Travel Classics: Journey Down the Yangtze

A long time ago in the distant land of China, we sailed down the Yangtze River.

Here’s a description of a Yangtze River cruise from Viking Cruises:

Cruise the Yangtze River on Viking Emerald, a beautiful, state-of-the-art river cruise vessel built for the 2011 sailing season. Accommodating 256 guests with full verandas, hotel-style beds in every spacious suite and stateroom and an outstanding crew,Viking Emerald is one of the most sophisticated river ships in the world. The ship’s hotel operations are 100% managed by Viking River Cruises Swiss-trained management team, employing the best and most knowledgeable English-speaking staff. Enjoy one of theViking Emerald’s roomy 250-square-foot staterooms, or treat yourself to a Suite or Junior Suite. Or perhaps you would enjoy one of the two 603-square-foot Explorer Suites, with king-sized bed, separate sitting room and private wraparound veranda. The choice is yours!
Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Poll Top River Cruise Ship…

Our boat was different. Very different. However we did sail the same river, we enjoyed the same journey.
This was 1984. Apple was introducing a computer with a mouse. However for us, it was the excitement of our first spring in China. Beverly, our wonderful friend, source of knowledge on all things Chinese, and a power source all onto herself, suggested we and our good friends, Carol and Angus, travel from Beijing to Chungking and sail down the fabled Yangtze. Beverly was more than a friend, she was our guide. She had spent years in Beijing studying at the university and was wife of a Canadian diplomat. She knew her way around and seldom took “no” as an answer.
Beverly, Carol, Angus, and Linda

The five of us flew to the river port of Chongqing (Chungking) on a white knuckle flight, an old Russian Illusyian. The Russians and Chinese had not been trading partners for awhile and the Soviet aircraft were showing their age. Add to that the airport landing. The original airport (it has moved) was built on a river sandbar. An older American couple were sitting within earshot of us, and the husband explained as the plane approached, “Oh no, the airport is still down in the river!” Sure enough, we made a hard dive into the river valley for a quick landing.  Needless to say, we made it, nerves only slightly frayed.

Beverly, headed to the docks to arrange for a boat and we explored the city. Chongqing was the capital of China during the second world war, and some of the industry of the country was moved from the east coast to this city. It lay at the base of high cliffs facing the river. The pollution was heavy over the town. It was not a pleasant city then.

Chongqing honeypot

Beverly found us a boat leaving that evening! Not as easy as it sounds. When we left Beijing, we had no way of knowing if we would get a boat, or when we would get a boat. So for $30 each, we happily booked passage to Shanghai. It was not the Lindblad tour ship that the travel author Paul Theroux had taken earlier in the year, but it was the start of another adventure.

Bevery in the red pants heading for the gang plank.

There was a single hallway down the middle of the boat, so that meant every room had a view through a small port hole. There were 4 bunk beds to a room, the five of us shared a room, so that meant doubling up for sleep. We at least had a room. Some of our Chinese traveling companions were not as fortunate.

For many, a place to sleep was where you could find a space.

The toilet was a novelty, new to us, and something to experience only once. There was a men’s room and a women’s room on each side of the hallway. There were no stalls, just sinks and in the middle of the deck a single open trench about six inches deep. A steady flow of water and other human debris flowed along this trench and then out of the boat. The trick was to straddle the trench in a squat while keeping your balance on the moving boat. Depending on which was the boat was leaning, you were either upstream or downstream of your neighbor or the other toilet.

If my words didn’t draw the picture…
The boat left the harbor of Chongqing and we started our cruise down the Yangtze.

Linda and I settling into our stateroom.


In the morning we settled into the observation deck. Tea in the morning. Boiled water (kāishuǐ), or beer in the afternoon.


We passed by villages and speculated if the Chinese really would build a dam across the Three Gorges.

One of the many villages along the river

The boat stopped as we approached the first lock on the river. We went on to the deck and looked at the river. Angus came over, he had been reading an excerpt of Paul Theroux’s upcoming book on sailing China. Theroux saw bodies in the water here. Sure enough, we looked down into the water and there were bodies. An adult male, swollen, discolored and bloated. A baby, that looked liked a tossed doll but for the torn flesh. Upstream, in the head waters of the Yangtze, water burial (much like the sky burial of my post on Tibet) was still in practice. Were these the bodies of burial or accident? We didn’t know.

Still cold along the river
a lock on the river
The entrance to the Three Gorges
After three days on the river we had passed through the Three Gorges. When the river widened, and became more crowded with commerce, it became boring. Rather than sail for another two days to Shanghai, we got off at Wuhan and had a wonderful time exploring the city. But that is after all, another adventure.

Travel Classics: The Other Side of the Mountains

We are moving to Kathmandu this year, but a long time ago in 1985, we were just on the other side of the massive Himalayas: Tibet. It was an adventure. Travel to Tibet had just opened to foreigners in our last spring in Beijing. We flew from Beijing to Chengdu, and then another flight to Lhasa. We flew in a newish Boeing 707, odd for the time, it was not one of the ubiquitous old Antonov or Ilyushin aircraft left over from the better times of the Sino-Soviet relationship

Over the Mountains

The flight was only part of the journey. We landed on an airfield that was only a runway and a small cabin. Everyone piled into buses for the 4+ hour ride to Lhasa.

The engine was easy to remove to “fiddle” with the carburetor while driving

The road was just a direction that the bus moved in over a barren wasteland of stone and gravel. Other buses and trucks moved in parallel to our journey. We forded rivers which in the wet season would have been problematic.

River crossing

We passed vehicles broken down, or stuck in soft soil. I remember in particular one bus stuck in sand. All of the passengers were out of the bus,

pulling on a rope as we passed. They were laughing! They too were part of the adventure of travel to Tibet.

A long journey requires a toilet break. Men to the right, women to the left.
It felt as though we had been traveling forever along the river plain. The dust, the smells, the constant hack and spit of our fellow travelers, when finally we rounded a bend and Linda said, “There it is! The Potalla!”
The Potala Palace
The Potala Palace, the traditional home of the Dalai Lama. An icon of Tibet  and it’s religion. However all I could say was “I’m blind.” 

All I could see was a pinpoint, a small clear hole in the darkness. At 14000ft, I clearly had altitude sickness. At the bus depot, Linda helped me put on my backpack and led me down a long road to the best accommodations in town, a little guest house with 4-5 people per room. She worried, and I slept for a day. The next day I was ready to go after a quick bath. 

The bath was much better than the toilet….
We returned to the Potala Palace and I was able to see it this time. We toured the various monasteries and temples, spinning the prayer wheels in the crowds of pilgrims. The pilgrims prostrated themselves as they approached the holy sites, moving a small stone to mark their progress each time they flatten themselves on the path. Their skin was burnt by the high altitude sun and the hair literally crawled with vermin as we crowded together through the holy landmarks.

In preparation for the journey I had read a National Geographic article on Lhasa. There was picture of a rock outside of town where the Tibetans performed “Sky Burial” at dawn. From the rooftop of our guesthouse I could see far-off in the distance, a rock similar to the one in the article. The next morning I got up at 4am and walked in the same general direction I had marked the day before. About 90 minutes later I came to the rock. There were 3 bodies, and about a dozen other travelers, some of whom were Chinese. When the Tibetans arrived, they took out their knifes and chased the Chinese away. The western foreigners were allowed to stay so long as we kept the cameras in our bags. Two of the Tibetans were young boys, no more than twelve. They were given the task of burning clothes and hair, and of smashing the bones into powder with a large stone. The elder of the group started at the foot of the first individual and flayed the flesh from the bones. It was very quiet in the early morning. The thump thump thump of the stone against stone, ripping of cloth, and the scrap of knife on bone, filled the air otherwise devoid of sound. When the carver reached the viscera, he would, like a modern TV medical examiner, hold up what he thought was the cause of death. The bulbous bladder, the dark liver, and the black lung. It was at this point that foreigners started collapsing, overcome by the gore of the moment. I came close to doing the same at the cracking of the skull. When they were finished, the blood was mixed with the bone powder, the hair and the clothes were in ashes. The carver lifted a handful of flesh and flung it into the air. Then there were birds! I had not noticed them before, but now they filled the sky. Ravens and buzzards, they swooped down to grab the flesh, fighting over large pieces they flew up with scraps dangling over our heads. I had understood that it was ok to film this, and reached for my camera. As I was pulling out the camera, I realized I had a bloody knife against my stomach. One of the young Tibetan boys held it there and shook his head with a universal “no.” I got the message and put the camera away. 

I did have the camera out for a walk though the market in Lhasa. Enjoy: 

Leaving Lhasa

We are fairly hardy travelers, but after 5 days in Lhasa, we flew to Chengdu, took a flight in first class to Shanghai, and went to the best hotel in town…. but that is another story!

Travel Classics: On the Wall with Angus

Long before the internet, we were travelers. Since those tales were not recorded in a blog, I decided to start a series within this blog called “Travel Classics” with some stories from the pre-blogosphere. No doubt I could start a new blog and paraphrase Buckaroo Banzai with: “Remember; no matter where you went, there you were.”It also helps to fill in this blog with nostalgia to compensate for those weekends when we didn’t do anything more exciting than watch an entire season of Justified. However it was a great season!

In 1983, Linda and I were hired by the nascent International School of Beijing. We were half of the first overseas teachers brought in, the other half were Angus and Carol. It was, and continues to be a great friendship. Together with our other friends, John (head of the school) and Susan, we would often travel to the Ming Tombs for a picnic lunch, followed by a late afternoon on the Great Wall.

The tour buses followed the opposite itinerary, and in the late afternoon we had the Wall to ourselves. It was also the trip we would take our visitors.

Brothers John and Bill

Some we would take them up to the far un-refurbished parts of the wall.

Even if they were suffering from jetlag like my brother below. Here, being told a story by Angus: