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The Three Gorges of the Yangtze

The Yangtze river is roughly four thousand miles from its source
to its mouth. It starts as a trickle in a remote region of the vast
Tibetan highlands, a region larger than the whole of western
Europe where, fed by melting snows from countless glaciers, it
gushes down across the Chinhai Plateau into an alpine plain
sparsely inhabited by Tibetan herders tending their sheep and
yak. On this plain runs the ancient tea road, a primitive path cut
in stone that once carried tea from ancient China into Tibet and
the world beyond. The river, ever wider, ever stronger, then
plunges southward off the "roof of the world" through remote
valleys and gorges that few have ever seen. It is here where it
picks up countless square miles of chocolate brown mud to be
carried to the sea and it is here where the river takes the name
"River of Golden Sand."

Now, after pouring southward down the eastern face of the

Chinhai plateau through desolate gorges it makes an abrupt 180
degree turn to the north only only to be followed by another
about face southward. It then makes up its mind and turns
eastward and cascades down another 10,000 feet to the fabled
Red Basin of Szechwan and on to Chongqing (chung - king), the
chief industrial city of southwest China, and a city known in
recent times as the place where Chiang Kai-skek holed up during
the Second-World War against the Japanese. Although by this
time the Yangtze has traveled over two thousand miles, it still
has almost another two thousand miles to go before reaching
the East China Sea near Shanghai.

I began my own Yangtze River odyssey at Chongqing. It is here

that the river becomes tame enough for commercial navigation,
and it was here that my wife and I boarded the river cruiser,
Victoria I for an 850-mile trek downstream to the ancient city of
Wuhan (woo han) through the fabled Three Gorges region. The
night before we boarded the ship we had dinner at one of
Chongqing's numerous hotpot restaurants. Here, patrons dip
pieces of pre-sliced meat in a pot of boiling spicy broth. Then,
after the morsel is cooked, you dunk it a spicy sauce close your
eyes and chew.

“What is this we’re eating,” I asked our waitress who didn’t

know a word of English. She just looked at me puzzled. “What
was it when it was alive?” I waived my arms to animate a living
creature. She waved her hands back, laughed and walked off.

"What is it ?" I finally asked my wife as I gnawed on the thing,

which had the texture of a rubber band and as much taste.

"The waitress said ox penis," she said out the side of her mouth.
"What does it taste like?" she whispered.

"Like chicken," I snarled back. After the initial shock we settled

down for some more conventional courses of cow stomach,
thickened pig blood, duck intestines, and roughly the innards of
every creature of Southeast Asia. After a while I made it a policy
not to ask what I was eating.

At dawn the next morning, under a dark overcast sky, we

gingerly made our way down what seemed like a thousand mud-
slickened steps, swarming with hustlers and porters, and along a
narrow catwalk to a sleek new riverboat emblazoned with the
name, Victoria I. A marching band was playing John Philip Sousa
marches as we boarded the ship.

A few minutes later the passengers hugged the rails as the

Victoria I inched its way into the murky mainstream of the
Yangtze. Through the fog we could see a flotilla of coal barges,
patch-sail sampans, junks, and ferries carrying everything from
people to pigs to everything imaginable. The sounds of horns
and the putt-putt of countless motors could be heard wafting
through the fog.

The Victoria I quickly left behind the hustle and bustle of

Chongqing and a few miles downstream the river was squeezed
to just a few hundred feet wide between sheer cliffs dotted with
straw-hatted peasants tending tiny plots of vegetables. Some
were carrying buckets of muddy Yangtze water up the steep
slopes, others were hoeing, and others were harvesting. Never
once did I ever see an idle person along the entire stretch of the
Yangtze. In some remote bend of the river one would sometimes
see a lone man breaking up huge rocks with a sledgehammer.
The clang of the hammer striking the rock reverberated across
the water.

Along the Yangtze watershed live more than 350 million people
a third of all people in China and one of every fifteen people on
earth. It is the main street of China it has been estimated that
cargo on the Yangtze and its tributaries accounts for 80% of
China's total land shipping.

"To understand China you must know the Yangtze," a Taiwanese

woman and former Chinese citizen told me as the timeless
landscape of China passed before us. "All Chinese learn as
children the legends of the Three Kingdoms and much of that
history took place in these parts."

I knew this to be true. Although the Three Kingdom era lasted

less than a century (220 A.D. - 280 A.D.), the epic stories
surrounding that era are as familiar to the Chinese as the

narratives of the Trojan War are to the Greeks or the legends of

knights and roundtables are to Western folklore.

"Do you know the dynasties of Chinese history ?" the Taiwanese
woman asked me. In my ususal sophomoric manner, I replied
"Zelda sews quilts happily (not sadly) to save your memories

"Huh," I think she said.

"It's easy," I said, "ZELDA" stands for the ancient Zhou dynasty
(pronounced Joe) that lasted from 1700 B.C - 200 B.C.; "SEWS" is
the Shang dynasty that was big around 1500 B.C.; "QUILTS" is
the Qin dynasty (pronounced Chin) which although it lasted only
a hundred years was the first dynasty to unify China in 200 B.C.;
"HAPPILY" refers to the Han dynasty (200 B.C. - 200 A.D.), the
oriental equivalent of the Roman Empire; "NOT SADLY" are the
North-South dynasties (220 A.D. - 280 A.D) which were made up
of the legendary Three Kingdoms of Wei (weigh), Chu (shoe) and
Wu (woo); "TO" is the great Tang dynasty (300 A.D. - 600 A.D.),
China's golden age of art and music; "SAVE" is the Song dynasty
(900 A.D. - 1200 A.D) famous for its silk and porcelain; "YOUR" is
the Yuan dynasty (900 A.D. 1300 A.D.) of the Mongol Kublai
Khan that showed Marco Polo the wonders of the East in 1280;
"MEMORIES" is the Ming dynasty (1300 A.D. - 1600 A.D) famous
for its blue-and-white porcelain and the Forbidden City; and
finally "CHERISHED" stands for the Manchu Ching dynasty (1600
A.D. - 1900 A.D.), which was the last dynasty and survived until
1911 when modern Chinese history began.

"What about the Xia and Sui dynasties ?" she asked.

"Uh," I think I replied. "They weren't very important were they?"


She laughed and gave me a gentleman's C for at least learning

the important ones.

However, it wasn't the ancient Chinese dynasties that occupied

our minds, but the Three Gorges; the Qutang, the Witches, and
the Xiling, that lie a hundred miles downstream. That stretch of
120 miles where the Yangtze churns and boils its way through
rocky canyons in the Qinling Mountains limestone faces rising
4,000 feet straight up like some colossal Gothic cathedral from
the water. There are no banks of the river here the shear cliffs
plunge straight into the raging water.

The history of river traffic through the Three Gorges is a

testimonial to the tenacity of the human spirit. In times past,
more than a few boatmen met their end on unforeseen shoals of
this sampan graveyard. Before the age of steam and gasoline
engines, teams of coolies, known as “trackers" were used to pull
boats upstream through the Gorges, literally inches at a time,
through whirlpools and rapids. Scores of trackers were
harnessed like oxen to towlines of braided bamboo, sometimes
up to half a mile long, and pulled the huge junks against the
raging waters. Every Westerner who has visited this stretch of
the Yangtze has been awed by the horrific toil and immense
risks taken by the trackers. The trackers lived on the edge -
often they lost their footing on the sheer cliffs high on the rocky
ledges above the river and pulled their mates, who were all tied
together, into the raging river. Today, one can still see the
towpaths where these poor souls toiled their entire lives and can
only marvel at the fact that not only could they traverse them at
all, but that they could pull tons of ship upstream at the same

Nowadays, although one can sometimes see smaller boats being

pulled upstream by their crews, the old vision of endless junks

being pulled up river by countless coolies has been replaced by

countless riverboats transporting visitors, mostly from the
United States, Japan, Taiwan, and China, on three-to-five day
treks back and forth between Chongqing and Wuhan.

The Victoria I represents the new breed of riverboat on the

Yangtze. Our cabin was clean, stylish, and comfortable. It had a
picture window, air-conditioning, and even a color TV. I
remember once lying on the bed looking out the window across
the Yangtze while watching Chinese dancers on a TV station
from Beijing. The food aboard the Victoria I was good mainly
Chinese cuisine with the exception of breakfast, which had both
Chinese and Western offerings. The ship even had an exercise
room complete with a step machine and treadmill something the
trackers of yesteryear would no doubt find interesting.

I must admit when the Victoria I finally entered Qutang Gorge,

the first and the most perilous of the Three Gorges, I didn't see
the endless hulks of rivercraft splattered on the rocks I had
come to expect. In fact I didn't see the Gorge at all as one
approaches Qutang Gorge the river appears to come to a dead
end. Then, as the Yangtze often does, it makes an abrupt turn
and sheer cliffs with overhanging precipices appear majestically
before us.

If you think traveling through the Gorges during the day is a

memorable experience cruising through the Gorges at night
between sheer cliffs only a few feet away can get your juices
flowing in a hurry. The first night the Victoria I led a convoy of
several ships through the Gorges. Each ship had two gigantic
spotlights that continuously scanned the limestone cliffs for
protruding rocks and ledges. Navigational lights dotted the
cliffsides on both banks. Occasionally, a small house would
appear along the river edge and would get a direct hit by one of

the huge spotlights lighting it up like Grand Central Station.

Once, the Victoria I sounded its ear-deafening horn just a few
feet from one of these huts. I could image the entire family
raising ten feet off their beds.

The next day the passengers took a break from the Yangtze and
took a side trip up the Daning River, a picturesque turquoise-
blue tributary of the Yangtze. Boarding motorized sampans that
carried about 20 people each, we headed upstream through
what are called the Lesser Gorges. Although not as large as the
Three Gorges of the Yangtze, the Lesser Gorges are in fact more
spectacular, being steeper with sharper features. We soon
discovered the inboard engine on our sampan was insufficient to
ford the rapids so a towline was thrown ashore and a few
trackers aided in the effort. While bare-backed trackers strained
at the towline, crewmembers on deck fought the current by
pushing and poling with large bamboo poles, thrusting them
deep into the stream and leaning on them until their bodies
touched the deck. Suddenly a pole snapped and one of the
crewmembers, just a few feet from me, careened overboard into
the raging water. In an flash he was swept downstream a sinking
feeling came over me as I knew he had no chance to survive
those perilous rapids. I rushed to the side of the boat and looked
back just in time to see him grab a pole thrust to him by one of
the polers on the sampan directly behind us. The guy pulled
himself out of the water onto the boat, ran to the other side, and
jumped to a large boulder at the side of the river. He then ran
back to our boat, hopped across another couple of boulders and
leaped back onto our boat, where he then grabbed another pole
and continued poling. Twenty passengers watched the entire
incident with their mouths open. I asked him later if he often fell
in the river he laughed and said from time to time.

Although most people take a Yangtze cruise to see the Three

Gorges, the many towns and villages along the river are an
adventure in themselves. There is possibly no better way to see
the "real" China than by taking a cruise of the Yangtze. I am
reminded of the hubbub of a food bazaar in Chongqing, pushing
our way through a sea of people, inhaling the pungent aroma
from countless hotpots teeming with spiced fish heads, eels, and
snake meat. Paddling a dragon boat in Ziqui (zig -way) where we
joined former trackers in Dragon Boat Races on the Yangtze. I
remember breaking bread and hosting the town elders in a tiny
village up the Daning river with possibly the strongest hooch this
side of West Virginia. Our hosts called it “tiger milk." And of
course there was the singing of little girls in a Yue Yang
kindergarten where they pulled us from our seats and taught us
children's dances. In the Hebei Museum we were captivated by
the sonorous sounds from 36 gigantic temple bells, dug up from
an archeological site dating back twenty-five hundred years,
played by young women in authentic period costumes. People
don't come to China to unwind they come to see the world turn.

A few days later the Victoria I passed through the last of the
Three Gorges, Xiling Gorge, and the site of what will be the
Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest dam. Cruises up and
down the Yangtze have taken on a sort of urgency in recent
years due to fears the area will be inundated by the Three
Gorges Dam.

"What do you think about the dam?" a young Chinese woman

from Beijing asked me as we watched the massive construction
activity on shore.

"Kinda big, huh?" was my insightful reply. It is difficult to fathom

such an undertaking. First of all the Three Gorges Dam will be
the tallest, most massive, generate the most power, on and on

and on, dam in the world. The water behind the dam will rise
600 feet and the reservoir created will stretch all the way back
to Chongqing, 850 miles away. Although upwards of a million
people will be forced to resettle, the dam will bring unparalleled
benefits to China in terms of flood control, generation of
electricity, shipping, water supply, and aquiculture. If things go
according to plan the dam will be completed by the year 2008.

"I hope I'm still alive when it's done," I added.

"Well," she said, "If you are, you will be able to go up the
Yangtze to Chongqing by sailboat on Yangtze Lake." It would be
in interesting prospect.

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