Memories: On The Yangtze

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

In 1989, just weeks before the Chinese government breakdown on the Democracy movement, I bought passage on a Yangtze river boat from Shanghai to Chongqing – a distance of more than a thousand miles. For the next six days, life came to a near-standstill as the slow, steady rhythm of the boat’s progress brought me from the coast of the Yellow Sea to the foothills of the Himalayas. Here are some impressions of this trip.

The boat is white and green, the kind of appliance-green you see on old-fashioned fridges, with streaks of rust down its sides. It is a wide-bodied river boat with three passenger decks and multiple classes and it runs a regular service all the way from Shanghai to Chongqing and back.

There are two-bed cabins on the upper deck, which are mostly full of elderly men that look like Communist Party officials that had, a lifetime ago, personally participated in the Long March. Facing the bow of the boat is a first-class lounge with deep armchairs and small side tables and large windows to the front and the sides. The bridge of the boat is above the lounge.

The main deck consists of eight-bed cabins on each side of the boat with a central corridor and gangways on the outside, so each cabin of four bunk beds has two doors, one to the central corridor and one to the outside of the boat. The cabins have a small sink, two huge thermos bottles with hot water that are regularly filled by the staff and two small rotating fans under the ceiling that push the air around without any actual improvement of the air quality.

The main deck also houses the ship’s restaurant near the stern – an open-walled affair with a few seats and a microscopic kitchen that churns out a never-ending stream of styrofoam boxes with rice and spicy veggies.

The lower deck consists of several large dormitories with dozens of bunk beds and every space in between filled with random freight and luggage, from live chickens in wire cages to unwieldy car parts.

We – the only three foreigners on a boat with some two hundred passengers – are together in one of the 8-bed cabins, providing an exciting international flair to an otherwise boring boat ride to our five Chinese cabin mates.

You know that you have reached the Yangtze river when the choppy grey-blue water of the Pacific turns yellow. It’s a sudden, sharp separation of the two bodies of water – here, grey salt water; there, yellow river water. The boat passes the line without any measurable motion. It looks like you should feel a bump.

Other than that, there is no indication that we are now on the river, only a few hours after leaving Shanghai behind. There is no land in sight in any direction, the mouth of the Yangtze is dozens of miles wide, dotted with water craft of all descriptions.

After almost a day on the river we can now consistently see the southern shore to our left. The river is so wide, that we haven’t seen much of the the northern shore yet at all.

We will arrive in Nanjing, our first port of call on the river, in another hour and suddenly there is an air of excitement. Many passengers seem to be leaving us there, I’m wondering why they preferred the slow boat to the train, although a look at their huge amounts of luggage may be the answer.

The boat stops on average twice a day at various towns and cities along the Yangtze. It’s a loud and exciting spectacle, with passengers lining up along the gangway, many of them dragging their luggage along in preparation to leave the boat. Others have just come out to watch and maybe to buy food from the vendors along the shore.

The crew has been doing this for many years every day and the boat approaches the shore rapidly with short economical bursts from the massive engines in the stern. Ropes are thrown to the dock crew and tied down within seconds, the boat pushes against the row of old tires along the edge of the dock, a crunching sound, a quick burst from the horn and the engines shudder to a stop.

Passengers that have reached their destination leave the boat seconds after it is tied down, and a stream of new passengers is lining up to board. At the same time dozens of food vendors push against the side of the boat, praising their wares in high pitched yells. There are apples and oranges, fresh dumplings and packages of instant noodles, boiled eggs and fresh bread.

To buy their wares the passengers point at a specific item from their high vantage point on the boat, or maybe shout the name of what they want over the general din of the dock. The vendors will sign the price with their fingers and then lift a very long wooden pole with a cup to receive the money. Once the money is safe in their hands, they raise the goods in a small basket.

Many of the towns along the river are heavily industrialized, with large factories and chemical plants that are invariably topped by huge clouds of dark smoke. At one point, not far from Wuhan, we see a chemical plant crowned by smoke in nearly all the colors of the rainbow.

The Yangtze Gorges are very impressive, but the weather isn’t very good and the tops of the mountains to either side are often covered in heavy clouds. We get a few breathtaking glimpses of cliffs along the river that are easily half a kilometer high. Through the narrow passages the massive river runs fast and deep and the engines have to work hard to push the boat upstream.

Small towns are built into narrow, steep side valleys along this part of the river, with buildings that look like they were glued to bare rocks just above the Yangtze waters. Many of the buildings are ancient, with new, ugly concrete structures poking out here and there.

Chongqing is a huge, hectic metropolis cut into sections by the two massive rivers that merge in its center. It is a confusing city with steep hills and narrow, windy streets that follow the contours of the river valleys. The air is humid and sits heavy and merely semi-translucent over the river. Many of the buildings feel dark and everything seems to be dripping with moisture.

After a week on a small boat slowly trawling upstream, the street scenes feel frenetic with an unbound energy, a strange contrast to the brooding cityscape around us.

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