her worries proved unwarranted. After all, Noah demonstrated that when waters rise, the best place to be is on a boat.
"It started with nonstop rains near Chongqing," said cruise director Greg Hinton. "They overwhelmed the Yangtze and its tributaries. It's the worst flooding since 1954."
Those deluges sank our plans for a quiet 10-day, 1,540-mile passage through China's heartland. The first victim was our boat. Victoria 3 could not reach Shanghai.
"The ship is 17 meters high," explained Hinton. "Right now, there is only a 6-meter clearance under the Wuhan bridge, 700 miles upstream. She's docked beyond."
The cruise began on the Xiling, a hurriedly leased substitute craft. In late afternoon we started down the Huangpu River. The smaller stream connects Shanghai with the Yangtze, 14 miles to the north. At their confluence, it appeared we were turning into a chocolate cataclysm.
Headwaters in Tibet, the 3,900-mile Yangtze ranks as the third longest river in the world, behind the Nile and Amazon. Draining a watershed bigger than Alaska, it hauls an annual silt-load of some six billion cubic feet. Suspended sediment made the water resemble buttermilk-thick Nestle Quick. It swirled and churned, its surface dimpled with whirlpools and suck-holes. Reeking of wet-dirt, the flow smelled like a Kansas farm in a downpour.
By morning we had progressed far enough up the Yangtze to see both sides of the broad river. Here, flooding was obvious. Trunks of tall trees poked from submerged banks, and inundated saplings looked like parsley floating in a broth.
Our first shore excursion was Yangzhou, the town where Marco Polo served three years as governor. We visited a fifth-century temple, followed by a walk around a lake dug during Tang Dynasty. The place was abuzz with Chinese families dressed in colorful western-style clothing. Even in the countryside, the Mao-inspired pajama look has almost vanished.
Back on the boat, we continued upstream, passing a flotilla of barges, freighters and tankers. Cooling towers of a power plant stood like concrete hourglasses on a hillside. Factories and refineries lined the shore, spewing smoke and flames into the air. Pollution controls seemed nonexistent.
Reaching Nanjing after dark, we rode busses to the Fuzi Miao, a colorfully lit area teaming with people. In its bazaar-like atmosphere, vendors peddled products, lovers strolled side by side, families paddled boats, and we snapped memories. The visit provided a soft antidote to the riverside's industrial starkness.
At breakfast the next morning, Hinton disclosed that flooding had washed away more of our plans.
"Conditions are so severe below Wuhan," he said, "the government has banned Yangtze navigation in that area. We will leave the Xiling behind in Guichi."
While I had seen partially submerged buildings, Guichi was the first town that was truly inundated. To leave the ship, we had to walk across shoulder-width wooden planks balanced a foot above the river. One slip and we would be won tons in the Yangtze soup.
Sodden sampans waited at planks' end. In groups of ten, we boarded the flat-bottomed craft. After several yanks, a rusty outboard burped to life. In a belch of blue smoke, we skimmed toward dry land, a city mile away.
"I never saw this on 'The Love Boat,'" someone remarked.
We passed shops submerged in four-feet of water. Families, still inhabiting upstairs apartments, waived as we sputtered by. Where the flood tapered to ankle depth, people walked or rode bicycles. Others pulled furniture-laden carts. Life seemed to persist with some degree of normalcy.
Reaching dry pavement, we swapped sampans for busses. Soon, we were motoring past lotus ponds and rice paddies. Farming terraces climbed plush hillsides, and distant crags scraped a wispy sky. I wanted to savor the agrarian serenity, but our demonic driver destroyed the ambiance.
Pedal to the metal, he barreled up the 150-mile roadway like a desperate rookie qualifying for Daytona. Hills and blind curves did not deter his passing everything on the road. After more silent promises than I could keep in a cat's-worth of lifetimes, we arrived intact. The next morning, a more angelic driver took us to Huangshan, the Yellow Mountain.
Riding a gondola, we ascended sheer granite hillsides where bamboo glades gave way to pinnacles and pine. Clouds misted around rocky fingers, their vaporous blur looking like billowy dragons' breath. This sacred Elysium presents an aura and beauty that have inspired Chinese artists for centuries. We were the only Caucasians there.
The following morning, a chartered jet flew us back to the Yangtze at Wuhan. We anticipated meeting Victoria 3 nearby, but Hinton spoiled expectations with more bad news.
"Because another crest of flooding is predicted the ship had to move farther upstream. It now waits in Maoping above the construction zone of the new Three Gorges Dam."
Enduring a six-hour bus ride, we reached the ship after dark. In the morning, we visited the building site. There, river guide Rick Lee showed us how a temporary coffer dam diverts the river into a narrow bypass channel.
"When the volume through the constriction exceeds 25,000 cubic meters per second," Lee said, "they close the passage to boat traffic. Now, it flows at 40,000 cubic meters per second."
Called the Great Wall across the Yangtze, this dam will be one of the largest and most controversial on earth. After completion in 2009, it will stand 607 feet tall and spread more than a mile across. Its reservoir will stretch to Chongqing, 370 miles away.
Lee, a supporter of the project, explained how the dam will reduce flooding, generate electricity and improve shipping. Environmental groups disagree. They point to problems with silt accumulation and predict the reservoir will become a cesspool of industrial waste.
Unfortunately, that impounded water will back up into the Three Gorges, which contain some of the most glorious scenery on Earth. We floated through the first, Xiling Gorge, the next day.
Ridges from mile-high mountains plunge to the waterline. Their skirts form stacked silhouettes in shades of gunmetal gray. Foreboding and mysterious, the scene seemed to be the realization of the classic Chinese landscape.
Between gorges, hillside placards mark the new reservoir's water line. Farms, factories and towns below are doomed. Above, new apartment buildings sprout on high ground. Most resemble cookie-cutter clones of each other.
We entered the next chasm, Wu Gorge, as rays from the setting sun streaked the river. Lee hyped the area's famous 12 peaks, but I found individual names were unimportant. It was the contrast of mountain and river, light and shadow, brown and gray that flooded my vision and gave our passage meaning.
The boat docked at Wushan. The next day, small craft took us through the Daning River's "Lesser Three Gorges." In this narrow tributary, palisades plummet to the waterline, and springs cascade down from lush hillsides above. Unlike the corpulent grandeur of the Yangtze, the Lesser Gorges impressed with svelte intimacy.
Back on the main river, we traversed the final narrows, Qutang Gorge. As elsewhere on the Yangtze, men here once rope-pulled river craft through rapids and swift current. We saw the "trackers" pathways cut into the cliffs. Now, with the obstructions blown from the water, ships large as ours navigate safely.
We docked in Shibaozhai and through the night, listened to rain pound and thunder rumble. Showers fell through breakfast, but let up before we walked into town for a tour.
A guide led us to the Red Pagoda, a 12-story structure that hugs a sacred cliff. When the lake fills, the water will lap halfway up its first floor. Plans supposedly are to build a watertight wall around the temple. What is now high on a hill will become stuck in a lakeside hole.
Abandoning the group, I wandered through town on my own. I watched a young woman buy vegetables from a sidewalk grocer, her purchases weighed on a handheld balance scale. In a doorway alcove, women laughed as they shelled peanuts. Next door, an elderly man hawked straw sandals. Down the street, a family sat under an awning, engaged in a vigorous card game. It seemed a typical morning in rural China, and I felt privileged to watch it unfold.
As we continued upstream, families waved from homes and boats. Men fished the banks with pole-mounted nets. Farmers worked fields while children tended goats. Boaters rowed sampans into the nearby current to gather floating firewood. I sat on deck and watched this mosaic of life slowly unfold. This was the China I came to see.
A final stop took us to Fengdu, City of Ghosts. There, on a hilltop Hell, statues depict flesh-eating demons from an Asian netherworld. Not surprisingly, one of the monsters reminded me of a certain bus driver.
The voyage ended in Chongqing where we disembarked into smog thicker than the air in a smokers' lounge. Most passengers continued on tours, but I needed to get home. I caught a flight back to Shanghai, and at the airport, picked up an English language newspaper. Only then did I learn the full breadth of the flood disaster.
In the area of the Yangtze we bypassed, the river had reached record depths. Swollen currents punctured a dike, sweeping soldiers to their deaths. More cities were inundated, and hundreds of thousands were displaced. More than 2,000 people had died, victims of rockfall, landslides and collapsing homes.
I was now glad we had avoided that section of the river. Against the might of this swollen watercourse, even Noah would have had trouble.