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,
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 Yangtze, and a stranger can
take it for granted. …