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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

March 27, 1994|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

The gorges were certainly spectacular enough for me, and they seemed to be enough for those who stood alongside me craning their necks, juggling their still and video cameras and gently cursing the same dim, misty light that gave the scenes such gravity. But these gorges, I gather, don't do it for everybody.

From the Lonely Planet guidebook: "Don't expect to be dwarfed by mile-high cliffs! A lot of people find the trip quite boring, possibly because of over-anticipation." Another newspaper correspondent, who took the same ship five months before I did, found the Three Gorges region "certainly scenic, but not so spectacular that I would advise someone to travel halfway around the world to see it."

Maybe the problem here is people. For all its epic dimensions, the Yangtze River is not one of those natural wonders, like the Grand Canyon, that seem impervious to human presence. Country hovels and filthy cities intrude at its edges. Farmers traipse up the slopes. Cruise ships ply and pollute the water. For strictly aesthetic appeal, a traveler is probably better off about 500 miles to the south, among the curvaceous peaks along the Li River near Guilin.

You could say, entirely accurately, that the middle Yangtze is an impure, melancholy place. You could also say it's the place where, right now, the planet's most populous nation is confronting, for better or worse, its premier natural resource. Decide which of those observations you'd make first, and perhaps you've decided whether the Yangtze is for you.

By the time we'd cleared the last of the gorges, Qutang, the cruise had covered more than 600 miles and we had entered Sichuan province. In Wanxian, a city of 300,000, about half of whom are to be relocated as part of the dam project, we ate a local dinner and browsed through an evening marketplace. In Fengdu, fabled as a "ghost city" and disquietingly self-conscious of itself as a tourist stop, some visitors boarded a tramway, viewed torture instruments in aged temples and peered down from a scenic bridge between peaks. Others sampled the city's free market, a free-for-all of geese, chickens, eels, produce, bright colors, pungent odors, grinning butchers and haggling farmers.

Eventually we came to Chongqing, our final port, and it emphatically finished the job of delivering us from landscape to cityscape. Greater Chongqing straddles the river and houses about 15 million people amid traffic, grit and closely built, cloud-covered hills. We debarked in late evening, five days and 840-odd miles after we'd begun, and were immediately absorbed by local traffic and delivered to a lavish, five-year-old Holiday Inn for our last night. Nearby, a massive concrete bridge, opened to much fanfare in 1980, spans the river.

My last look at the Yangtze, through the window of an airport-bound van, was from atop that bridge. The river moved slowly, obscured by mist, clogged by idle boats, conquered by the city. But that's not the way I intend to remember it.

GUIDEBOOK

The Yin and Yangtze of China

Finding a tour: Unless you speak Chinese or have a companion who does, a guided group tour is the most sensible way to get around China. Three veteran operators in China, each of whom offers Yangtze cruises, are Pacific Delight Tours (132 Madison Ave., New York 10016; telephone 800-221-7179 or 212-684-7707), InterPacific Tours International (111 East 15th St. at Park Avenue South, New York 10003; tel. 800-221-3594 or 212-684-7707), and Abercrombie & Kent International (1520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, Ill. 60521; tel. 800-323-7308 or 708-954-2944.

Pacific Delight's 1994 prices give an idea of overall cost: A 24-day tour including a four-day Yangtze River cruise, fully escorted by an American tour manager, visiting 16 cities, ranges from $3,990 in mid-March to $4,720 in late September-mid-October (prices are per person based on double occupancy, and include air fare from the West Coast, most meals). Best times to visit are spring and fall, avoiding the steamy summer and cold, wet winter.

Getting there: United Airlines offers Los Angeles-Shanghai connections via San Francisco or Tokyo. Northwest Airlines offers a connection through Tokyo. Both carriers charge restricted fares beginning at $1,532-$1,660, depending on the season. China Eastern (tel. 213-384-2703) offers a one-stop direct Los Angeles-Shanghai flight twice weekly for a restricted economy fares of $1,332.95 (tax included), depending on the season. Discount fares may be available (tel. 800-423-7777).

China Eastern, China Southern and China Southwest airlines offer flights between Shanghai and interior Chinese cities. (Travelers should note that the International Airline Passengers Assn. has warned of maintenance, management and piracy problems in the Chinese aviation system.)

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