Daning River

China Journal Continued

Wushan, the Lesser Three Gorges

So fast and furiously am I compelled to live now that there is scarcely time to record even these fragmentary notes.
-- Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Hitting some rough passage here, shallow water and rocky rapids in the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze. We're on a motorized sampang, grinding over rocks that scrape its belly. Two men use bamboo sticks to maneuver the boat as in ancient times, but it also has a motor. There are rows of seats and a center aisle. The seats are loose and move around.

After the rocky stretch we pick up speed again. We're in a line of similar boats about 50 yards apart assigned to different tour groups who are cruising the Yangtze on a river cruiser we have temporarily left for this excursion.

Stunning pictures emerge into view but are gone before I can get my camera ready. It's rainy and the canopy is pulled over the boat, which cuts off visibility for the most part. Our tourguide for this segment speaks in cadences that remind me of something. Finally I put my finger on it: it's W. C. Fields, but with a thick Chinese accent.

"De river is a soo shellow. It's not a easy fowa da boata." He speaks in a throaty tone with his mouth pressed against a small yellow plastic battery-amplified megaphone.

I joined this group of about 20 people in Chongqing (pronounced "chong ching") where most of the commercially marketed Yangtze cruises begin. The rest of the group had already been together a few days when I joined them. They had had time in those few days to bond as a group, and for the group dynamics to solidify into a pattern. The ancient instinctual behaviors that have helped tribes survive the most appalling circumstances throughout history and pre-history come into play instantly and reliably in any group situation, a la "Lord of the Flies."

Commercially marketed tours such as this one include a tour director so the group is freed from the necessary struggle to choose a leader. The group aligns itself around its designated leader. Relationships are rapidly formed among the individual members, who grope for topics of conversations to facilitate their interactions. The content of a conversation is secondary to the posture, the stance of the participants. The body language reveals the primary attitude of cooperation. The small talk is a gesture of friendship, or cooperation. It shows the parties are not at war with each other.

The subjects of conversation are determined in a makeshift manner to serve as the media of exchange. They are selected more or less randomly. Any subject two people can converse about is discovered fairly quickly and becomes a pillar of the relationship for its duration, which is probably only the length of the itinerary.

In this group, and probably in many foreign tour groups, one of the recurring conversational themes that emerged early on and rose to Darwinian supremacy as fuel for many dinner conversations was criticism and ridicule of the Chinese. It would begin with discussions of the food, which would tend to gravitate toward the negative and toward safe areas in which the people felt at home. What is not meant to be malicious at first tends to sour as it evolves.

Criticism of the food can easily devolve into intolerance of accommodations, service, social mores, and of the whole country and its people. On the sampan, what there was of a restroom was only a drain in the floor, flushed by a steady stream of water. The waste washed right into the river itself. The water didn't seem particularly polluted, but the thought of it was too much for the Americans and they began to fixate upon it.

The door to the water closet didn't close so you would have to use one hand to hold the door as the boat rocked in the water, or risk being exposed as you relieved yourself. When the boat pulled up on some rocks for a break, the water closet was no longer ventilated by the breeze of motion and the boat began to smell increasingly foul. The complaints of the passengers reached the ears of the boat operators and one of the boatmen pulled out a mop. But the mop was only dipped in the river for rinsing, and when the mopper had mopped the water closet, he brought the mop out and mopped the floor of the aisle. It was a well-meaning attempt, but to the Americans that meant he was spreading the water from the water closet throughout the boat.

The boatmen pulled the boat up on some rocks, at a place the tour director called "the hard rock cafe." We ate boxed lunches and stretched our legs. Across the narrow river from where we were docked was a tribe of rhesus monkeys climbing along the cliffs and the branches growing from the rocks. They looked like tiny people climbing around, or like a swarm of bugs from a distance.

Vendors gathered at the landing point and offered crafts. Though we seemed to be far from civilization, the presence of vendors showed there was a village near. Though humbly selling their wares in this wilderness setting, the vendors were well turned out and often strikingly beautiful.

One woman was selling an ornately crafted set of two bells with a female figure connecting them. She had long black hair, elegantly arranged with braids, some pulled back behind her head. She wore a skirt to her knees, dark blue hose and rubber boots that enabled her to wade into the water to approach the boats. Her face, with light brown skin and wide cheekbones, was a wonder.

Children waded in the river and approached the boat in some of the slower, shallower areas as we rode by. Their faces were radiant with joy and healthy vigor. Some were just playing. Some were looking for change. One rubbed his finger and thumb together in a familiar gesture unhampered by language barriers. Back at the mouth of the tributary we rejoined the Yangtze and reboarded the riverboat.

We passed through the largest of The Three Gorges, the Xi Ling Gorge, at dawn. The vast rocks towered above the ship on both sides. They were impossible to photograph even with the widest angle lens. The mountains are giant, with deep green vegetation, crops and houses on the sides. Here the river is narrow, the water rushes through rapidly in an visibly downhill direction.

The scenery is breathtaking, beyond description or even comprehension. There are two rows of hills. The closer and smaller one is green, ornately terraced with houses along the bottom at the shoreline. Behind are craggy rocks towering high into the sky, imposing looking like wise ancient beings to whom we would be ephemeral creatures of no consequence, like insects. In the distance, the atmosphere has turned them bluish, setting them apart with aerial perspective.

Cicadas break into screams, so piercingly loud that they obscure other sounds. Tiny bugs you can't even see, yet they dominate the acoustic landscape.

The scenery goes by and I know that I cannot absorb it, cannot truly appreciate it. I sit and write in my notebook, then stop writing and watch it glide by for a while. I try to somehow assimilate it. But I can't. It is too vast and eternal. I am only an insect.

Four ladies have pulled up chairs on the deck near me. They too have traveled half way around the world to see these world-proclaimed wonders. And they, like me, cannot absorb it. There is no way to accommodate it. One could spend a lifetime here and never begin to absorb it all. Each mile is different. Each acre has its own distinct personality. We try to describe it, sum it up, categorize it. But it eludes us. We want to capture it, take it home with us. We can say, "been there done that." But we never really take it in.

Like me, the women next to me have gathered to see this gorge, said to be the most spectacular of all the gorges, and as it goes by they cannot begin to grasp it. What can you do: sit in awed silence? Say a prayer of reverence to the divine forces that created such an overwhelming wonder? Sing a hymn? No, they do what people do. They revert to inevitable human behavior, incessant chitchat. The cicadas scream. The people chitchat. Do the cicadas see the gorges?

Their conversation begins, reliably, with the food. They are wearying of the breakfasts. Someone has mentioned some kind of orange drink that was served with breakfast, and all four chime in on the subject in turn.

"It's an artificial orange drink, you know, like Tang."
"But it's not like Tang. Tang is good. Tang is tangy. This is just gooey and sugary."
"I haven't had Tang."
"You haven't had Tang? They brought it out when we were kids."
"What's Tang?"

And so it goes. It's always like that when you go to see wonders of the world. There is all this world travel, all this incessant movement, but when people get there, they aren't really there. They are still locked in their own minds, experiencing things pretty much the same as at home.

You see amazing pictures of the Great Wall. You hear that it is 4,000 miles long. It was joined together from many different walls by Emperor Qin when he united China 2,000 years ago. But when you get there, what do you see? Vendors. Tourists. People with cameras, tee shirts with all sorts of messages like "Proud to Be An American", sunglasses, baseball hats with insignias, crowds moving around, families, tribes, walking around, talking and laughing among themselves, behaving exactly as they do anywhere else. And always, Coca Cola. And there is The Great Wall in the background or underfoot. But it's not what people are thinking of. They don't know what to think of it. It barely enters their field of awareness.

We are insects that infest the earth.

-- By David Cogswell

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