IF THIS RIVER ran past nothing but 3,900 miles of low, lumpy hills and muddy banks, it would still be an unsurpassed wonder. It stretches farther than any others but the Nile and the Amazon, and lies so wide in some stretches that Marco Polo lost credibility when he reported to the Europeans that a man could stand on one shore and not see the opposing bank. On or near the Yangtze's edges, more than 350 million people reside - a third of China's population and, roughly, one in every 15 human beings on the planet.
The river's tortured, silt-brown path is strewn with sampans, barges and ferries carrying coal, fruit, rocks, cows and people in very nearly unthinkable volumes. It's the world's longest Main Street. In the slow lanes, amid litter, swim rare dolphins. On the shoulders perch ancient pagodas. At one end lies the East China Sea; at the other, Tibet.
Follow the river upstream from its wide, commerce-choked mouth near Shanghai, and it rises from broad plains to terraced hills dotted with straw-hatted peasants whose farms tilt at what seem like 45-degree angles. Then come dense, grimy towns and a rusting, overloaded ferry. The sound of chisels breaking rock on shore rings across the water.
Then, in the Yangtze's middle reaches, a mist descends. When it thins, the river has evolved again and the brown currents now mediate a staring match between stone-faced canyon walls. A thousand feet high. Two thousand feet, with ancient inscriptions etched in the rock and 2,000-year-old coffins wedged into caves halfway up. Throughout a 125-mile stretch known as Three Gorges, the Yangtze gathers gaping Westerners in antlike congregations on the Astroturf decks of their cruise ships.
Over the next two decades, if China's leaders have their way, a 600-foot-high dam will rise amid the Three Gorges. The river's currents, newly harnessed, are to generate more hydro-electric power than any dam in history, reducing the dependence on inefficient coal-burning that has cursed much of China with abysmal air quality. For more than 350 miles above the dam, water levels will rise as much as 300 feet, forcing an estimated 1.2 million villagers to relocate, putting countless ancient villages and landmarks under water.
These plans have set off a round of international debate over environmental risk, energy policy and the right of industrialized nations such as the United States to meddle in China's affairs. The pleasant irony here for Chinese tourism officials is that a trickle of Western tourism on the Yangtze is growing into something like a torrent: The dam deadline seems to have motivated American tourists more than any ad campaign could have, and these days the Yangtze stands alongside Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and Guilin as among the top stops on Chinese itineraries.
Though just 2 1/2 years old, the Yangtze Paradise looked at least 10. My single cabin was a tidy cubicle with a 180-degree view of the river, a private balcony, a rust-stained and wrinkled carpet, a tiny desk, a toilet and shower. The swimming pool on the top deck was dry, and remained so for the next five days. A few paces to the fore, someone had laid out a minigolf course, which also remained idle.
It fell to the cruise director, an earnest, adept, multilingual 25-year-old named Ben Chen, to reconcile 63 American passengers and 67 Asians to the ship. He did well.
The dining room offered Western breakfasts, but otherwise stuck to a satisfying range of Chinese fare: fried shrimp, sweet-and-sour pork, mushrooms, cucumbers, various greens, dumplings, cabbage, rolls.
The river: Barges and sampans, sliding past low on the water. Apartment buildings and industrial sites towering and groaning on the banks. The dense order of green row crops. Boatmen in straw hats. Cargoes of coal and oranges. And haze, enduring even through the warm midday hours. An hour on the …