The tree branches drift slowly to the bottom of my glass. Or rather, they seem like branches, since I am used to minuscule tea leaves. That is, if I can get them, for most tea at home comes in tea bags. Here, that simply means it’s crap tea, needing to be pulverised and bagged to prevent one noticing the mould and bugs and leaf-rot. Back to my glass of tea: one by one the whole leaves and twigs sink from their gathering at the top of the glass to the bottom, gradually reforming as a dense forest while the water cools sufficiently to drink.
I am sitting in a tea-house, awaiting the check-in and boarding of the Yangtze Angel, a boat that would take me down the Chang Jiang (aka the Yangtze or Yellow River). More of that soon enough. I had arrived in Chongqing, towards the south of central China and at the beginning of the navigable section of the river. That section is long enough, taking seven days to the sea at Shanghai. But I was to sail for three days, for I had to disembark at Yichang, near Wuhan.
For a mid-October day, Chongqing is warm enough. The city is well enough out of the Beijing-Shanghai corridor to be in transition, between older patterns of life and the rush to a modern China. So I opt for the metro, meander up tumble-down stairs and alleyways, get lost and find my way out again. I ponder stalls that hug all manner of corners (often, they are just an individual sitting before an open sack), farmers with shoulder sticks laden on either side with heavy baskets of fresh food, and a pile of mouth-watering stinky tofu. It reminds me of the hole in my stomach, so I order three lots. And then, footsore and sweaty, I am into the tea-house – not some madly overpriced affair as you will find in a tourist trap like Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai (RMB 600-700), but a local one, serving just glasses of tea at a reasonable rate (RMB 20).
Soon enough, it is time to board, although that requires a cable car to descend to the Chaotianmen pier. One of the guards, chest out and bellowing, blusters me through – through the line crowding the pier, through the cable car to the front, through the various checkpoints – until I ask him to stop. Those bananas look pretty good, so I acquire some from a stall run by a man with a face used to the sun, some light stubble in the sparse way managed by Chinese men. So also I get hold of some standard travel food hereabouts – two-minute noodles and some water. Just in case, really. Late in the evening, we chug out of the lights of Chongqing.
The river is indeed yellow, laden with the runoff from countless streams in the mountains we continue to pass. It is source of food, water and income; avenue of transport; place to relax; offering hidden grottos for a tryst or shady deal; locus of stories and myths; but a place only for biodegradable waste, for it is remarkably clean with so much use. We pass barges carrying sand, coal, containers, cars, food, garbage … you name it, it is carried. Often, the barges have sections for passenger transport, since the river is still a major thoroughfare.
But I am most intrigued by the villages of the river people we pass. A cluster of houses, within walking distance of the next one, terraces to the river’s edge and up the more accessible sides of the steep slopes. Sometimes they straggle up a mountain side, at others they negotiate a gentler slope closer to the river – always out of reach of the varying river level. Typically built up to three stories in construction, many sport the beloved blue glass. And they all face the river, given its ambivalent mixture of magnificent succour and dire threat.
The infamous threats of flood have passed with the building of the Three Gorges Dam, although that has had the effect of wiping out lower villages and submerging the most fertile land. With sparser soil, people supplement their livelihoods in all manner of ways – fishing, tourism, hawking local artefacts, gathering wild fruits from highest slopes, an adeptness at extracting RMB from overloaded foreigners. But I sense that the locals have always been creative in such ways.
On board, the ship has been partially refitted over an old hull. So the metal floor buckles and pops as I walk over it, the outside decks have multiple patches, the stairs out the back are resplendent in their old and rusty glory, the life-rafts are faded and popping seams with cracked wooden paddles scattered about, the fire equipment consists of metal buckets of water, and the engines chug along with the same sound as the ancient barges and river boats that pass us.
I have not entirely escaped the overweight and know-it-all foreign retirees, diligently spending the kids’ inheritance (SKIing). They have the same battered look as the boat beneath its facelift. A few bewildered ones stagger about, tutting or rolling their eyes at the local barbarians. At least they don’t seem to drink so much, since the bar upstairs seems remarkably empty whenever I stroll on deck. A few backpackers too, who seem pissed off that it is just a little too touristy for their liking – rueing the chance to take the really serious rust bucket which was moored beside us during the morning’s pause for yet another tour on shore. But above all, the boat is full locals on a holiday, making the trip for the sake of getting downstream, a chance to relax and party. They have slipped their own grog on board, given their perpetual jollity and loudness.
Often we stop, for an onshore visit: the ghost town, the red pagoda cut into the rock, the white imperial city, the Three Gorges Dam. Most depart, whether foreigners or locals. Keen for quiet space and rest, I forego the chance to mix with them and the half-dozen other boats plying the route. The advantages are immense. On my small balcony, I soak up some October sun and watch the river boats pass. One of the staff drops a simple line in the water, hoping for a catch. He is joined by a colleague or two for a smoke and chat. Smoke fans from small fires on the hillsides as farmers do some burning-off.
The river people; or is that the mountain people? Now I meet some of the local minority group, stocky of build, round of face, agile on mountain sides and on the treacherous surfaces of multiple moving decks. They staff our boat, act as tour guides, try to sell you small jumping river creatures at every turn, either fresh (aka alive) or cooked into weird and wonderful shapes that remind me uncannily of fried body parts. The river people are a small enough minority to be able to have three or four children (unlike larger minorities that can have two), and they tend to stick to the area.
Never seeing a flat surface wider than that of a room, they are at home with impossibly steep mountains, cliffs and overhangs. They clamber up to pick the choice wild tea that grows above 2,500 metres (and sells at RMB 1500 per kilo). They build dwellings and huts in places that should – strictly speaking – be accessible only the white eagles that sail above the cliffs. They scale thousands of stairs as a matter of course. They even leave for dead the monkeys who live hereabouts – one I spotted close by the water, keeping the sighting to myself.
But I see them mostly on the water. With narrow river boats powered by a simple two-stroke engine with a fan-belt, they use the river as the main thoroughfare. Downstream a new road may be in evidence, with spectacular bridges spanning the gorges. But upstream, the river offers the only quick transport. Mostly there are two in a boat, one steering when in motion, but both at work on whatever task when at rest. Earlier in the day, they were chugging here and there at a leisurely pace, but by late afternoon, nearly everyone is checking their nets. And now I notice the endless collections of net-buoys – a piece of styrofoam, an old life-jacket, a float, so that one may pass over in a boat and neither destroy the makeshift buoys or damage one’s boat.
At one point I see one of the floats moving. A closer inspection reveals a bobbing head. Man overboard? No, a swimmer, setting out for a long stretch in amongst the boats and fishing nets. And then more, perhaps dozens. The orange float is as much a life-saving device as to warn passing vessels – whether a chugging river boat, a careening speedboat, a barge or a multi-decked tourist vessel. No for me, although I can imagine the thrill of achievement at having avoided the challenges both above and below the water – snags, river refuse, water creatures, river currents and ever-present traffic.
All of this takes place beneath some of the most stunning gorges one will encounter. Sheer rock walls plunge from great heights into the water, plants cling impossibly to whatever small outcrop may afford a root-hold, occasional fresh rock indicates a recent fall. Beneath the water – so I am told – the bottom may lie 80 to 100 metres down.
Nothing quite beats sleeping on water. No matter whether it the open sea, in the equatorial doldrums or in a force 11 gale, or on a river like this, with eddies, passing boats, and the ever-present shore line. The problem is that I manage little sleep on this night, for we enter the river docks in the new and largest hydro-electric scheme in the world. Fascinated, unable to control the itch to guide the ship through, I am up on deck before anyone else, an hour or so before midnight.
Announced by the series of flashing lights that funnel the boat towards the entry point, we edge forward. Now two cargo boats are before us, awaiting the filling of the first dock. We wait, edge forward, wait and finally squeeze in. The gates close while the massive dam blinks yellow in the near distance. The water level drops but eight metres. Is that all? I wonder. Ah no, it is the first of five docks, the others dropping up to 21 metres, before we arrive at the bottom some 80 metres below. And more dams are to come further downstream.
But we will not pass through them this time, for our port of call is the small river dock of Yichang. A country town, at least for the locals. No traffic jams, cheap housing, a quieter pace of life. How many people, I ask? Oh, only four million!
I am bound for the train to Wuhan, but I look longingly at the rest of the Chang Jiang, all the way to Shanghai. Four more days it takes, giving one a voyage of a week. I’ll be back to do the whole route.