We were seeing the East Queen for the first time at 9:45pm and we were already worried. The steep steps leading down to a long, narrow metal plank with only rope handrails on either side frightened some of us. The coffee-colored waters of the river flowed swiftly below. We knew we could do it, but what about eighty-one-year-old Aunt Mary? How could she make it across? As we turned to grab her hand we heard her voice: "C'mon kids, hurry up! The champagne is getting warm!" Mary had already crossed with one of the ship's staff members and was waiting for us.
We and Bill Gates
Computer tycoon Bill Gates rented this vessel a few years ago for his family to sail down the Yangtze River. The 5,000-ton ship, though hardly a luxury ocean liner, is one of the best and most modern-looking of river boats. We traveled with a group of almost one hundred American and Asian tourists ranging in age from eight-years-old to 81.
A basket of fresh fruit and bottled waters were a nice touch when we entered our small and clean cabin. So were the downy duvet covers on the two single beds.
The Yangtze and Food
Early the next morning we joined fellow passengers for coffee and tea service on the sundeck. From there we had a 360° view of ancient pavilion temples, scenic waterfalls, and farmers tending to their crops of pumpkins and mandarin oranges. Our guide discussed the history and future of the Yangtze and the Three Gorges project. We learned the Three Gorges Dam now being built has been a dream since 1919. Hundreds of rivers and streams join the Yangtze, forming a raging torrent flowing eastward through the narrow and sometimes shallow Gorges before emptying into the East China Sea. This river is wild and menacing. Thousands of lives were lost through the ages due to flooding and dangerous currents.
In China, the Yangtze River is the heart and soul of the nation. Its Chinese name is "Da Jiang," Great River, the world's third longest river winding through a series of rugged mountain ranges called the Three Gorges. Chongquing (Chungking), the largest city in China, in a province of over 31 million, is the starting point for most Yangtze river cruises. The best time for a cruise is in the fall or spring when the weather is cooler.
In 1992, the Chinese government finally gave approval to build one of the world's largest dams below the Gorges. The reservoir will be filled in two stages, one already started, and finally to its highest level in 2009. Many farmers have been relocated to higher land, or reluctantly to larger cities. About 1.3 million people will receive money from the government for housing. This $15 billion project will save millions of lives over the coming years. Although international environmental organizations have protested building the dam for years, according to the government, it will generate electricity for millions of homes with its huge hydroelectric project, and allow large ships to safely navigate the river by submerging the dangerous rocks and controlling the current.
After learning about this massive undertaking, our stomachs were rumbling for the Eastern and Western breakfast buffet. We tried lotus seed paste buns (not sweet enough), congee (like oatmeal, but made from rice), soft rolls, eggs cooked to order and fresh dragon fruit (looks like a kiwi, yet with white skin and small black seeds).
While waiting for the first shore excursion, guests had a leisurely morning to observe an Oriental massage that looked very relaxing, or an artist creating colorful Chinese painting. We elected to watch an acupuncture demonstration. After the fourth needle was inserted into the participantís arm, she felt faint and needed to be carried to the ship's doctor.
Lunch was a buffet of boiled peanuts, cashew chicken, shredded pork with onions, sweet and sour fish, lots of vegetables and Chinese egg flower soup. We enjoyed using chopsticks, though utensils were available on request.
Shibaozhai and the Great Salamander
After lunch, passengers applied sunscreen, loaded cameras and disembarked on a visit to Shibaozhai. Known as the "precious stone fortress" this twelve-story red pagoda built in 1662 hugs one side of a large rock. We climbed 108 steps and a ladder to reach the narrow top pavilion. The Chinese believe the higher you climb up a pagoda, the greater your reward when you pray. The views of the countryside and Yangtze were spectacular. On the way down we passed through halls dedicated to various illustrious emperors, virtuous empresses and brave generals.
Next, we stopped at the sight of a 15-year-old salamander in a small pond with colorful pink water lilies. The Chinese believe this two-foot long gray creature protects the Shibaozhai from bad spirits. We were told to cross the small bridge over this "great salamander" in three steps if we wanted to live a thousand years and then enter heaven. With big steps we both succeeded.
The staff welcomed us back from the heat with iced tea and cold hand towels. We sat on comfy couches in the air-conditioned ship and watched long, flat boats carrying black mounds of coal pass by our big picture window. Discarded sandals, chunks of wood and empty plastic bottles drifted in murky brown water.
The seven-course dinner that night began with a Captain's Welcome reception, followed by a sit-down meal with over fifteen specialties presented on a lazy susan. We enjoyed the crunchy fried eel and the sweet and sour chicken. Sliced watermelon and grapes finished the tasty meal.
The Three Gorges
The next morning we arrived in Qutang, the first of the Three Gorges. Our guide pointed to some caves on the side of the limestone cliffs where wooden coffins were hanging on two wooden posts. These coffins, placed there hundreds of years ago, were facing south for the souls to enter heaven.
The second is the Wu Gorge, described by an ancient poet "As the boat sails on the river, passengers feel like they are moving in splendid paintings." We disembarked and boarded a modern ferryboat for a scenic thirty-minute ride amid tall green mountains and steep cliffs, before arriving at the mouth of the Shennongjia stream. We tumbled into narrow sampans crewed by four Chinese villagers. These shallow, narrow boats are ideal for farmers to travel up small side streams. Our adventure began when the barely-clothed men jumped off and pulled us along with thick bamboo rope. They sang in high notes to help give them strength. As the river flowed faster we could see white water rapids and the men jumped back into the sampan as we drifted toward the mouth again.
The last Gorge was the Xiling, once the most treacherous, but now much tamer since the water level has risen. Passing by brand new high-rise cities, we entered the massive concrete city of the Five-Locks. Six ships can fit snugly in each lock and the entire process of lowering down to the bottom locks took almost four hours.
Our final shore excursion was the Three Gorges Project Viewing and Information center. Here we ventured close to the Five-Locks, learned more about the ship elevator, and saw the huge hydroelectric power plant.
History Won't Wait
A cruise down the Yangtze is a step back in time to a simple and peaceful world. But the river is rapidly entering the 21st Century: over the last ten years, China has built enormous cities near its banks to accommodate the largest population in the world. About 13% of the scenic attractions along the Yangtze will be underwater by 2009. Some will be saved and moved to newly opened museums; others have disappeared forever. For those who enjoy smooth journeys, this is an excellent time to witness the beauty of rural villages and the ancient past of a culture rich in history and magnificent scenery.
Photos courtesy of Jill and Eric Weinlein,
ChinaPhoto, and Xinhua NewsAgency
Jill Weinlein is a freelance travel writer who enjoys traveling
around the world with her family. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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