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Yangtze Gorges: now or never

Time is short to explore the most gorgeous part of the Yangtze River, a stretch that visually defines Chinese culture. Before the swift waters are imprisoned in a huge dam, a cruise is in order.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

Two decades ago when I first visited China, a Chinese friend said, "You must see Guilin, Mount Huangshan and the Yangtze River Gorges if you would understand our poetry and our art." And so, on that first visit, I took a boat along the River Li, which wound its way through the mist past the limestone mountains and caves of Guilin.

I have made several trips to China since, but on them I have seen what man, not nature has created -- the Great Wall, Beijing's Forbidden City, the ancient terra cotta army of Xian.

But now, at last, I have seen my friend's other two natural sites. I have been among the crags and the wind-sculpted pines of Mount Huangshan -- the Yellow Mountains. And I have cruised through the Yangtze River Gorges -- below jagged, mysterious cliffs sometimes 4,000 feet high, and fertile hillsides, all precipitously descending into the butterscotch-colored river waters.

By the year 2009, these gorges that are among the largest in the world are to be dammed up to create a body of water as large as Lake Superior -- about 370 miles long and about a mile wide. This is the largest dam project ever envisioned.

The gorges' time is short, so when I learned last spring of Victoria Cruises' Yangtze trips between Chongqing and Shanghai that pass through the gorges, I decided to join one.

When 58 fellow-passengers and I boarded the Victoria V in Chongqing for the seven-day, 1,500-mile journey downstream, it was after dark. (Once known as Chungking, this major port city in the province of Sichuan was the World War II capital of China.)

A pontoon gangplank about as long as a football field stretched from the shore to the ship. There were eager "stick men" on the dock hoping -- for a yuan or two -- (there are nine yuan to a dollar) to steady any of us who were not sure-footed and to carry our luggage on the ends of the long poles slung across their shoulders.

We were shown to our cabins by a fresh-faced young woman who was one of 104 enthusiastic crew members. Then those of us who were up to it after a day of sightseeing in Beijing and the 21/2-hour flight from the capital were invited to a Sichuan dinner at the Chongqing Cygnet Hot Pot Palace on shore.

Even for the stalwart among us, the menu was off-putting: It offered such questionable delights as duck gizzards, tongues and intestines, pig brains, kidneys and throats. All were served with a powerful mashed chili pepper and vinegar sauce that is notable for disguising strong-smelling meats.

The next morning, after the passengers had a choice of a Chinese breakfast of noodles and dumplings or a Western one of eggs, bacon and sausage, Victoria V set sail.

The mountains that nearly encircle the city were barely visible as we left the dock. It is estimated that Chongqing has 68 days of fog annually. Indeed, the fact that it survived World War II at all is attributed to the foggy weather that often kept Japanese planes away. The headquarters there of Nationalist leader Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and U.S. Gen. Joseph Stilwell, commander-in-chief of the American forces in the China-Burma campaign, made it a prime target.

Today a major transportation center for Sichuan Province, Chongqing's riverfront was lined with rusting ships and workboats. Fat green and white ferries bustled by. The river current swirled and eddied past mid-river sludge mounds and rocks. A running loudspeaker commentary on what we were seeing was not always audible to those on deck.

Currents of change

Inside, as we sailed, tai chi lessons were being given by the ship's doctor, and there was a lecture on the history of the river and the changes in it that will result from the dam.

Once we had left Chongqing and passed through the Brass Gong Gorge (not one of the major gorges), the river was edged with green hills, a patchwork of vegetable terraces and mulberry, banana, tung (for furniture polish) and Mandarin orange trees.

This area, some of China's richest farmland, is among the estimated 30-million acres of cultivated land that will be submerged by the dam project.

The dam will create a reservoir that will be an estimated 370 miles long and up to 580 feet deep, over an area estimated at more than 400 square miles.

Also gone under these waters will be ancient carvings, temples cut into the gorges' cliffs, Bronze Age coffins set high above the water in caves (preferred burial sites were on a hilltop, facing the sun and overlooking the water).

More than a dozen large cities, 114 towns, hundreds of villages and 657 factories will be destroyed. An estimated 1.3-million people will be relocated.

Already, villages are being moved to higher sites, with young people largely applauding the new locations and the new housing they are getting, but older folk distinctly melancholy at losing the homes and the land they have cherished.

Such rare creatures as the Yangtze dolphin, of which only 100 remain, and the only alligators outside North America will disappear in the new environment, according to Richard Hayman, a longtime Sinophile, former director of cruise operations for Victoria and now a consultant to the line.

He and other environmentalists warn of how sociologically and environmentally damaging the dam is.

They warn it could be the "Chernobyl of hydropower," pointing out that it could, in time, collapse from the buildup of silt behind its walls.

Proponents, however, discount those fears and insist that the dam will control annual death-dealing floods. (In a 1954 inundation, more than 30,000 people drowned.)

The dam will also allow large vessels to sail to Chongqing and will produce enormous amounts of hydroelectric power.

Enjoying it now

The owners of Victoria Cruises are a Chinese-American couple, Mr. and Mrs. James Pi of Woodside, Queens, N.Y. They charter the eight China-built vessels the company operates from the Chinese government. Mr. Pi's photo, with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was prominently displayed on the Victoria V.

The line is advertised as being the largest to provide a Western-style cruise experience on the river. (Its smaller competitor, offering the same sort of service, is Regal China Cruises.)

In mid-afternoon, we made the first stop of our cruise, at Fengdu, the "Ghost City." A shipboard handout explained that Fengdu is said to be the home of devils, and a temple was established there centuries ago dedicated to the gods of the underworld. Today it is the site of several temples, along with theme-parklike statues of the devils and monsters who are the supposed guardians of hell.

It was on the second day of the cruise that we reached the first of the Three Gorges -- all storied in fable and poetry and art -- five-mile-long Qutang. It is both the shortest and the narrowest of the gorge formations.

Steep sandstone cliffs plunge into the river there, and the waters rush by at about 25 miles per hour. Many a boat has been shattered in these rapids. Curious rock formations bear such names as Rhinoceros Looking at the Moon and Beheading Dragon Platform.

That afternoon, we reached Wushan and put in for a half-day of traveling in smaller boats through the intimate Lesser Three Gorges. The city of 40,000 was bustling with activity.

The little 36-passenger boats that we climbed into there for our 20-mile journey down the Lesser Gorges -- the Dragon Gate Gorge, Misty and Emerald Gorges -- had engines, but polemen on the forward deck shoved us over shallows, around rocks and over rapids using their bamboo poles with spiked ends.

The tributary River Daning, on which we were traveling, was jade green and frothy as it tumbled across rocks. Green fields rose to green shadowed mountains. Women washed clothes and wove rope by the river, and children splashed and held out nets full of glistening golden pebbles for boat travelers to buy. Every now and then, a mountain goat could be seen among onshore rocks or a family of brown monkeys running and tumbling.

Like the main gorges, the Three Lesser Gorges, too, will be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. Signs on the rocky cliffs mark the 578-foot-high point up to which the water will reach. The stone farmhouses now perched here and there above the fields, the ancient coffins whose outlines we glimpsed high in the cliffs, will all be inundated.

The next day, we reached the deepest of the gorges, Wu Gorge, where the river twists tortuously through the striated passageway and 12 peaks, each with its own legend, cast shadows over the water.

We passed bobbing black fishing sampans and barges laden with coal. At Badong, an industrial center, there were tall apartment buildings. A plume of smoke from a fertilizer factory spiraled into the air. All along the Yangtze, we were told, factories have been polluting the air and the water, killing birds and trees.

In the afternoon, we continued on our way through the Xiling Gorge, the last and longest and for centuries the most infamous of the gorges, with its rocks and its perilous rapids. Today, however, most of the rocks have been dynamited away.

Often signs urging birth control or pleading for environmental protection -- "Protect the Hillsides. Don't Cut the Woods" -- could be seen painted in Chinese characters that were translated for us.

At Wuhan, where we put in late on a rainy day, sand bags along the quay suggested the destructive capability of the river that the dam, presumably, will control.

Our brief stay in that city allowed us to see the Hubei Provincial Museum's displays of flutes and bronze bells, zithers and stone chimes and weapons from a fifth century B.C. tomb. There was also time to climb to the top of the Yellow Crane Tower for a murky view of the city.

Wuhan is the site, too, of the late Mao Tse-tung's lakeside villa, which has a 111-foot-long indoor pool. In 1966 at the age of 73, Mao reportedly swam across the Yangtze. We did not get to visit the villa.

The next day, our stop was at Lushan for a bus trip past magnolia and orange trees heavy with flowers to the resort town of Guling, where summer homes were built in the late 19th century by foreign missionaries and where, from 1933 to 1946, Chiang Kai-shek spent July and August in the cool mountain air. The holiday home, filled with heavy '30s furniture and family photographs, seems distinctly old-fashioned and unimpressive by today's standards.

Stunning through the overlooks across the valley and up toward the 4,920-foot-high Mount Lushan were the mass of tourists -- largely Chinese -- scurrying by, diminishing the grandeur of the scenery. It was hard to find a viewing point without a head intruding.

On the sixth day, we set off by bus for the trip to Mount Huangshan. Although the sun was out as we started, rains that had preceded us had washed out mud roads, and some rerouting was necessary.

The road we took bumped along past clay and concrete block houses, fields of golden rape grown for the cattle and for cooking oil, rice paddies where often a lone farmer with a single water buffalo was at work. Tea pickers in conical hats harvested their crop on terraces.

It was several hours before we reached the starting point for the cable car up into the mountains.

Most tourists today reach the mountains by this spectacular eight-minute cable car ride. A notice in the waiting room for the cable car warns that "Contagious, mental, serious heart patients and drunk persons are forbidden to take the car, and smoking and hubbub is also forbidden."

There are only a handful of seats in the car and for those with a fear of heights, the trip above the jagged black rocks and the gnarled pines can be worrisome.

An alternative way of ascending is on foot -- 41/2 miles up the Eastern Steps or nine miles up the Western Steps, or by sedan chair carried by porters.

However one gets there, the views from the top -- of the horizon filled with mountain peaks that appear, then disappear in clouds, of the wind-stunted pine trees -- is the stuff of Chinese poetry and art.

The heavy-laden porters who have made the climb from below, balancing their loads of cabbages and bricks and firewood, are representative of a China that, one hopes -- their picturesque demeanor notwithstanding -- will soon be disappearing.

The setting sun was painting the rice paddies pink as we headed back to Victoria V. At the end of that day, it was good being welcomed back by the lineup of smiling crew members along the quay, ready to assist the weary and eager to giggle with us as we tried out a little pidgin Chinese.

Our vessel's last port of call before our destination of Shanghai was at Nanjing for a climb up the 392 steps to the blue-roofed mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, brother-in-law of Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the father of the Chinese republic.

The number of steps reflects the 392-million people of China in the mid-1920s, when the mausoleum was built.

It had been a fine, informative journey down the navigable part of Asia's longest river, the 3,400-mile Yangtze.

* * *

Phyllis Meras is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury, Mass.

If you go

Yangtze itineraries on Victoria Cruises are scheduled through November this year, and prices (without air fare) range from $1,400 to $2,700 depending on the season and the cabin. Spring or fall are the most pleasant seasons for traveling. Summer can be unbearably hot.

The vessels accommodate 154. My two-bedded suite on Victoria V was spacious, with a tub in the bathroom. Meals are substantial if not grand.

For lazing-about times, a hairdresser on our vessel charged less than $8 for a shampoo and blow dry. A masseuse was also available. There were lectures and simple, charming evening entertainments (sometimes involving the crew).

On land, guides accompanied the tours. Had I chosen to spend all my time on shipboard, however, I could have learned to play mah-jongg or to fly kites, watched a Chinese painter studiously at work, and done all my shopping -- for pearls, kites, paintings and a few clothes. English-language films were shown once a day on cabin TVs. There was a library, a dance floor and a bar. The vessels carry doctors.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Victoria Cruises, 57-08 39th St., Woodside, NY 11377. Call (800) 348-8084; fax (212) 818-9889; e-mail to The Web site is

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