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Cruising the Yangzi River, where old meets new

Tracking upstream on the mighty Yangzi, Richard Cooke observes the confluence of old and new.

A junk on Longjin Stream
Like gods and criminals, the Yangzi River has many names, some of them aliases, none of them definitive. In China it's thought of as two rivers rather than one: the Golden Sand River begins at the glaciers of Tibet and trickles to the city of Yibin, then the Long River flows the rest of the way to Shanghai. It is too long then even for the name Long River. Excessively big is the standard scale in China, where the taxi ranks stretch to the horizon, the apartment blocks look like cities, and the cities look like worlds. One in 16 of the Earth's population live in its watershed. The Yangzi can drown you just with its statistics.
The view of the Yangzi from Yichang.
Our introduction to the world's third longest river is deceptively humble - at the city of Yichang, 1100 kilometres west of Shanghai and known locally as a kind of crossroads between road and river. It is an unmemorable place, apart from a cliff-hanger restaurant serving salamander, and seems to be built out of empty blocks of flats. (There are still enough inhabited blocks to house four million people, though.) Travellers don't linger, but instead board a boat and head upstream through the narrowest and most famous section of the Yangzi. They want to see the Three Gorges, and their man-made nemesis, the Three Gorges Dam.
The walkway to Fenweng clifftop
I have to admit when I first heard of the Three Gorges, I pictured three riverbeds side by side, separated by mountains, like water streaming through fingers. Instead they come one after another, rising and falling (mainly rising) along hundreds of kilometres of riverside. Most sightseeing ships dawdle in the Gorges for a day or two, making side trips to tributaries and shore temples, then head against the current to Chongqing. This municipality carved out of Sichuan province is famous for its spicy food and forthright locals, and has ballooned into something of a megacity; it has a population of 30 million people - nearly two-thirds of whom are in the urban centre and surrounds - and more than 10,000 hotpot restaurants, which are said to never go out of business.
Our ship, the Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer, will be taking the Yichang-to-Chongqing route over four nights. Not long ago, the only luxury boat on the river was the one specially fitted out to Chairman Mao's wife's specifications, and until the 1980s there were still wooden junks being hauled by gangs of trackers- human tugboats fighting the rapids with thick bamboo ropes and poles. Untold numbers of people have travelled this stretch over millennia, few under power and even fewer in comfort. This was once one of the most dangerous river voyages in the world, and the journey that will take us three days used to take more than a month.
A ceremonial house decorated for a Tujia wedding
Before it was tamed by dynamite and damming, the Yangzi was shallow and fast and littered with underwater rocks and shoals. Its worst stretches had whirlpools that smashed wooden boats so hard into rocks they exploded, and, apart from the steady ropes of the trackers, only good fortune could prevent disaster. Before boats embarked on certain stretches of the river, a shaman-sailor would arrive on board with a flag reading "Powers of the waters, give a lucky star for the journey". There's no such crew member when we set off, which is encouraging; so, too, is the Explorer's workaday exterior - its metal hull, tiered cabins and blue-and-white livery is unmistakably that of a Chinese riverboat.
Its interior, refurbished last year, is a different story: there's a serene six-room spa, a two storey theatre, and stylish peony-themed cabins with bright silk cushions and a swooning chair by the window. The bow suites are fitted in Chinese colonial style, with artfully arranged ceramic collections and desks fit for calligraphy. There's a library of Chinese classics and a restaurant serving buffet breakfast (the superior congee becomes my staple) and lunch. Dinners are à la carte, with Western and local dishes, and while the Sichuan spices are tempered for non-Chinese tastes, they still bring grateful tears to the eyes. An observation deck doubles as a terrace for morning tai chi sessions, and each of the 62 cabins and suites has enough space in which to salute the sun. The finest extravagance, however, is the simplest: every room has a balcony, and that private view of the river is the dress circle in the imagination of billions of people.
The Jade suite on the Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer
We stay anchored overnight at Yichang, set sail in the morning, and are among the spurs and mountain folds of the first gorge almost immediately. It's called the Xiling, and was once the most hazardous. "It is said every stone here has a name," says our guide, Willie, leading the commentary from the observatory deck, and the gorges are thick with allusions and metaphors and mythologies that have silted them over thousands of years. The major formations are poetically named: Horse Lung and Ox Liver; Military Books and Precious Sword; Soundless Bell; and the Shadow Play. They are the unmistakable elements of Chinese art, and in places where the sun has not lifted the morning mist off the horizon yet, the Xiling Gorge looks like an ink painting on ivory silk. Forested peaks rise from the fog, then disappear back into the wash of light.
A junk sailing through the village of the Tribe of the Three Gorges.
Just off the Xiling is the site of our first shore trip, the Tribe of the Three Gorges at Longjin Stream. The Yangzi has more than 700 tributaries, many polluted by industry, but this one is fed by water from a spring high in the mountains and runs clear and jade-coloured. The Tribe of the Three Gorges experience is run by the Tujia people, an officially recognised minority long associated with this area. They operate a tourist village, and most of the touristsare domestic. Han Chinese people are fascinated by minorities, especially those with colourful traditional dress and melancholic love songs. The Tujia qualify, but then so do most of China's 55 official tribes, so it is their marriage traditions that set them apart - they practise "crying marriages", where the brides weep with increasing frequency for up to three months before the ceremony. "Don't catch a bouquet, or you'll be stuck here three years," warns our guide Yin, herself a Tujia woman.
Tujia people perform a traditional wedding ceremony.
The tableau around the stream is stagy but somehow moving: girls washing bolts of silk, fishermen tending cantilevered nets and fishing cormorants, boatmen anonymous under straw hats pushing rafts to nowhere in particular; the sound of nasal singing coming from a bamboo hut. Life must have looked like this once, although most villagers have moved on because of the dam; only one family of hold-outs has stayed. "Of course, we don't quite do things this way any more," says Yin. "Nowadays the bride only cries for a week."
Back on the Explorer I become a fixture on the balcony, watching life as it is now along the Yangzi. It's a working river, sometimes a tough river, and its flow starts to feel like the drive of a massive engine, pushing China into modernity. Coal barges constantly putt by, pouring water. Cable-stayed bridges, sometimes in duplicate or triplicate, carry freight and high-speed trains. The first Yangzi bridge was completed in 1957, and now there are more than 100 major bridges, making up for lost time.
No bridge can match the fame of the Three Gorges Dam, though. We are closing in on it now, one of the largest megastructures in the world, something prophesised as much as planned. Everyone from Sun Yat-sen to Mao foresaw it, so building it became a political inevitability, if not an engineering one. The general feeling is that the environmental destruction and community dislocation wrought by this massive thing just have to be ridden out. There are whole emptied towns beneath our ship, homes and fields and archaeological sites - underwater worlds that used to house more than a million people.
The Three Gorges Dam
We disembark to take a closer look, bussing across yet another bridge. The dam is vast and wide but from this distance not so very tall, even with fishermen at the breakwall for height contrast. We can't get close, and instead stand in a drab park while Max, our guide, recites damming factoids until some passengers get fidgety. A nearby museum full of dioramas of turbines barely hints at the controversies surrounding the river's yoking. There is only triumph. "My old home is underwater," Max says afterwards. "Sometimes I feel nostalgia." Others say it is supposed to stop floods and generate electricity, and may not do either very well.
The true immensity of the Three Gorges Dam somehow doesn't translate until that evening when, back on board, we pass through its locks to get upstream. The process takes hours, and I sit on the observation deck and watch from beginning to end. There's an audience for the first transition, but it dwindles as it gets late. There's something compelling about it, though, and this basin of concrete with slick walls is so massive it starts to feel like a gorge itself.
As the final gate opens, a klaxon sounds, and we slip into the matt black sky. Until this point, most of the boat traffic around us has been industrial, the only concession to beauty some potted trees and Chinese flags on the bridge. Looking back at the dam's rim now I can see clusters of pleasure craft clad in galaxies of neon lights.
A viewing platform in the Xiling Gorge area.
These ships, like ours, are here to see the Wu Gorge. The Wu's 12 famous peaks are a pantheon of gods and monsters, dominated by Goddess Peak. It's not hard to have cases of mistaken identity in the gorges. Willie will draw attention to an imminent "elephant's head", you'll find something that looks just like an elephant's head, and then slowly realise you're looking at the wrong peak.
The Goddess is unmistakable, though - a huge, high natural statue, standing in state among the clouds. "No one climbs it twice," says Willie, and tells us with pride how many touring parties he has led there, and how many have turned back because it's too steep. It's easy to believe the Wu Gorge is supernatural because its scale is so inhuman, dwarfing pagodas, and so sheer that every plant has to cling on to life.
Corn drying for liquor making
There are still places where you can make out stone worn down by footsteps, and nicks and grooves cut into rocks by the thick bamboo lines that once dragged ships through the Gorges. These are the remains of thousands of years of arduous labour by the trackers. There's a proverb that "if the Yangzi has a soul, it is the boat trackers on the Three Gorges", and once past the Wu we jump ship, catching a smaller boat into another tributary, the Shennong Stream. This is one of the few places where the "souls" still work in the old way, even if it is just for show.
There's one merciful concession to the present, though: these trackers, also Tujia men, work fully dressed. In the past, they worked naked so their clothes wouldn't catch and drag them under, but pulling tourists is less arduous, and more respectable. They're working with small wooden pea-pod boats, not junks, pulled by teams of four, not teams of 50, but you can still see the strain of bamboo hawsers and sinews across ageing backs, and the precariousness of sandals slipping on high paths. The valley here is narrow enough to make songs echo, and up on a cliff is an ancient wooden coffin. It's believed to hold a nobleman of the mysterious Ba people, and no one knows how it got up so high.
The men working Shennong are probably the last of the real trackers, and there's a sense of loss in seeing a custom that has survived thousands of years reduced to the lifetime of an old man. The former river life can't be too romanticised, though - the expression "the road to Sichuan is harder than the road to heaven" masked real brutality, and boat labourers would spend their money on booze and then suck stones fried in numbing chilli instead of eating. The buffet lunch back on board is taken in extra gratitude.
Wonton noodle soup on board the Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer
Our own journey is almost complete; the Explorer is approaching the end of the Gorges. The last is the Qutang, centred on the so-called Dragon's Gate, a spectacular scene that features on the 10-yuan banknote. The limestone cliffs here are whorled like fingerprints, though the dam has diminished their drama somewhat. "When the winter water was 80 metres lower, the tops of the gorges were not visible from boats," says Willie. Still, even the abridged version is otherworldly.
The cities are coming faster now as we approach Chongqing; there are relocation villages and refineries, even men swimming in the river on orange buoys. We pass a phenomenally ugly town, centred on two massive concrete tower blocks, like tombstones to town planning, and it has giant characters yelling its name from signage. The translation, I'm told, is Poetry City. The river is starting to smell like numbing chilli, and you can make out the sound of faraway car horns.
The streets of Fengdu.
The last of our shore trips is to the town of Fengdu, where some archaeological sites have been maintained and more have been rebuilt. (Time can be hard to gauge in China: an "ancient" temple often turns out to be a 10-year-old reproduction.) Fengdu is known as the City of Ghosts, and, according to Taoist legend, is where the King of Hell lives. There's a huge head of the Jade Emperor here, up the hill, and someone turns and asks, "Is that Donald Trump?", as though he were the King of Hell everyone was talking about.
We skip the temple and head into town, where porters still carry loads with rods and ropes, and men sell lychees from panniers on their back. The dentists work in the street, and the schoolchildren yell out in English. Every second person seems to be carrying a baby; the one-child policy, it seems, has become a two-child policy.
We're invited into one of the relocation homes, where a woman with felt red peppers hanging on her wall answers questions about her new life. No, she doesn't miss her old life. Yes, they are doing well - her son drives an Audi. I ask how she feels about living in the City of Ghosts. "I never thought about it," she says. There's a long pause as she contemplates the question. "How do you feel about visiting the City of Ghosts?" she asks finally. There's general assent that we like it very much.
On the final morning the mist is rising from the river, and I decide to stay on the balcony rather than join the tai chi class on the top deck. Our pace feels slower, perhaps because the head-current has quickened, and just off the bank a fishing boat is struggling. Across the water a woman's voice carries, singing a high-pitched, lilting melody. It must be a boatwoman's song, I think, and the scene seems eternal, this unchanging Yangzi, coursing from the deep past all the way into the future. And then I realise that the song is coming from the TV in the cabin above me.