Approximately one of every fifteen people on earth lives in the watershed of the Yangtze. At moments, Abdulaziz felt as if each of these four hundred and fifty million individuals were interfacing with the river in a completely different way. “There’s no agreed format,” he told me. “With the Ganges, there was a commonality, with the spiritual aspect of how people interact with the river. In China, I didn’t feel that. It’s trading. People are trading on some aspect of the river.” In Abdulaziz’s images, there are fishermen and poachers, conservationists and polluters, huge transport ships and tiny sampans as slender and slight as river reeds. There are shots taken from the steel decks of luxury liners, where tourists stand with their heads cocked at angles of forty-five degrees. “The people aren’t looking at the Yangtze,” Abdulaziz said. “They’re looking up, not down. They’re not really experiencing the river.”
At almost four thousand miles long, the Yangtze is Asia’s longest river and the third longest in the world. Historically it divides the North and South of China providing a natural barrier against invaders and more significantly today, a waterway for transport, commerce, and leisure cruising. China’s coming of age as a true world power was signaled by the colossal feat of engineering, the Three Gorges Dam, a highlight of most cruises. While literally dozens of ships ply the waters, only a mere handful come close to the Western definition of luxury.
The sign above the reception desk on the boarding deck of the ferry said that we were on a designated three-star tourist boat. Once we had settled into our first class rooms and walked around a bit, it was evident that some serious bribes must have been paid for at least two of those stars. I began to understand why everyone had tried to steer us away from this mode of travel. The problem was not that there were Chinese people on the boat (they were all very friendly and kind), but that it was a run-down boat – way past its glory days of being a primary mode of transportation up and down the river. I have to say that the ferry that I had been on in 1985 was much nicer than this one. Then again, this one was probably much nicer in 1985 as well!
Our journey actually began at the long distance bus station in Yichang. Since the building of the Three Gorges Dam, ferries now set off from a pier above the dam rather than taking the time to traverse the locks. We boarded a bus in Yichang for the hour long ride to the pier above the dam. As you can imagine, the presence of two foreigners on the bus caused quite a stir among the others who had also booked passage on this boat. One ruddy-cheeked peasant in a bright yellow coat took it upon herself to make sure we got our bags put in the right place and found seats on the bus. And every so often, she would turn around and smile at us and give us the “thumbs up” sign. We knew we were in good hands.
Once on board the ferry, we filled out the FOREIGNERS ARE SLEEPING HERE TONIGHT papers required by the Public Security Bureau, collected our cabin key (after paying a 40 kuai deposit) and climbed the 2 flights of stairs to the first class deck.
At the end of our hallway was a door leading out onto a deck in the front of the boat. We bundled up and stood out there as the boat pulled away at about 6pm. Through the fog, we could barely make out the new dam. We were in the reservoir just behind it. Our first stop was a pier on the other side of the river, and then we were on our way. Unfortunately, night fell just as we were entering the gorges.
Our cabin was a little room with a private toilet. Actually, it was what some foreigners not-so-lovingly refer to as a ‘shoilet’ — a squat toilet with a shower head positioned directly above. I will admit that when I entered the cabin, I wasn’t phased by the filthy carpet or the dingy bedding; what made my heart sink was the ‘squat pot.’ With three screws firmly embedded in my right leg just below the knees, squatting is really no longer an option. I’ll spare you any more details…..
Since the cabin wasn’t heated, we pretty much put on everything we had along (well, I did anyway) before climbing under the y cotton quilt to sleep. We decided that what we were doing was camping!
For food, we had 2 options: eat the snacks we had brought along (bread, peanut butter, fruit, OREO’s, peanuts, etc.) or go down to the dining hall. We opted for the dining hall food, but preferred to eat in the cabin, so I went down to get it and bring it back. It was typical “shi-tang” (dining hall) food – heaps of rice with mysterious veggies and meat piled on – all for 10 kuai (about $1.50). I asked the ‘chef’ who was serving it up if I could take the bowl to my room. He said yes, but I’d have to leave a 10 kuai security deposit. “When you bring the bowl back, I’ll give you 10 kuai back.” Fair enough. This is what we did for supper the first night and lunch the second day. For supper that second day, we decided to actually eat in the dining hall. One nice young man who we had been chatting with earlier sat at the table with us, mostly just to watch – to see if the foreigners knew how to use chopsticks! After watching us for a few minutes, he rendered his verdict. Looking at me, he said “You use chopsticks better than she does.” “Well,” I said, “I’ve been here 28 years and she’s been here 4 days!” He chuckled.
At the other end of the hall from our cabin was the first class lounge, which we, of course, had access to since we were paying first class passengers. It’s hard to find a word to describe the décor, so I’ll just let the photo do the talking. We were particularly interested in the sofa sitting on top of the mattress!
For a couple of hours on Tuesday afternoon, we sat out on the back deck of the boat (out of the wind), pecking away on our computers and jumping up to take pictures of the interesting things we spotted along the way. Every so often the boat would pull up to a pier in a town and people would get on and off.
On the first evening, as we were sitting in our cabin reviewing old letters and photos, Noel came across this account that Esther had written of one of her boat trips up the Yangtze in 1933. Sailing from Yichang (where we had set out), she too found herself in a first class cabin on a Chinese boat, despite being warned not to take it:
“We found 2 Yangtze River steamers in and one to leave the next morning for Chungking. But this line was the one which had been having so much trouble and which we had been advised by all not to travel on. Then, too, there was a British boat coming in from Chungking and would leave for up river in a few days. This boat had British marines on as guards. This boat soon steamed in, and a good-looking boat it was. Well, which steamer now would the men choose for our travel? I was surprised when they came and said they would go on the I-Chang, the Yangtze River steamer (the Chinese boat), and they would go first class Chinese. Of course, I had the privilege of choosing anything I wished if I did not prefer to go along with them. But I had a great deal of faith in Mr. Warren’s judgment, and I felt that if they, with 5 small children, could go, why not? So I said I would go along. We moved over that same afternoon and I will say it did not seem so very pleasant in these quarters as we had had very good cabins thus far.”
When Noel read that to me, we both laughed out loud. Other accounts of other journeys that Esther made up and down the river included sleeping on the floor and being shot at by bandits.
In light of all that, our dumpy little boat seemed like a luxury cruise.
Our trip up the Yangtze River has been a bit surreal. As we view the hillsides with their villages and occasionally entire cities, we have to keep reminding ourselves that these hills are in fact, the tops of some fairly high mountains that line the shore of what used to be a swiftly flowing river. That river is now gone, having been replaced by the world’s largest reservoir that is stacked behind the Three Gorges Dam, the point at which we set out on this journey. Beneath the surface of the water lie farms, villages, towns, memories, and history…all drowned as the water rose.
To make way for the water the government moved more than 1 million people to higher ground. To see entirely new cities piled up on top of these hills is the only possible way to understand the scale of such an undertaking; and even then it is hard to comprehend. And it was all done in the span of a decade and a half.
I made a trip down this river with friends in 1985. It was a wild and remote river then, with only an occasional small town or small city. I remember looking up at some of the remote villages perched on the hillside and wondering if people there had even heard that Mao had died (he had, 9 years previously). Given the remoteness, it seemed plausible.
The Yangtze River is no longer remote. As we sailed up the river, we were never out of cell phone range. We went under dozens of bridges (there were 1 or 2 in the 1980’s). Huge vessels carried everything from coal to semi-trucks. And every so often we rounded a bend to find a city that looked like Hong Kong with its towering apartment blocks and office buildings.
As we pulled into the city of Fuling (late at night), I stood out on the front deck and raised a toast to Peter Hessler, the author of Rivertown, one of the best books about China out there and the one book that every English teacher here wishes they had written.
The Yangtze River is also no longer the main artery connecting Sichuan to the outside world or connecting the cities and towns in the region with each other. Now there are high speed trains and expressways. As a result, it seems, the ferries are now just used by peasants and the occasional silly foreigners who decided they need an “old China” experience. (stay tuned for a post about the ferry)
As we travel this river, I am reading the book “A Wayfarer in China: Impressions of a Trip Across West China and Mongolia”, by Elizabeth Kimball, an American woman who travelled down this river in 1911, after first travelling overland to Sichuan from Vietnam. Sichuan back then was the wild west (and still was when Esther Nelson arrived in 1924) —almost entirely cut off from the outside world except by way of the treacherous Yangtze River. Her comments upon leaving Sichuan (from Chongqing, where I am writing this blog in a Starbucks) for her trip down river were prescient:
“And the next step is assured; before many years have passed, a railway will connect the western capital with Wan Hsien (Wanxian) and Hankow (Wuhan), the deserted gorges will no longer re-echo the cries of the trackers, and the upward trip that now takes six weeks will be a matter of two or three days. It will be a different Szechuan then, with it resources exploited, with mines and factories, good roads and fine hotels, a power in the world’s market, the goal of the tourist, and – I am glad I saw Szechuan before the railway came.” (loc 2002, kindle edition)
The Szechuan that she describes is the Sichuan we are entering. We will travel from Chongqing to Chengdu today by a bullet train.
She was glad to have seen Sichuan before the railway came. I am glad I saw the Yangtze River before the dam was built, when it was still a river.
“There will be Chinese people on the boat,” said the voice at the other end of the phone line. For the 5th time in as many days this was the response I got from a travel agent I had contacted asking for assistance in booking passage on a local ferry boat to take Noel and me up the Yangtze River from Yichang to Chongqing. “You’d better take a cruise ship. There will be Chinese people on the ferry.”
So far I have resisted the urge to shout into the phone I KNOW THERE WILL BE CHINESE PEOPLE ON THE BOAT. WHY WOULDN’T THERE BE? THERE ARE 1.3 BILLION OF THEM IN THIS COUNTRY. I GET THAT. THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM FOR ME.
China likes to keep foreigners in their little boxes. There is a box marked “foreign teacher;” one marked “foreign businessman;” one marked “foreign student;” and a very large box marked “foreign tourist.” Harmony in the cosmos is maintained when the foreigners remain in their boxes and function by prescribed behaviors and norms ascribed to said boxes. Clearly what we are dealing with here is a foreigner who has broken free of her box. The box in question is “foreign tourist.” Inside that box the approved way to ride a boat on the Yangtze River is to book onto one of the many cruises that cater to foreign tourists. Prices include passage, accommodations on luxury boats, food, and sightseeing.
This is not my intention. I merely want to use the boat as a means of conveyance from Yichang to Chongqing. This is not what foreign tourists do. This is too far outside the box. HEY FOREIGNER! GET BACK INTO THE BOX. BUY A CRUISE TICKET.
Yesterday afternoon I felt like I had victory (and a ticket) in sight. I had managed to get through to the CTS office in Yichang and was talking to a nice young agent about my situation. Except for the fact that he was a pleasant chap and had impeccable English, I felt like I had been transported back to 1985. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: I am trying to buy a ticket on the ferry from Yichang to Chongqing. Can you help me?
He: Yes, we can help you buy a ticket for a cruise.
Me: I don’t want to buy a cruise ticket. I just need a ticket to ride a boat to Chongqing. Here is a website. Please open it. Do you see the schedule for the ferry? I want a ticket on that boat. See, it has the schedule and even the fare. I need 2 first class tickets.
He: But there will be Chinese people on the ferry.
Me: I know. I am not afraid of Chinese people. I like Chinese people. Some of my best friends are Chinese people.
He: I will check.
Me: Thank you.
He. I’m sorry, we do not have 2 day cruises. We only have 3 day cruises.
Me: Did you say cruise? I don’t want a cruise. I just want a ticket on a boat.
He: Oh. Well, there is an ordinary boat used by locals, but there will be Chinese people on the boat.
Me: I know. As I told you before, I am not afraid of Chinese people. I like them. What time does it leave Yichang on Monday, March 5?
Me: What time does it arrive into Chongqing on Wednesday, March 7?
Me: How much is the ticket?
He: 850 yuan. But that is only the bed. No food. No sightseeing.
Me: Is that first class, in a room with 2 beds?
He: Yes, but you will have to share a room with a Chinese person.
Me: No, I need to buy two tickets. I am travelling with another friend. We want to buy two beds in one room. Can you help me buy the tickets?
He: (sucking teeth). I think it will be better for you to come to Yichang and go to the ferry terminal and purchase the ticket yourself. It will be cheaper.
Me: But I am in Beijing, and will not arrive in Yichang until Sunday the 4th. I am afraid that I will go to the terminal and they will tell me there are no tickets. Then I will have a big problem.
Me: If I pay you a service charge, will you buy the tickets for me? What is your service charge? (at this point I was willing to pay anything, even if it meant paying more than a cruise ticket – as a matter of principle)
He: 50 yuan.
Me: Great. How can I send you the money?
He: (sucking teeth) I must first make sure that foreigners are allowed to buy tickets on this boat. Normally only Chinese people ride this boat.
It was at this point that I switched into Chinese and, mustering all of the political jargon I have absorbed in my 25+ years here, gave the poor fellow a fine lecture:
“KEEPING FOREIGNERS AND CHINESE PEOPLE SEPARATED IS AN EXAMPLE OF OUT-DATED THINKING. NOW IT IS THE 21ST CENTURY. CHINA HAS HAD MORE THAN 30 YEARS OF THE OPENING AND REFORM POLICY. IN 1985 I WAS ABLE TO RIDE THIS BOAT WITH CHINESE PEOPLE. NOW PEOPLE’S MINDS AND HEARTS HAVE BEEN LIBERATED AND CHINESE PEOPLE AND FOREIGNERS ARE FRIENDS. SO IT IS NOT POSSIBLE THAT IN 2012 FOREIGNERS ARE NOT PERMITTED TO BUY A TICKET ON A LOCAL BOAT.”
Not only had the foreigner refused to return to her box, she had now firmly planted her flag by revealing her ability to speak Chinese. He chuckled (a good sign) and sucked his teeth (a bad sign) and told me he would check and call me back tomorrow.
Those were hard words to hear. I felt I had come so very close to achieving my goal, only to have it (possibly) slip through my fingers again.
What will this day bring? Will it be the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat?
If this doesn’t work, I call a friend who has a student who has a brother in Yichang.
….and if anyone out there knows someone in Yichang who can help, please let me know!