Journey into Middle Kingdom

Ted Alan Stedman

On a river journey that’s barely begun, I already feel centuries and miles removed. I awoke in Shanghai, a sky-scraping megalopolis of 13 million flaunting China’s capitalistic prowess. Now, as evening settles in, I’m shuffling along ancient stone pathways amid a hodgepodge of wooden shops and rickety canal guesthouses in Wuzhen, a whimsical water world 2,000 years in the making.

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Wuzhen is the epicenter of ancient water towns along the Yangtze River delta, and my first shore excursion during a nine-day river cruise from Shanghai to Chongqing. Like China’s own Venice, the Xizha (west) district is hemmed by canals and drips with sights, sounds and aromas that hearken back to its days as a Qing Dynasty silk producer. Artful stone bridges, alluring courtyards and workshops producing soy and silk appear as they did centuries ago in this self-described “living fossil of ancient Oriental civilisation.”

Without garish signs or noisy traffic, Wuzhen’s charms are subtle. I sip tea in the glow of oil lamps at a quaint guest house while elders banter in front of shops run by their adult children. On the main waterway, a parade of skiffs with colorful lanterns glides silently. It’s a charming snippet of pre-industrial China – precisely what I was hoping for during my 1,400-mile Yangtze journey.

The world’s third-longest waterway flows 3,900 miles from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea. It’s been the backbone of the Middle Kingdom’s water transport system for thousands of years, coursing through 18 provinces and connecting 700-some tributaries. Heading west, the Yangtze’s lower section seems beyond immense, like the Mississippi multiplied three-fold. The cappuccino-colored river flows leisurely through a flat landscape where centuries of sampans and crossing barges have given way to mammoth freighters and bridges.

In Nanjing, I explore the famed 600-year-old city wall designed during the Ming Dynasty. The brickwork is remarkably intact with a recipe using cooked rice and lime, “Why the city wall has stood for so long,” explains my guide. That’s also helped preserve inscriptions on individual bricks considered important cultural relics. Running my fingers over their forms, I learn two calligraphy styles were used: one by scholars and officials, the other by artisans and workers. Throughout six dynasties, characters gradually developed into elegant symbols traced to today’s modern Chinese.

From Xuanwu Gate, I drop into the ancient city’s busy Old Town district and jostle down a crowded promenade of shops, cafes and artisan cubbyholes along the Qinhuai River. To discover the centerpiece here, look no further than the adoring Chinese tourists flocking to Fuzi Miao, the famous Confucius Temple built in 1034 that serves as the seat of Confucius study. In the nearby Dacheng Hall, 38 exquisite panels of jade, gold and silver illustrate the life of Confucius, while his large bronze statue gazes with a pensive smile.

River miles on the Yangtze reveal a country in transition. Waves of scenery alternate between sprawling rice farms, shanty towns and commercial ports. But storied sights are never far. On day three I visit Jiuhuashan, the “Mountain of the Nine Lotuses” considered a sacred place for Buddhist pilgrims. This is the panorama known to any armchair visitor – a succession of 72 turreted peaks approaching 6,000 feet, cloaked by the distinctive broad Hwangshan pines that have inspired so many influential Chinese landscape painters. Walking the steep terraced stone trails is like stepping into their paintings, with an enchanting vista at every turn. True to its “Sea of Clouds” reputation, though, the mountain gradually becomes enveloped by a mercurial fog that glows pink from the setting sun.

There’s feigned apprehension aboard on day six as Yichang appears off the bow. This economic centerpiece of western Hubei Province marks the entrance to the San Xia (Three Gorges): Xiling, Wu and Qutang. The Three Gorges are the most scenic section of the navigable Yangtze, a 75-mile steep-walled corridor that historically claimed one in 20 boats with its treacherous rapids and shoals. But with 18 years and plenty of Chinese audacity, the river was “tamed” by the controversial $59 billion dam project in 2009, altering land and lives with a 3,861-square-mile canyon reservoir. Flood control and clean energy vs. relocation of 1.5 million people and ecological loss? Pros and cons are widely discussed. What’s clear for the 60-plus commercial vessels operating along the Yangtze: at 607 feet tall and 1.8 miles wide, Three Gorges Dam has become another highlight – certainly the most imposing of the journey.

After sailing 40 miles through narrow Xiling Gorge to the Three Gorges Dam ship locks, we emerge and continue into Wu Xia (Witches Gorge), where steep cliffs with mist-covered summits rise 3,200 feet to block nearly all sunlight.

At Wushan, I embark on a smaller vessel into the Daning River’s dramatic “Three Little Gorges,” a zigzagging 31-mile journey through a chasm of natural beauty and historic artifacts. In Dragon Gate we see remnants of the Ancient Plank Road chiseled 50 feet above the river. In Misty Gorge the scenery transforms from terraced hillsides to rocky peaks and caves, including Fairy Maiden Cave. On a long, layered formation said to resemble a dragon, a 2,000-year-old relic appears: the Iron Coffin, made of wood that’s turned black with age, suspended in a shallow alcove seemingly impossible to reach. When we enter Emerald Gorge, the water takes on an almost neon hue while the broadened slopes are verdant green and home to chattering Rhesus monkeys.

Two more river days are filled with prominent sights. White Emperor City, a refuge for nascent kings and poets, sits stoic and regal overlooking the western end of spectacular Qutang Gorge. Fengdu, the “Ghost City” dedicated to Chinese mythology, captivates with its shrines, temples and monasteries on Ming Mountain. Then, quite suddenly and anticlimactic, the journey ends in Chongqing and our cruising entourage peers one last time at the river, then each other, before scattering.

As I did at the journey’s beginning, I carouse the corridors of the journey’s end. Think of Chongqing as China on steroids. The hazy mountain town has swelled to an astonishing 33 million people and serves as the seat of central government for 27 counties and cities. But its enclaves seem a world removed from its concrete high rises. I visit the zoo and see its most famed residents, the giant pandas that have caretakers ecstatic with their successful breeding. The city’s old town district, Ci Qi Kou (Porcelain Village), is wonderfully intact, and I wander for hours taking in the traditional shops and sampling exotic foods (fried grubs?) along the crowded flagstone pathways.

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A fitting conclusion to my trip is a short drive to the Dazu Rock Carvings, a World Heritage Site containing some 30,000 beautiful statues from the 9th to 13th centuries carved along a limestone cliff face. The exquisite, colorful figures meander for 1,000 feet and depict an epic journey chronicling Chinese history and religious beliefs.

“To understand China you must travel from past to present,” my be-speckled guide says from beneath his long Fu Manchu. “It’s much like your journey on the Yangtze.” I couldn’t agree more.

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