Up the Yangtze without a Paddle

4 min read

We were on a slow boat to China… actually it was a slow boat in China. Me and the guys were on deck, taking in the steady parade of river traffic - cruise ships like ours, barges and freighters. China was overflowing with the surplus of life. That was when one of the guys spotted the body in the steel grey river. Its human form and face unmistakable. It moved past us with a speed that made no sense, like it had someplace to be. But nobody seemed to notice. Shouldn’t we tell someone?

We were traveling the Yangtze from Shanghai to Nanjing, then to Wushan and all the way to Chongqing. Chongqing. Sound familiar? We used to call it Chun King. Which was also a brand of prepared Chinese Food that many of us grew up with. It was about as authentic to Chinese cuisine as Chun King is to Chongqing.

This was a river cruise and we were here filming for a river cruise company. If you ever want to explore a region without all the packing and unpacking, I suggest a river cruise. Those big ocean liners that berth at port cities only give you the merest taste of a country.

To experience the true innards of a place, you have to travel its arteries. We were traveling the aorta of what used to be called Red China. That was a time when Beijing was called Peking and Chongqing was called… well, we covered that.

I couldn’t make sense of China. It was too big. Too rich. Too poor. Too fast. And now sailing along the Yangtze River… too much. Traveling through China is like time travel. You get glimpses into the beginning of things. And how it all might end.

We sailed past scores of sparkling designer bridges and world-class dams. This river was rising because of these new dams. We saw ancient river villages emptied out, their people relocated because their old, venerable structures would soon disappear under the new, improved river. Then those timeless villages will simply drown for hundreds of years.

There was so much happening on this river I couldn’t catch my breath – that, and the thick pollution taunting us with its fuzzy amber sunsets – all added to the dream world vibe here.

Is this what the future looks like – wealth, dislocation, strange yellow skies…?

Chang Jiang

The Yangtze (or Chang Jiang) River is 4,000 miles long and it’s called the “long river” for a reason. As the guys and I sailed, we saw miles of river bank lined with vast tracts of old world coal. This, in a country that leads the new world in solar energy production.

Nothing here was quite as it appeared. It was like that old Chinese food joke - after gorging on limitless coal, an hour later you’re hungry again… but for solar.

Our official handler on this river trip was a smart kid of about 30. He had just bought himself a $100,000 condo in Beijing. One would never guess he started his life’s journey in Mongolia, his family sharing a kitchen and bathroom with five other families. Now he has two bathrooms just to himself.

My first night in China, in Shanghai, my client put me up in a hotel so elegant its existence would have been impossible before this new boom. Its muted demeanor hosted the hushed conversations of international bankers, diplomats and assorted officials.

As I sat alone in the lounge, contemplating its soft sophistication, two young women clattered up to me in their bright eight-inch heels. There was nothing muted about their look or their message. The taller one wanted to sell me her “cousin” who had just come from the countryside.

Her English was surprisingly clear, loud and peppered with slang. She had the confidence of a successful entrepreneur.

When I declined, she didn’t miss a beat, grabbing her cousin and clacking off to attend other patrons – two bright flowers in a field of muted suits. All this quite visible, obvious, and part of a new China, I suppose.

Has a country ever traveled so far, so fast? I easily saw more Audis in Beijing than Los Angeles.

Back to the River

Have I mentioned how big China is? Remember Chongqing? It’s got a population of 30 million compared to New York’s 20 million. Ever hear of Wuhan? I hadn’t. It’s a city of 19 million compared to London’s 13 million. Imagine – a city way more populous than London or Paris and you don’t even know it exists.

Think about it – so much of the world is right here. Now you might suppose your town or city is the center of all things because it's got a new designer city walk & gastropub. Let me tell you, your world is a spec compared with China.

Putting aside the Mag-Lev train that literally floated me in from the airport at 250 miles per hour, just check out these stats: over a billion people, 4,000 years of history, a wall that stretches 13,000 miles…. plus easily 10 billion chopsticks! And the largest dam in the world – the Three Gorges Dam.

From the deck of our boat, we looked out over the massive structure. Seventeen years in construction. One and a half miles long – five times the size of the Hoover Dam. The reservoir building up behind it is over 400 miles long. This was the reason the river was rising, why entire cities had to be moved. Why over one million people had to upend their lives and move somewhere new.

They had no say in the matter. That’s how things work in a nation this immense. Could democracy even function in a country so big? 

As I mentioned, everything is off the scale here. When they have shortages, it’s not just a matter of waiting the weekend to restock your favorite sorbet. No, they have famines where tens of millions perish. Again, and again through their history. The last time in 1960.

It was one of my crew members who first spotted the body. He shouted to us and to one of the ship’s crew. The guy paused and nodded at the ghost-like image floating by. He looked at us.

We looked back, expecting something to happen. But he shrugged. And went back to work.

That’s it? Was there something else we should be doing? Is this how it is on the river? Or was it a China thing?

It suddenly felt a bit lonely in this land of a billion. China’s a tough place and the laws of supply and demand not only govern commerce but also emotional transactions.

It looked like this poor dead soul was the ultimate expression of too much supply.

In Africa, I saw what looked like a million wildebeests moving in a great migration. When one was felled by a predator, the others never looked back. They only thought of their own survival. No one spent time reflecting on their lost buddy.

In the great human transit, if things get bad enough, if we’re just rubbing too many elbows, are we inclined to act the same way?

Perhaps in a society like this, where so many are looking for a handhold to the future, it’s problematic to report a body. Suddenly, questions are asked, suspicions are raised. At best, you’ll be hit with paperwork for your concern.

And for what? For a fellow countryman? This then could be the heart of this matter. After centuries of brutality, repression, struggle and now, explosive opportunity, do the Chinese people feel a sense that they belong to the same nation? Do they look out for each other, the way we supposedly do? Or used to? 

I don’t have an answer for that.

Lonely Rivers Flow

Leaning over the rail, I saw the great river quickly sweep the body downstream, washing it away.  

The body’s route was the mirror image of our trip – traveling our itinerary in reverse. In a day it would be passing Wuhan, Nanjing and the other great cities.  

It would carry its lonely message past 100 million others, and then out to sea.

                               *                                                                                       *

The guys and I had drinks every night in the boat’s lounge. Most of the passengers were elderly and disappeared right after dinner. We were the nightly regulars. The young ladies who worked in the lounge got to know us and we swapped stories in broken English about life in our two countries.

This night we shared the news of our sighting. I think we were relieved to see the shock on their faces. So, this didn’t happen all the time? Their wide eyes seemed to confirm that it did not.

Even here on the big river there was still some compassion.

But as I sat in the lounge, comforted by my drink and the nearby voices, there was the image of the body, at that moment floating through the dark water on its way to somewhere.  

Not too long ago, perhaps even this morning… he was one of us. Maybe with plans for this evening. Maybe we shouldn’t get too attached to our plans.   

Sailing up the Three Gorges

The next day we sailed through the canyons of the scenic Three Gorges. Here we found a new world of chiseled cliffs and deep emerald overwhelm. The steep canyon walls closed in on us, concentrating their beauty.

It was just another dreamscape in China… startling, lush and already tempering the previous day’s starling images. That’s how it is here.

That’s what this river does to you.

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