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01.23.2003

Down The Yangzi

Our boat trip started from Chongqing after nightfall. The day-long tour of the city I described earlier ended in mild pandemonium on an embankment some two hundred yards from the river, a steep descent down a gravelly path to where a variety of riverboats floated off of a large pier. Our bus pulled up at the top of the slope and disgorged us all into the inevitable crowd of hawkers selling maps. If cartography is your thing, go straight to China. Mixed in with the map and Rolex crowd were wiry porters carrying big wooden dowels, yelling for the chance to sling our bags on down to the ship.

The boats were lit up and gorgeous down in the inky water. There were food stalls lined up along the pier, some of them quite extensive, and the cooking fires lit them with a devilish orange glow. The boats themselves were tricked out in neon and floodlights, reflecting in the murk and looking very cheerfuly seaworthy. There was all manner of bustle and commotion near the boats, but on the gravelly beach it was dark and quiet, and for a few minutes we crunched along in welcome silence. It was cool and still.

You can float down the Chang Jiang (more borrowed pictures) at any desired level of comfort. At the top of the top end are the foreigner-only custom liners, a gorgeous deluxe riverboat in the shape of a giant dragon, or one of several sleek wedding-cake cruise ships without even a hint of scary Asianness to it, an oasis of Western comfort for the terrified luxury traveller. A rung below are the Chinese luxury boats, with Astroturf sun decks and ornately lit dining rooms we would occasionally glimpse across the water through our own windows in the night. And at the bottom are the countless banana-curved coal and cargo barges, motoring upstream with a sooty crew and a wire hamper full of sooty vegetables out behind the crew quarters.

hors catégorie is the Soviet-built hydrofoil that would regularly zip pass us, going up and downriver both, shrouded in a cloud of mist. I think it was called the "Proton", but knowledgable third parties disagree.

Our own boat was in the middle-to-high category, modest but seaworthy, and so well stocked with kind people that it would be rude to try and find fault with its amenities. There were little decks at the bow and stern for watching the river, as well as a snack bar, restaurant, and a karaoke lounge upstairs. When you opened the front doors to go out and look at the river, there was a great wind tunnel effect all down the center corridor of the ship. The restaurant was Spartan but wonderful. I wish I had had the courage to enter the karaoke bar.

We missed the first event of the cruise, the five AM trip up to a landmark that was apparently worth getting up at five AM to see, and had to spend several anxious minutes explaining to the round-cheeked tour guide that we did not hold him to blame. There was this kind of ruckus whenever we missed a scheduled event - urgent explanations in sign language that we had missed a deadline, great helpless arm-wavings and apologetic smiles. We tried to convey, through our nuanced use of the word 'hao' (good), that we weren't going to call the embassy, and promised not to ignore future early-morning commotions, particularly when people stuck their heads in our cabin and yelled at us in Chinese to get up. We promised ourselves we wouldn't miss any more attractions.

All the rest of the day was spent in dutiful sightseeing, hopping off the boat to climb tall Taoist crags and wander through little villages, getting back on to float further downstream in the chil air. By the time night fell, and the boat pulled up to another spot, we had a hard time getting out of our bunks to go see. But the map said this was the White Emperor. It sounded important. The better half could not endure the thought of more cold night air, but her brother and I decided it had to be done.

Bundled up, shivering, we hopped out onto the pier with the other Chinese passengers, many of whom seemed to have hit the rice wine pretty hard at dinner. Our guide was up front, waving his guide flag, and distributing tickets to everyone in the group. When he got to us, he held out the tickets, then rapidly pulled them back and shook his head. We didn't get it. He did it again. "How much?", the brother said, pulling out his wallet. More head shaking, then rapid Chinese. The guide Shanghaied a tall, affable man who had been with us on the original bus tour in Chongqing to be his translator. The man knew a very few words of English, and after listening to the guide for a bit, turned to us with an apologetic smile.

"This place," he said affably, "Not for foreign friend."

The guide confirmed this with vigorous nodding.

I was baffled and suddenly dying to find out what was being kept from us - the White Emperor! But the guide was adamant. We were not to go. Our translator friend seemed perfectly content to remain on the pier with us, along with some other people we recognized from the bus tour. He himself was a stately business type in his late forties, a big man in a good dark suit, chain-smoking brand-name cigarettes. He seemed to be in a great mood, a little bit tipsy and content with the day, perfectly happy not to trudge up to see the White Emperor. It was clear he wanted to make us feel better.

"This place", he said, gesturing up at the mountain. "This place very important in Chinese history. Chinese emperor [Emperor's Name] stay here. White Emperor. Very important for Chinese people. Not for foreign friend." His gaze took in the majestic peak, lit up in the night.

Off in the mists we could see the hints of a high wall, and hear the loud chatter of the group making its way up the mountain. The air was thick with history. Our companion waved his arms broadly as he spoke, trying to convey to us the vast importance of what lay before us, the glory of it all.

He pointed to his friends, who were chatting on the pier nearby. "You stay because you are foreign friend. My friends and I, we stay because there is very much Chinese history. My friends and I, we are not interested."

I liked this man very much.

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