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Slow Boat Through CHINA : Cruising Upstream in the Three Gorges Region of the Fabled Yangtze River, Past Misty Scenery That May be Doomed


ON THE YANGTZE RIVER, China — If this river ran past nothing but 3,900 miles of low, lumpy hills and muddy banks, it would still be an unsurpassed wonder. It stretches farther than any others but the Nile and the Amazon, and lies so wide in some stretches that Marco Polo lost credibility when he reported to the Europeans that a man could stand on one shore and not see the opposing bank. On or near the Yangtze's edges, more than 350 million people reside--a third of China's population and, roughly, one in every 15 human beings on the planet. The river's tortured, silt-brown path is strewn with sampans, barges and ferries carrying coal, fruit, rocks, cows and people in very nearly unthinkable volumes. It's the world's longest Main Street. In the slow lanes, amid litter, swim rare dolphins. On the shoulders perch ancient pagodas. At one end lies the East China Sea; at the other, Tibet.

But the Yangtze's banks do not stay low and lumpy for long. Follow the river upstream from its wide, commerce-choked mouth near Shanghai, and it rises from broad plains to terraced hills dotted with straw-hatted peasants whose farms tilt at what seem like 45-degree angles. Then come dense, grimy towns and a rusting, overloaded ferry. The sound of chisels breaking rock on shore rings across the water.

Then, in the Yangtze's middle reaches, a mist descends. When it thins, the river has evolved again and the brown currents now mediate a staring match between stone-faced canyon walls. A thousand feet high. Two thousand, with ancient inscriptions etched in the rock and 2,000-year-old coffins wedged into caves 1,000 feet up. Throughout a 125-mile stretch known as Three Gorges, the Yangtze gathers gaping Westerners in ant-like congregations on the Astroturf decks of their cruise ships.

Here, however, is where the trouble starts. Over the next two decades, if China's leaders have their way, a 600-foot-high dam will rise amid the Three Gorges. The river's currents, newly harnessed, are to generate more hydro-electric power than any dam in history, reducing the dependence on inefficient coal-burning that has cursed much of China with abysmal air quality. For more than 350 miles above the dam, water levels will rise as much as 300 feet, forcing an estimated 1.2 million villagers to relocate, putting countless ancient villages and landmarks under water.

These plans have set off a round of international debate over environmental risk, energy policy and the right of industrialized nations such as the United States to meddle in China's affairs. The pleasant irony here for Chinese tourism officials is that while those arguments resound and the earthmovers begin their scraping, a trickle of Western tourism on the Yangtze is growing into something like a torrent: Show us thirsty Americans a jeopardized natural wonder and a deadline, and we'll come running.

Twenty years ago, the story goes, there was one fancy cruise ship here, and Chairman Mao Tse Tungwas its only customer. By last year, 19 cruise ships were catering to international travelers, most of the ships operating from early spring to late fall, carrying passengers on journeys of three to five days through the Three Gorges between Wuhan and Chongqing. This year, Chinese officials say, there are 35. By most accounts, the conditions aboard even the most luxurious of these cruise vessels are suited more to adventurers than comfort-seekers. But the dam deadline seems to have done more for tourism than any ad campaign could have, and these days the Yangtze stands alongside Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and Guilin as among the top stops on Chinese itineraries.

I booked onto one of the last departures of the fall 1993 season, a four-night October excursion that would run westward against the river's current. (Downstream voyages usually take a day less and cost a bit more.) I flew to Tokyo, then to Hong Kong, and then to the industrial city of Wuhan, about 700 miles upriver from Shanghai, where my prearranged guide never materialized and I spent my first two hours staring through a taxi window at the back end of a blue dump truck. For miles we crawled past gray, huddled buildings and gray, huddled people. That night in the bar of the Yangtze Hotel, two British engineers asked my mission and then advised me to expect, as I made my way upriver, the occasional floating human corpse.

Thus briefed, I rose early the next morning, inched by cab to the waterfront and climbed aboard the Yangtze Paradise.

The first pleasure of a westbound Yangtze cruise is that no matter what else might happen, you're out of Wuhan. The next pleasure, for me, was realizing I was the first passenger aboard, free to snoop. While crew members mopped and scrubbed the halls of the 285-foot-long ship--then tossed the trash overboard into the river their customers had come to admire--I wandered.

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