Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

April 25 - May 25 2005 / China: The New, The Old

The Yangtze, Beijing, Xian--and the Far, Far West
Part 1 -Getting There, and the Yangtze River Trip

Part 1 -Getting There, and the Yangtze River Trip

Gobbled up and chewed up and at long last spit out by the twists and snares of the transportation system, we arrive at long last in CHINA.

At home a soft rain falls from a grey sky, the trees a mist of green.  At Logan airport we sit in white rocking chairs with high backs, looking out on the glistening runway and its early-morning activity.  All the hard work of preparation is done, at last, the careful planning, the packing, the goodbyes, the anxieties--all fade away now as we enter the twining networks of travel. 

We fly to Detroit, where there is a small snowstorm.  It's enough though to require deicing of our big plane, and so we all wait patiently.  Spurts of fluid course down the windows.  I just want to get on with it, get up into the air and start flying west, west, west.

The pilot comes on.  "Well, he says, “things were all going smoothly, but maybe you felt that bump a minute ago?  The deicing truck hit one of the engines, and maintenance is going to come and take a look at it.”

All the anxiety returns of course.  We wait.  At last he comes back on.  It seems there is a hole in the cowling of one of the engines; we must all disembark, all the bags too of course, and wait for another plane. 

That, it turns out, is only the first of our problems...

...instead of Shanghai, we spend a night in Tokyo.  We see a Japanese brindle cat, on the hunt, in the tall grass near the hotel.  We place a call to our travel people in New York; they get busy and we are reassured that after all we may get to catch our river trip.   But I will just skip over all of this!

Finally, finally, and only just in time, we land in China, in Wuhan.   The land is flat, and brown and green.  A smile wells up from inside of me as the plane touches down, and I am here on this land. 

In transit in, Shanghai we are met by a young woman from CITS (China International Travel Service, read: minders)--our names appear at the gate!   It works!  For once I am grateful for Communism-with-Chinese-Characteristics.  She escorts us to our gate.

But Soviet-style, I'm taken away from John to have my bag inspected again.  No, sorry, I can’t open it, my husband has the key.  No, I don't have any glass bottles in there.  After a moment's hesitation, they let me go back and get on the plane.

But of course the bag doesn’t make it.  So even though our names appear again at the gate in Wuhan, we must wait for the bag to appear, and it does.

But not before we eat our first meal in China, with chopsticks, fresh greens and beef with mushrooms and fish with celery and peppers, and lamb and turnip soup, and rice.  In the airport restaurant, plates and plates of this food.  And a glass of Coke. 

Then our hot-ticket young CITS man takes us through Wuhan to the ship, and on the way he and we speak of the religions of China, how Daoism is for the individual, Confucianism is for relationships, and Buddhism is for the afterlife.  How practical it all is, and how Christianity is for the heart and mind, he says.  I say it is a very difficult religion.  He speaks of “distinguished” families (I give him that word) and how even today calligraphy and painting are of deepest importance to educated families.   He is intense and intelligent and I would like to know more of him.  He leans over from the front seat and I lean forward from the back, and we talk urgently.  But we part and I do not even know his name.

All over the world, in every place, there are people who should know each other--and sometimes they meet, but mostly they can never know of the existence of the other. 

So we are greeted, somewhat embarrassingly, at the river boat pier by a band of saxophone and trumpet-playing young women--ship's crew?  As soon as we embark the ship departs; they seem to have waiting for us.  We are led to our little cabin, our bags appear and we put away our stuff, and on deck, in the soft night, the lights of Wuhan spangle the darkness, and the smells of the Third World rise to my nostrils, and I am very, very happy.

We sleep well; you can open the window a little in the cabin, and the sound of river water rushing under our hull, and the moist night air enter the open window.

We go out on deck at 6 am; no one out but us.  The shores are distant, the water is brown, the boat moves swiftly. 

Later this morning the banks come closer, and we see buffaloes, bulls and cows and calves, grazing on the green shores amid the small stands of drooping trees.  On either side are levees, begun well over a thousand years ago.  For people have been traveling this river for countless thousand of years, traveling it, flooded out and killed by it, using it for trade and for escape, for sustenance and adventure, for sorrow and for pleasure. 

The land on either side is flat and flat, the sky rises high and hazy, the sun is hot.  Our captain navigates carefully--there are places where the water seethes and roils.  A woman brushes her teeth at the back of a barge, using a red plastic bowl of water.  We pass a barge piled high with some kind of grain--hay?  Thatching?  And a family, just rising, on the top of the grain pile, a man, his wife and their baby.  They wave to us.  A woman kneels at the side of a barge, lifting and submerging a large cloth that she is washing.   With binoculars, I see how the crews of disastrously-loaded gravel barges have hung their clothing outside their cabin windows.

Ageless, placeless gestures.

Small flat boats with red or white channel markers are anchored to the left and right of the river.    The shoreline is lightly terraced from countless floodings and recedings.

Rivers, rivers of the world.  The first highways, used for generations disappearing into the past.  Humans a restless, curious, daring species, and they travel on the rivers.

Oh goodness, how am I supposed to do this?  To describe this? 

All day, yesterday, we passed by the flat flat land, the rows and rows of planted trees--hundreds and hundreds of thousand of them, all the same age in each stand, and stands of various ages, some tall and thick-trunked and presenting a great wall of green, others mere sticks and twigs rising from the grass.  It seems grass is planted, too--all this as erosion control, but it doesn't work terribly well.  We saw great clots of eroded earth fallen into the river, still thick with grass.

As dusk came, there were many fine tiny scenes along the river bank, a bank trammeled with concrete and blocks of stone, against the floods.  A young man and his girl friend embraced at river's edge.  A man was seen fishing with his friends.  Two women washed clothes.  Small groups or single people herded their buffaloes toward home.  A person, I could not tell which sex, hauled a yoke with buckets at either end, in that half-running step that keeps the buckets from sloshing. 

On the upper deck we have the captain's cocktail party, at which the girl band of saxophonists plays, and pictures are taken and there are glasses of champagne and dubious appetizer things that have been sitting out in the heat.  I hurry about making images of it all.

As night fell, we on the ship drew our curtains, so as to slide through the water darkened, an aid to navigation for us and for those small boats around us. 

This morning soon after we got up, we entered the gorge area, with its narrow canyons and high sides.  Most of the rock is limestone, in crabbed, artistic forms, hung about with trees and ferns and trailing plants of all kinds.  But the air is so hazy, whether with pollution or mist we don't know, but I suspect a bit of each, and more pollution than mist--that all seems grey. 

Here and there up the hillsides I see patches of white, which when I look through the binoculars turn out to be shrines of some sort, with raised platforms of brick or stone, and decorated with tall sticks from which wave triangular sheets of paper, or other small flags.  Our river guide, "Howard," tells us that land, for burial, is at such a premium in the cities that it is a big thing to be able to get a square meter in which to bury your dead.

We go through the dam at Gezhouba Lock.  People including me rush about taking pictures, for it is a remarkable and awesome event.  Our ship crowds in to the dark gates of hell with a number of others, including an orange and green cargo or container ship, empty now except for two chickens pecking about in the open cargo hold area.  The guys in the bridge area regard me with mild interest; their clothes are hung outside the cabin and they've got a small tree in a barrel, too.

We come so close to the walls of the dam that I can smell the dank and rotten odor of the slime.  There have been so many delicious smells on this trip, and I like that one, too.

Then after we've gone through this dam, we approach the huge Three Gorges Dam Project, a boondoggle of mammoth and heart-rending proportions.  One and a half million people are being displaced, their ancestral villages and farms drowned, their dead submerged, their home places now to be forever forgotten. 

The justifications for this are of course to prevent flooding of the Yangtze, to provide electricity (and from what I could see none of the small homes by the side of the river was electrified), and to aid in navigation by flooding the rapids, which made the river quite dangerous. 

All of these goals are certainly important, and the displacement of people is mentioned as a problem (though not really since people here do as they are told), and a few token words about sturgeons--a monstrous huge fish of the river in former days--having a problem, too.

Bu, if you are a naturalist, what you really especially think about is the total destruction of the valley and hillside habitats, the millions of organisms of so many kinds that will be killed.

From microbes to trees, from ants to wild flowers, are they not worth mourning?

And so now as I write, here in the little library and observation room, we're first in line to get through the first of the five locks of the Three Gorges Dam Project, or the Great Three Gorges Dam Project, as they call it here.

But those butterflies and those grasses, and those places of labor, dreams and friends, are they not to be mourned?

On our passage through the four locks we became intimate with the boat next to us, virtually touching us--a horribly decrepit "tour" boat filled with Chinese families--and two tiny lifeboats.  I'll remember the mother with infant twins, and the teenage lovers, and the old lady in her black pajamas, and the young men eyeing us surreptitiously, and the one fine-looking serious man, who took pictures.  What oh what is his life??
Later, after dinner, we go out on deck in the thick night.  On either side there are scattered lights punctuating the black, here and there, startlingly, a car light sweeps through the night and disappears.  Again I have that feeling I have had before, of ineffable sadness, to know that my life has intersected with another’s, unknown to that other, he in his car on the dark road, I on the deck of a ship flowing past him, and he does not know he is being watched, and thought of.  I have thought that while flying over villages in other faraway places, a tiny dotting of faint lights below me…

The torment of places of which you can never be a part.

I slept very poorly last night; around two o'clock I woke up and realized that we weren't moving.  For some reason this was disturbing, and I never got back to sleep.  I knew we weren't moving because I could hear land sounds: a dog barking all night, once in a while a car horn, and nearer morning, someone banging on metal pipes, and, finally, roosters crowing followed by, unmistakably, fireworks!

At 6 a. m. in fact a whole string of fireworks bang! Bang! Bang!    So I got up.  Never did find out what the fireworks were for.

Right after breakfast everyone boards a ferry and we set off up one of the Lesser Gorges, on the Shengnong Stream; the sides close in around us quickly, and there are fantastic scenes: sheer cliffs reaching so high I must look straight up to see to the tops; a two thousand year old wooden coffin rammed into a cleft in the rock; a gathering of rhesus monkeys at a feeding area; black butterflies; and, in places where the land opens out enough, terraces to the top of the sky, edged with rock walls and planted in a crazy quilt of colors and textures.

Here and there, below the cliff towers, a small person labors, or two women wash clothes at water's edge, a peapod boat on shore or coursing the water with us.

This gorge has also been flooded, of course, as has everything on this side of the dam, and the ferry goes as far as it can upstream, a lot farther than it could have until a few years ago, and then we are turned over to the peapod boats.

It's a fine scene, there at the place of the peapod tourist boats.  There must be at least a dozen or more boats, their crews lounging and watching with amusement and doubtless rude comments as fifteen of us are loaded into each boat, with a young lady guide and a 6-man boat team. 

We sit two by two on folding wooden seats.  There's a boat guide in the bow of the boat, and three men to paddle in front, and two in the back, and in the very back, the rudderman.   They are in various stages of undress (they used to paddle naked, and that would have been quite a sight as each one has an elegant body indeed).    They paddle us upstream through a narrow slit in the rocks.  The paddles are no more than five or six inches wide, just crude sticks really.  Our charming guide Iris, an ethnic   Tujia (the Chinese government proudly refers to the fifty-six “minorities” of China), tells us about the life here.   I wonder about her life, is this a good job?  How did she learn to do it?  What does she hope for?  What are the trackers (the paddlers) to her?

When the water becomes too shallow to paddle, the boatmen leave the boat and attach themselves to a bamboo rope harness, four to a rope, and they PULL us up the stream, following an ancient rocky track alongside the water.   Although this is for the tourists now, it’s the way it was done here in the past, and not only here in this narrow gorge but also on the great Yangtze river itself.  Later today we see remnants of ancient tracks along the big river, most of them now of course submerged.

You can see where they disappear into the drowning water...

Anyhow, our trackers do their job well.  At length the stream widens out a bit, just enough so that all the boats can turn around, and we start back downstream, past where the trees nearly meet over our heads.  And then there is the ferry, and then back we go, past the old coffin, the monkeys, the lovely fields and those whose life is to nurture and harvest them.

I take a long nap, and when I wake up I go out to find these fields spread out on either side, and here and there small people at work in them, below the awesome cliffs.

Just, just as in the finest Chinese paintings.

We see the hideous new towns too, horrible ugly stacks of concrete apartment buildings, and the lovely hills covered over with concrete.

No painter will make pictures of those, no poet will ever celebrate them.

So, for what is it I would mourn?  The lives on the farms were no less complicated than those in the apartment buildings.  The farmers and all their families worked like brute animals from light to light.   

But I mourned for those roosters crowing this morning, up in the back of some concrete apartment house, with a concrete field to peck.

After dinner we go out on deck in the close darkness.   Here and there a tiny light on the hillsides on either side.  Jupiter and Saturn above, a few stars barely visible.  Along a low ridge, a sprinkling of more lights, but although the little town contains quite a few multi-story buildings, only a few of them have more than one light on.  Are the buildings mostly empty?  Do the farmers transplanted to these new houses still go to bed when it gets dark, as they have for generations?  I don't know. 

This morning we have docked at Wanxian,   At water's edge, groups of people, men and women, wash clothes in the river's dirty water.  Just upstream from them are docks with many ferry boats.  Small clots of people swim in the same water. An old lady's got an inner tube around her belly, and she kicks her feet and splashes along in the water with the rest.   I see well-dressed people walking down the great dirt and concrete embankment and hopping onto the ferries, which take off for the other side of the river.  There is a boat filled to sinking with cattle and horses; from the bow and all the interior patient animal faces look out; there's one white horse among them.  A broad ramp guides a funicular to the top of the embankment where the city is, but most people seem to be walking up and down the ten stories or so between the river and the city.   Above the river rise imposing, depressing ranks of grey concrete apartments, their balconies hung with bedding, clothes and plants.  

We are taken on a city tour.  I sit upright, trying to take it all in through the bus windows.  People do stop and stare at the bus, looking to try to see us.  When we get off the bus, some of our people attract giggles and laughter: it seems there are some men on the trip who haven't been told that shorts are quite inappropriate.  I am embarrassed for them.  Although I look dowdy in the extreme, in my floppy stuff, I am certainly modest enough.  Only my shoes attract more than a passing glance, unless I look into someone's eyes, and smile, or just look longer than a split-second.  Then they are surprised, and really look at me:  Oh! that foreigner is a PERSON!

The city is built on the hills that we have seen all along the sides of the river--only here instead of being covered with terraces of green, all is filled with streets, stores, people, towering apartment buildings.  Our guide tells us that these buildings have no elevators--and some of them are at least fifteen stories. 

Our first stop is a silk factory--well, not really.  It's a small demonstration of silk-making, then a bit of a fashion show, with models wearing silk clothing, and then of course the store is the next step. 
One of the models looks like our Iris of the Shengnong, and we find out that her "minority" is also present in this city.   I try on a blouse, and it's pretty, but too expensive for me.

Next stop is a tiny museum about the hanging coffins.  Here I am approached by a young man and woman, practicing their English on me, and, unaware I am with a group, move in to either sell me some "service" or enlist my sympathy (and funds) with a story about being a student, doubtless a poor one.  I am amazed--I've read about this ploy in one of my guide books.

The last stop is the best.  It's a brief show of acrobatics, given by students of a famous school here.  The youngest looks about seven to us.   Their show is charming and impressive, and we all applaud heartily.  We--the passengers of our ship--are the only audience, but it doesn't faze the kids a bit.

Tomorrow we leave this safe cocoon, about a third of the way across China, and start the next, and scariest part of our trip, In Which We Do Beijing On Our Own.

Right now though, we are gliding soundlessly down the river.  J and I are sitting in the library.  One of the crew stands behind me, doing nothing but greeting people as they come in and saying goodbye when they leave.  Four people play bridge, two are writing postcards, one reads, two just sit and look.  On my right outside the brilliant green hills and tiny patchwork fields slide by, trees here and there.  It's very hot and humid out there.  We just get to look at it, but the people who live here have to make their living by working that land.  Do they find it beautiful at all?  Or is that a privilege for those of us who don't have to work it?

I never expected this lushness, this richness of plants, or even the richness of scenes, human scenes. 

That hill over there, shaped like a ziggurat, is terraced to the top.  Most of it will be under water, if we were to come back here in a few years.

But I guess it doesn't matter.  The life will continue.

Before we go to bed, once again we walk slowly around the deck of this little ship, in the humid and fragrant night, looking our last at this timeless and ancient landscape.

Because the water level is too low, our ship can't go all the way to Chongqing, so we stop instead at Fengdu, an enormous city growing like a gathering of mushrooms on one side of the river, the remains of the old city on the opposite bank, soon to be submerged.  They not only tear off the roofs of the houses to be drowned, they also apparently cut down all the trees--so as not to have debris floating in the river.   All along the bank we see old buildings open to the sky. 

While we are eating breakfast our bags are carried up the long stairway to the embankment, where there are waiting buses.  Carried four at a time, these enormous bags, on poles across the shoulders of porters.  I can't help it, I'm sickened by the sight of men working like animals.   How can this be right?  But this is what they do for work. 

As we make our way up the stairs to the buses, ladies try to sell us maps.  Each woman has the same maps to sell, and their hopes are I suppose high but realistic.  I think one of our people buys a map.  You don't dare look at the maps or look into their faces, or they surge forward in hopes of a sale.  Several of them carry their babies on their backs.

So into the buses, and away from the great river.  It's been magical, like time travel.

So we drive for three hours, through small towns and some larger places, and the roads go up and down, up and down, as go the hills on which they lie, and as go the towns they pass through.  Things look pretty prosperous, really.  There are stores of all sorts, and things are neat and clean, and most of the people look healthy and adequately dressed.  The kids are playing around, doing kid things, instantly recognizable.  One kid has a skateboard. 

We notice that not only the little roads, but the major highway is used for walking.  There is almost no vehicular traffic on these multi-laned roads, but there are many people walking.  Where are these small groups going?  A couple of women with two little kids.  A man with a little boy.  A cluster of young women.  A lone older man.  Just walking, slowly, in between towns, though we see no towns on the horizon.    In what places are people living, beyond the road, where we cannot see?

In the little towns, the farms come right to the edges of the houses.  Every inch is cultivated--five rows of corn here, a long narrow plot of rice there.  The low dikes between the rice paddies are planted in corn.  No land goes unplanted.  

Finally to Chongqing, where like clockwork we are met in the mess of buses and taxis by our CITS person, Michael he calls himself, and he takes us to lunch on the way to the airport.  It's a moderately nice restaurant, and because it's May Day and there are lots of weddings on that day, we get to see the bride and groom whose reception is here.   She's radiant in her white western style gown, greeting guests at the entrance, the groom gives out cigarettes to the men and she lights them, her girl friends give out sweets and are in charge of the guest book.  She looks so happy, and he does too. 

We eat our meal with chopsticks successfully (we've been practicing on the ship), all these dishes that just keep coming, and then off to the airport, a very handsome new one, and onto the plane for Beijing.