The New China

A trip up the Yangtze river reveals the superpower's intrigue, from breakneck development to ancient treasures and natural wonders.

Virtuoso Life, Nov/Dec 2011. Photographs by Philipp Engelhorn.

WE'D JUST LANDED IN WUHAN,  a 3,500-year-old city on the edge of the Yangtze River in central China, and we could not stop staring: Elevated highways bristling with re-bar snaked in all directions. Half-built bridges arced through the sky. Everywhere, concrete towers emerged from cocoons of scaffolding. The road we were on, also under construction, appeared to be bulldozing its way through miles of vacant apartment buildings, their empty shells awaiting demolition. 

“Hard hats!” “Rubble!” “Dust!” I scribbled in my notebook, overwhelmed. 

“Every American should see this,” the guy behind me said. 

“Look!” someone else exclaimed. I glanced up and saw a man pedaling a bike buried beneath wicker cages – each holding a duck – maybe a foot from our air-conditioned bus. The incongruity made me think of Ping, the adventurous duckling who lives on the Yangtze in the classic children’s book so many of us grew up with – and also how astonishing it was to be here, witnessing the sheer force that is China.

An hour later we were treated to a private concert at Wuhan’s Hubei Provincial Museum (home to an ancient set of bronze bells unearthed from the tomb of King Yi, Warring States Period, 433 bc), then welcomed aboard our home for the next five days, Viking River Cruises’ brand-new Viking Emerald. My husband, Jeff, and I watched the sun set over the Yangtze and toasted one another with glasses of Champagne our steward had left in our stateroom.

This sequence of events – up-close encounters with China’s staggering economic and environmental transformation one minute and time to contemplate its remarkable cultural history the next –  is typical of a day’s travel in China, assuming you’re in the right hands. Two days into Viking’s 12-day excursion, Jeff and I were confident we’d be whisked about the country with ease, enabling us to see more of the mainland than we ever could’ve managed on our own. Passionate travelers, we’d long dreamed of visiting China but weren’t sure how to approach it. Joining a cruise tour provided an instant framework for a complex destination – at a remarkable price. But more on that later. 

OUR JOURNEY HAD BEGUN IN SHANGHAI, WITH A glittering view from an 11th-floor room at our hotel in the city’s new financial district. “I’m no country bumpkin, but this rocks,” Jeff said as we gazed from soaring windows. The Huangpu River with its steady parade of boats flowed before us, a row of neoclassical buildings mostly from the 1920s and 1930s lined the elegant Bund on the far bank, and skyscrapers displaying the ingenuity of dozens of international architects lit the night sky. Best of all, the river-front café directly beneath us said “Starbucks” on its roof. Welcome to the new China, I thought, looking forward to an iced latte.

Our guide, Yang, met us in the lobby the next morning and ushered our group of 30 Viking passengers onto a waiting tour bus. He had a round face, short bristly hair, and a kind, energetic disposition. He passed out our Quietvox earphones, portable receivers that enabled us to clearly hear him, or any of the other guides leading various excursions throughout the week. Jeff and I had never taken an organized tour and weren’t sure about the earpieces – or the Viking flag Yang carried atop a pole – but soon realized that in China, a country where traveling for pleasure is a relatively new concept, tourists are expected to behave like, well, tourists.

With a few adjustments, this worked out fine: Our earpieces were as imperceptible as a CIA agent’s and actually freed us to wander without getting lost; plus, there was so much to learn, we wanted our facts delivered as directly as possible. There were moments (navigating crowded Tiananmen Square, for instance) when we were grateful to follow the flag and other times when we opted to break away: for a date night in Shanghai, to meet Chinese friends for dinner in Beijing, to hike a section of the Great Wall on our own. As long as we let Yang know our plans, we were free to explore. 

“Even though China has been greatly modernized in the last 20 years, it is still a developing country,” he explained, as our bus cruised past Pudong’s futuristic skyscrapers (including China’s tallest building, the 101-story World Financial Center), the Louis Vuitton Building (like a sparkling, diamond-studded suitcase), the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower, and a gigantic Apple store. Back at the hotel, bellmen in crisp suits greeted black BMW sedans, Audi Q7s, and a young woman in heels driving a red Ferrari. “Looks like China’s cozied up to capitalism,” Jeff said, raising his eyebrows.

WHILE IT WAS THRILLING TO BE IMMERSED IN A NEW capitalist superpower, the centerpiece of our Viking trip would be five nights floating up the Yangtze. We were looking forward to relaxing once we flew to Wuhan and boarded the ship. The Yangtze River flows for 3,915 miles, from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea. It’s the longest river in China and the third-longest in the world, after the Nile and Amazon. Its basin is home to more than 30 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people, and the 360-foot Viking Emerald would take us right through its core: from Wuhan up-river to Chongqing, nearly 800 miles. 

The Yangtze is not always beautiful, but it’s a real river – a  working river. It supports 40 percent of the country’s economic output: auto and machinery manufacturing, power generating, mining, building, chemical waste. A trip up or down it means you see all this – the economic tsunami that is China – floating by. The other reason to cruise the Yangtze, of course, is to experience the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, and the gorges themselves. Human engineering on a mammoth scale is transforming the Yangtze, and the rate and magnitude of these changes are unprecedented, as we’d soon learn. 

“Hi, Kim! Hi, Jeff! How are you?!” shouted Lois and Cherry, our vivacious, gung ho servers, as we entered the ship’s dining room. The ship’s Chinese staff had all chosen English names for themselves. There was Belle, a waitress with bangs and an expressive face, as well as a shy waiter called Stan, who made it clear that first night as we introduced ourselves to our fellow passengers – predominantly Americans in their 50s, 60s, and 70s – that we’d be in good hands. (In Shanghai, the ship’s 190 passengers had been split into groups of 30 and spread among four hotels, making it interesting to finally meet them all. Viking also staggered groups’ timing on sights and flights, so there were never more than 30 of us at any one place.)

While Lois filled our wineglasses, we sat at round tables in chairs wrapped in chrysanthemum-yellow silk and happily opened our menus. I settled on a wild greens salad, soup, and roast sea bass; Jeff chose the filet mignon. The Viking Emerald’s German chef prepares Western, Chinese, and vegetarian entrees for every meal – so over the course of the week we treated ourselves to everything from steamed dumplings alongside omelets at breakfast to veal schnitzel for lunch, and tiger prawns with chili sauce, and even abalone, for dinner. 

Our cabin was lovely, with twin beds converted to an oversize queen topped by fine cotton sheets and an embroidered silk coverlet in pale mint green. It had sleek honey-colored wood, a writing desk, a surprising amount of closet space, a flat-screen TV, and, best of all, sliding glass doors opening to a private veranda. Even the smallest cabins came with their own balcony, so every passenger was privy to the river’s teeming traffic – the little two-man fishing sampans, the coal and gravel barges puttering past, the big white tourist boats slipping downstream. In the morning we woke to a dim haze and were able to slide our veranda doors open to the soft Yangtze breeze. 

We stopped in Yueyang, a gritty town where Viking sponsors an elementary school. Here the breeze carried the pungent scent of a paper mill. “The Cultural Revolution was a disastrous period for China,” Yang confided to us, en route to the school, sharing some of his own history. As a boy he’d originally been separated from his father, an academic, but was later sent to live with him – on a pig farm. He explained all this matter-of-factly: how it was common for families to be broken apart, how they were always hungry then, and how, during the 1950s, Chairman Mao wanted to modernize society and ordered everyone to chop down trees to feed the steel furnaces.

Over the course of the week, we learned a lot about China this way – why there are so few trees along this part of the Yangtze, for instance, and no birds (Mao had them all shot). While the local river-town guides stuck to their script, a level of trust developed with our Viking guides. We could ask them pretty much  anything and get what felt like a genuine response.

At the Bazimen Primary School, a band of horn players, a dance ensemble, and a drum soloist clad in a black T-shirt and jeans greeted us at the front gates as music blared from loudspeakers. Passengers streamed into classrooms, where kids sat two to a desk, 60 per class. “Hello, what is your hobby?” a 7-year-old girl asked me in English, extending her hand. 

“My hobby is reading,” I stammered. “What is your hobby?”

“My hobby is violin.”

I asked her desk-mate about his hobby.

“My hobbies are sleeping,” he said with a grin. 

FOUR DAYS OF CHURNING UP THE YANGTZE SEEMED TO lull each of us into a “Slow Boat to China” state of mind. In the mornings there was tai chi practice with Master Tom in the Observation Lounge. I liked to stand in the back row attempting to mirror the sixty- and seventy-something ladies in the front, and hoped they’d practiced tai chi before, they moved so gracefully compared to me. Chinese folk music played softly in the background. It was a peaceful way to begin the day, arms moving in wide circles while the low green banks of the Yangtze passed by. 

As we neared the Three Gorges Dam, the biggest building project in China, the river’s flat alluvial plains gave way to steep limestone cliffs, and the water turned from brown to green. We gathered in the Observation Lounge for a lecture. Mostly we heard the advantages of the dam: flood control, electricity, and transportation. We could already see how these are important issues for people in a developing country like China. We learned that the three-year-old dam generated 84 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity last year – the equivalent of 40 to 50 million tons of coal. After just a few days here – seeing the effects of heavy industry, coal-burning power plants, factories spewing smoke and dust into the air – the appeal of clean energy had taken on a whole new immediacy. 

At the same time, the Chinese government has acknowledged that there are problems. “The dam was expected to provide ten percent of China’s total power consumption, but at the rate China is developing, it only provides about three percent,” Viking’s on-board lecturer explained to our stunned audience. 

After the official Three Gorges Dam tour, we had a lively dinner table conversation with our new shipmates about the planet and its power needs. Then everyone rushed up to the sundeck to watch the ship enter the first lock. While the Viking Emerald  began nosing into the immense chamber, I thought about the dam. I was glad I’d seen it, not because it’s an engineering feat, but because it’s a wake-up call, a 7,000-foot, $23 billion concrete monument to the twenty-first-century challenges confronting our planet. 

“In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today,” China’s environmental protection minister, Zhou Shengxian, was quoted as saying recently – an astonishing admission from a Chinese official. Everywhere we looked, we could see this: in the cementing of the riverbanks, the attempted relocation of more than a million people, the poor air. And it was fascinating, especially in the context of China’s history: the passing of five imperial dynasties; the arrival and departure of the Mongols, Manchus, British, and Japanese; the construction of the Great Wall and destruction of the Cultural Revolution; the Great Leap Forward; and the Reform and Opening. 

Was this wrestling with nature nothing in the scope of China’s long history of building and conquering? Or were we at a global  environmental tipping point where it was everything?

By the time we’d slid into the locks’ first chamber, we were so close to its walls I could reach out and touch their concrete sliminess. I breathed in the evening air – a pungent mix of diesel exhaust and ripe river smells – and checked my watch. It was 10 pm, and the searchlight of the Three Gorges Dam was as bright as the North Star. 

IN THE MORNING WE WOKE TO A STRANGE SOUND: BIRDS, the first we’d heard in days. “It’s beautiful here,” Jeff said, stepping onto our balcony in bare feet. It was. Sheer limestone cliffs rose straight up from the water, and the river had narrowed to a few hundred feet. We were in the Wu Gorge, which has inspired Chinese poets and painters for millennia. A flock of egrets skimmed past, and narrow side canyons led off to steep-walled tributaries. This was the famous gorge of ancient landscape paintings, which it did resemble, although 370 feet of its two-mile-high mountains (containing countless tombs, ancient temples, and cultural relics) are now submerged forever.

After disembarking for a guided boat trip up one of the Wu’s side canyons, we returned to sit on the Viking Emerald’s sundeck watching just-built cement towns and cell towers go by. When it grew hot, we retreated to the cool confines of the ship’s library to play mah-jongg. Jeff had taken a lesson the day before and taught me the suits: dots, characters, bamboo, plus winds and dragons. It was addictive, the soft, smooth click-click of the tiles – like playing with ice cubes. It made me think of Confucius, who, some believe, invented the game in 500 bc. Mah meant “sparrow.” Confucius, they say, liked birds. 

THE VIKING EMERALD DOCKED IN CHONGQING, and from there we flew on to Xi’an and Beijing. In Xi’an we checked into the Shangri-La Hotel, had time to rest, then attended a Tang Dynasty dance performance. The dancers were exquisite, and we all dashed back to the bus enchanted. In the morning, everyone woke early for the experience of a lifetime: a private session with the terra-cotta warriors at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In 1974 local farmers digging a well on the parched plains outside Xi’an unearthed fragments of a clay figure – the first evidence of what would turn out to be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time: an entire army of life-size terra-cotta soldiers and horses interred for more than 2,000 years as part of the unexcavated tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi (who proclaimed himself first emperor of China in 221 bc). Up to 40,000 people swarm through the site each day, but Viking arranged ablissful private hour for us before the museum opened.

We went on to  more over-the-top experiences in Beijing: hiking a section of the Great Wall, devouring Peking duck dinners, and touring the Ming Tombs, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City. It was the sort of trip I knew would take weeks to process (and recover from!) and that, in turn, would provide years of perspective. For all the big moments, however, it was two quieter ones that stood out for me: standing face to face with those terra-cotta soldiers and a lunch of spicy noodles. 

Absorbing the soldiers’ stillness in their tomblike setting makes you think about eternity and mankind’s place in it (or not). The power of the work is that the figures are so remarkably, astonishingly human.

The spicy noodle lunch transpired when Yang helped Jeff and me order two bowls of steaming noodles and beer from a sidewalk vendor. We sat on plastic stools at a low table in an open storefront where the air was so steamy we shone, slurping what turned out to be one of the most satisfying meals of our lives: noodles simmered with fresh scallions and bok choy in a spicy red-chile broth that made our faces turn red. It was a simple dish that worked just as it had for hundreds of years: Once you begin perspiring, you cool right off. 

We sat there dripping and pondering all the ancient things we’d seen, feeling very much alive. The six locals at the three other tables grinned at us. When the bill came, Jeff peered at it and said, “No way. Our entire meal cost $3.20!” 

“We’ll be back,” I said. And meant it.  

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.