|The Yangtze River
has a magnetic attraction..
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 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
|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
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
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
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: www.china-travel-guide.com