History and current affairs

Cruising the Yangtze, Daniel Scott sees ghosts, goddesses and the power of the Three Gorges Dam.

On the second afternoon of my three-day Yangtze River cruise I make my way to the Victoria Queen's top deck. As the ship chugs east along the ancient waterway, the drizzle that has accompanied us all the way is sweeping across the deck. I sit down on a wet bench, pull my raincoat up to my chin and peer out at the misty mountains that form the river's northern banks.

For the next 30 minutes I sit here alone, getting drenched, contemplating the notion of personal space. It's taken me a lifetime of travel to get to China and the cliches that deterred me - its geographical size, huge population, poor human rights, relentless modernisation and pollution - are all writ large along this river. But right now, it is the numbers of people that focus my mind.

Yesterday we joined the cruise at the city of Chongqing and even the drive from the airport to the quay revealed an unfathomable megalopolis choked by traffic, scarred by construction and forested by high-rise buildings. The municipality is the world's biggest and fastest-growing, spread over an area of 84,000 square kilometres and home to 32 million people: 11 million more than the entire Australian population.

As we set sail along the Yangtze towards Yichang, a journey of some 660 kilometres, the mind-boggling statistics keep coming. If you include its 700 tributaries, the river system we are travelling on is the planet's largest. At 6380 kilometres, the Yangtze is the world's third-longest river, after the Nile and Amazon. But most staggering is the fact that along this river's course through south-eastern China live more than a third of the country's enormous population, some 450 million people.

Barely a kilometre goes by without signs of development on the river banks: a belching factory here, a fledgling city there. The Yangtze itself is a perpetually busy thoroughfare, as it has been for centuries, reaching all the way to Shanghai. On this cruise, we pass numerous cargo ships carrying up to a thousand cars. For a lad from a tiny coastal hamlet (population 26) it is pretty overwhelming.

"Kinda beautiful, ain't it?"

The question comes from inside the hood of a vivid yellow windcheater, from a fellow passenger named Bert, a 72-year-old Texan.

"I mean," continues Bert, "it's just such a big, ol' river, longer than the Mississippi even. And so much history. Imagine what it's seen."

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"Guess you're right," I concede.

"Thousands of years it's been flowing, dynasty after dynasty coming and going. What was it they said in that talk this morning? 'Back then, if you controlled both banks of the Yangtze, you controlled China.' Incredible river, incredible."

With that Bert is gone, disappearing to a dumpling-making demonstration on a lower deck but having, in a moment, altered my perspective. After all, if somebody from one of the largest, most sparsely populated states in the US can put a positive spin on the Yangtze, then so can I.

If I am feeling momentarily glum it has nothing to do with the cruise itself. From the moment we were greeted on board by a spirited band playing marching songs and a glass or three of Jacob's Creek, it has been both entertaining and informative. What's more, as you might expect with a cruise director named Christof von Zieten, it has run like clockwork. Meal times and excursions are sandwiched between lectures on the Yangtze and opportunities to learn, among other things, "perfect Mandarin in one easy lesson".

To get the most from on-board activities it is best not to be a wilting flower. An early-morning tai chi practice, led by wiry Dr Liu, is held on deck four and is a popular pre-breakfast spectacle. Volunteering for Liu during his fascinating demonstration of traditional Chinese medicine is not for the faint-hearted, either.

Answering the doctor's call, Chad, a young 65-year-old colleague of Bert's, is asked to strip to the waist. In the next half hour he has acupuncture needles applied to various meridian points, a hot suction cup laid several times onto his back and is firmly scraped with an ox horn. Now covered in circular red welts, Chad pronounces his neck pain completely gone. Liu's on-board health clinic is promptly booked out for the remainder of the trip.

The good doctor is not the only versatile crew member. At the Chinese Dynasties Show on the second night, featuring traditional costumes and customs, I spot our river guides, Cathy Huang and Gary Xiang, several waiters from the restaurant and my cabin attendant, Anna.

When not busy dressing up in garb from ancient dynasties, the Chinese crew members are unfailingly friendly and efficient. Most speak good English. Meals on board, from buffet breakfasts and lunches to set dinners, are also of good quality, with Chinese and Western dishes prepared. The high standards continue with the spotless cabins, all with private balconies. Even the standard rooms are spacious, with two single beds, an ensuite, a desk and a television showing CNN. I mean it as a compliment when I say that cruising on the Victoria Queen sometimes feels like being inside a cocoon. It is an excellent introduction to the heart of China.

Daily excursions along the route do, however, allow us to break out of that cocoon. On our first afternoon, we dock at Fengdu, where the so-called "City of Ghosts" stands high above the river on a hill top. Dating back 2300 years, this enclave of temples, pagodas and walkways was designed as a sort of last stop for the human soul before it was assigned to heaven or hell. On entering you are invited to cross one of three bridges, with a choice of outcomes for your life: longevity and health, wealth or a happy marriage. Today, with the global financial crisis looming even in go-ahead China, most opt to traverse the wealth bridge.

Once inside the complex, however, it becomes clear that nobody can have their rice cake and eat it. Hideous statues, depicting a range of earthly sins, line one pathway while the gory punishment for indulging in them is shown in a display inside the temple. At least there is the chance elsewhere for virtuous male visitors to prove their fidelity by shifting an immovable round boulder. Failing all else, there is reincarnation. At Fengdu, you can enter a next-life lottery and, depending on the symbol on the pebble you pick from a box, your future status will rise or fall. Sadly, it appears I'm going straight to hell and, worse, will reappear as a cockroach.

The next day we leave the ship again to visit some steep-sided canyons on a narrow offshoot of the Yangtze, the Madu River, transferring first to a ferry and then to traditional sampans. This brings us a more intimate feel for the river system and the way life has carried on around it for countless centuries. In one place we see coffins hanging high up on a misty cliff. Our guide assures us that they have been here at least 2000 years. How they got there remains a mystery.

Back on the Victoria Queen, we sail on towards the Yangtze's iconic Three Gorges. We enter through Qutang, the narrowest and, at just eight kilometres long, the shortest gorge, and leave via Xiling, the longest. But it is Wu (or "witches") Gorge, in the middle, that leaves the biggest impression. Along its 45-kilometre length, six jagged forested mountains, shrouded in fog, line up on either bank. Among them, only intermittently visible in the swirl, the distinctive Goddess Peak juts up, resembling a kneeling maiden.

It is now the final night of our cruise and we are approaching the infamous Three Gorges Dam at Sandouping. Depending on whom you ask, this giant new structure is either: a) the most ambitious hydroelectric power project ever attempted, which, according to Chinese authorities, will end the terrible flooding that has killed more than 1 million people in the past 100 years while making the Yangtze more easily navigable and providing huge amounts of energy; or b) an environmental and social disaster that has engulfed 13 cities, 140 towns, more than 1300 villages and displaced, even according to official figures, 1.5 million people. To give it an Australian parallel, such a project would be like Kevin Rudd ordering the drowning of Cairns, Townsville and much of northern Queensland to save the state from future floods.

On our final day we have the chance to make up our own minds by visiting the dam site, adding more impressive statistics: 2335 metres long, 185 metres high and 130 metres wide. Tonight the Victoria Queen must pass through the dam's vast lock, slowly descending 95 metres in five stages.

So, with typical insouciance, the ship's Australian contingent organises an all-night "lock-in" party on the top deck, celebrating our slow progress and the mighty old, "kinda beautiful" river we've been cruising down.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Helen Wong's Tours, Victoria Cruises and China Eastern Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

China Eastern flies non-stop to Shanghai, then to Chongqing (Melbourne passengers fly via Sydney) for $1078. Singapore Airlines has a fare for $1110, with an aircraft change in Singapore. Qantas has a fare for $1286 flying non-stop to Hong Kong and then a partner airline to Chongqing. For the same fare you can fly back from another Chinese city. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax.) Australians require a $40 visa for stays of up to 30 days.

Cruising there

Victoria Cruises (victoriacruises.com) can be booked in Australia through Helen Wong's Tours. Itineraries include a nine-day Yangtze Downstream tour, from $2290 (excluding air fares) and a 13-day Yangtze Wonders tour from $4090 (including flights), both of which visit the Three Gorges. Phone 1300 788 328 or see helenwongstours.com.

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