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…

The Viking Emerald from the Condé Nast Traveler
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.

The “honey-pot” filled with human waste

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
Still cold 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.

a lock on the river
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.
The entrance to the Three Gorges

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