The Yangtze River has a magnetic attraction..


The Yangtze River
China Expert Ruth Lor Malloy recalls the enchanting magnetism
of the river that flows through time.
Text and photos by Ruth Lor Malloy

Joan wanted desperately to see the Yangtze River. As we stood on the deck of the East King, during a cruise of the famous waterway, she recounted stories told by her husband. His family had been missionaries in China a century ago. Her father-in-law had written about Fengdu, China's ancient city of ghosts that lies tucked into the coastline, west of the Yangtze Gorges and east of Chongqing. And Joan had long dreamed of walking in his footsteps of the past.

On the Sunday morning that our ship landed in Fengdu, we had half an hour to spare before the tour buses arrived. We ventured across the road to a modern-looking church with a cross on top. Inside, we found new statues and carvings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, looking very oriental. Turned out, a church in New York had donated the money.

The priest led us to a nearby Protestant church that was full of people singing. Joan's eyes sparkled with inspiration. She wanted to stay but she wanted to visit the temples, too. Given our short time, the temples won out. During the Cultural Revolution, many temples were destroyed. But with the ever-increasing popularity of Yangtze River cruises, the local townspeople foresaw a lucrative investment and reproduced them, albeit garishly. These new temples were a little different from the images painted by her father-in-law's words.

Tujia men can carry tourists up steep slopes in sedan chairs.

Time has passed, and now Joan yearns to return to the Yangtze.

I feel a magnetic pull to the Yangtze, too. After ten visits, I still feel the palpable sense of history. The surrounding landscape evokes passages from John Hersey's book, A Single Pebble. I look for the tracker paths chiseled into the mountains and think of the trip upriver taken by Hersey's American engineer who dreamed of building a dam in the early 1900s. A team of men hauled his boat like so many mules. They worked cheerfully, undaunted, though the work was grueling and frequently fatal.

I look for the Tujia men who move tons of coal in baskets on their backs. I love the trip up the slender Shennon Xia Stream. Here the Tujia men push and pull tiny wooden boats full of tourists against the current. I feel I'm back in a previous century, but I don't feel guilty. The Tujias make more money-hauling tourists than they would farming the steep hills.

The beauty of the river and the people attract me too. I've seen the gorges from the top of those magestic kilometer-high mountains. The sensation of being on that height, above the world below, is glorious. You don't sense that feeling when you are on the water looking up.

I love the dawns and sunsets, red through the hint of smog even here. The muddy river is riddled with the occasional whirlpools and craggy spots where the Chinese locals imagine they see goddesses and golden helmets and ox livers. I love to watch the sparkle on the water and the silhouettes of bamboo through the haze.

I love the fog in November in spite of the delays and fog horns groaning at night. I am fascinated by the new dam. It grows bigger each time we go by, reminding us how lucky we are to enjoy these dramatic views now. After 2009, the views will never be the same.

Boatmen wait for tourists
on Shennon Xia Stream.

We were climbing one of those mountains when a hospitable old woman picked an orange for me. I learned what it meant to carry my own bag up those stairs, and why the young people are happy to move to a place with less of a slope.

On one visit, I had to hop from town to town, spending the night in dumpy hotels and getting around on equally dumpy ferries. I met Mr. Xu as I stood shivering on the front deck trying to escape the smokers in my cabin. When he started singing Moon River, and other songs that he knew in English, I warmed up. Mr. Xu, who worked for a cement company, and I ended up exchanging annual letters.

Eight years later, he proudly showed me his city and treated me to dinner with his wife and daughter, refusing to let me pay my share.

There's a lure to the Yangtze River that runs beyond the hospitable Chinese. On a few ships I encountered one or two American staffers, young men who made everyone laugh as they parodied popu'lar Chinese love songs. I especially remember one wonderful American, older than the others, who had spent a decade as cruise director, cruising up and down the river. He entertained guests with his passionate piano playing of New York, New York, and I Left My Heart in San Francisco. He seemed sad, and I wondered: Why was he here? What he had run away from? How did the river lure him to live on it?

Chinese-Canadian Ruth Lor Malloy is the author of China Guide
(Open Road Publishing). For tourism details, maps and news
of the Yangtze River check:




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