China’s enchantments catch you when you least expect them. For me it happened on the Yangtze. I was on one of the world’s classic river journeys through the deep granite gorges of the Wushan mountains, on a three-night cruise from Chongqing, in Sichuan, to Yichang. To the Chinese this is as much a pilgrimage as a voyage: they have a saying that until you have made it you haven’t been anywhere.
As it happened, it was a journey I had made before, six years ago, on a ship built in the former East Germany to take the comrades cruising on the Volga. It was completed just as the Berlin Wall came down and was still in the shipyard when the Chinese picked it up, presumably for a (Volga boatmen’s) song. My cramped cabin had two fold-down bunks and a large sky-blue fridge with nothing inside it. Westerners were effectively segregated from the Chinese passengers, and I remember signs in the corridors pointing to the Front Part and Back Part of the ship.
This time there was a brand-new vessel: the Yangzi Explorer, “the only international de luxe ship” on the river. And about time too. “Luxe” in this case equals polished service, a high level of comfort and, above all, space. The Yangzi Explorer takes only 124 passengers; other river ships of its size would carry more than twice that number. Everything is spacious. The airy cabins have bathrooms in marble, king-size beds and huge flat-screen TVs. Each has a veranda and if you take one of the four special suites you virtually have your own deck. There’s a shop selling pearls, another selling art, and a spa that is just as roomy as all the other parts of the ship.
On my trip the cruise director was American but fluent in Mandarin, and the chef Austrian, with a deft touch in Chinese cuisine. And the Yangzi Explorer also had that unexpected enchantment: the best crew show I have ever seen on any ship. An amateur night of traditional music would normally send me straight to a bar, book and bed, but this one, dazzling and disarming, was all grace and innocence, swathed in shimmering silk and a lot of giggly charm. It even had a Susan Boyle moment when one of the cabin stewardesses turned out to have a voice of fluting purity.
But what of the gorges? They, after all, are what people pay to see on a Yangtze cruise, though they may not be all that people remember. Yes, they are still spectacularly beautiful, but it’s what lies before, between and after them that has also nested in my memory. For at the end of the third gorge, as you head downstream, is the Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2006. By most measurements it’s the biggest in the world; by any yardstick it has changed pretty much everything along this wrinkle of China. So far it has raised the river level by some 80m, flooded 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages, consigned archaeological monuments to its depths and caused around 1.5m people to move home.
But those statistics were already well known when I first made this trip. What has changed is that their impact can now be seen on the land. The fertile banks of the Yangtze, where oranges and pomelo grow, now also sprout concrete and cranes. There are cranes everywhere. Like steel epiphytes, they shoot from the tops of unfinished buildings, attach themselves to bridges and are rooted on quaysides. It’s as if the natural world is being copied in construction. Rock outcrops transmute into bluffs of apartments. Stands of trees are mirrored in spinneys of pylons, masts, chimneys and antennae. The country is in a paroxysm of civil engineering.
Six years ago the Yangtze river guides dealt in whimsy. They showed us rocks shaped like monkeys, mountains reminiscent of cows and found dragon forms in hilltops. This time it was more prosaic. We heard how apartment buildings must have more than seven floors to qualify for a lift, and why so many are empty. Work in the country is scarce. With the higher water level there is less land for farming, and often the soil is poorer too.
We heard of the cities that have gone, such as Fengdu, once the Daoist gateway to the underworld and where, in 2003, I had swung up to its temple in a green and yellow chairlift with jaunty little pagoda roofs. Much of Fengdu is now under water, and a new city (“New Fengdu”) has risen across the river. “New shops, new roads, new trees. Everything is new,” exclaimed Cathy, a local guide. “The young people like it. They have a bright and exciting future, but the old people are sad.” This is not just a river trip but a journey through an industrial revolution, and all the more fascinating for that.
But China has not done with enchantments. Some catch you not so much when you least expect them as when you have given up expecting them. In Fengdu, after we had visited a school and a housing project, a choir of pensioners, men and women, assembled in the new town square to perform for us. They were accompanied by eight men on erhus, two-stringed instruments that loll in the lap and sound like scratchy violins. “You are my sunshine,” they sang, and then, in a town so warm they don’t heat their houses, Jingle Bells.
As for the gorges, they are, well, gorgeous. It takes a day to pass through them. You reach the first, Qutang, at 7am. The river bends to the right at the foot of a perpendicular crag and penetrates a fissure in the mountains 1,000m deep. There’s a big new town on the left. It’s the shortest of the gorges, and also the narrowest, a tight, green canyon, in places less than 50m wide. Buttresses of thickly wooded cliffs, draped with ribbons of diaphanous cloud, plummet to the water. Waterfalls spout from their crevices. Only where the cliffs are vertical do the trees retreat, baring great patches of sallow rock. In 20 minutes you are through it and passing terraces of pear trees, plum trees, oranges and strawberries. Higher up they grow tea.
Opposite the entrance to the Wu gorge a 15-storey apartment block stands sentinel on the skyline for the city of Wushan lurking behind the headland. The old city is another that was flooded when the river rose. A large red and white sign in Chinese reads, “Protect the land and soil for the benefit of the people.” We entered the gorge under the high orange arch of a huge new bridge.
The slopes were bigger now, and the rock faces as sheer and shiny as spade cuts in clay. It felt as if we were floating among mountaintops. Jimmy, the river guide – Chinese guides all take Western names – talked about the social and ecological impacts of the dam. Around us ploughed an endless procession of coal barges, car carriers, freighters, ferries, sampans and cruise boats.
By teatime we were in the final gorge, Xiling, the longest but scenically the least dramatic. It used to be the most perilous, notorious for its shallows. In one year at the end of the 19th century more than 300 ships were wrecked. A lifeboat service was started and winches set up to haul struggling vessels upstream. The last was dismantled in 2003. It was the dam that changed things. But then the dam changed everything.
It’s changing the topography. Indicator boards along the river banks show the height of the water above sea level to a maximum of 177m; earlier this year it reached 156m, lower than last year because of the number of landslides that occurred when the water was higher. Locals believe that the dam is even changing the climate. The Yangzi Explorer’s captain, who has been on the river for more than 30 years, said the weather was foggier now (one morning we couldn’t see either bank), and more changeable. A former orange grower told me there was no official acknowledgment of the vast, 600km-long reservoir affecting the weather, but he was not alone in his conviction that it is now warmer and wetter. In Chonqing, where the cruise started, a taxi driver told me, “The dogs take fright if the sun comes out.”
The dam has also changed tourism. Now the most interesting excursion on the cruise is to the dam. (The dullest is a perfunctory trip up a tributary that was inaccessible before the river rose. But the romance of the scenery – the wild monkeys and ancient coffins suspended in caves – is compromised by the skein of litter in the water.) We passed the dam during dinner via a flight of five enormous locks. Each chamber holds six ships. It took nearly four hours to descend. My window table was within a metre of the deck of the cargo ship squeezed alongside. Within minutes a crowd had gathered to watch my attempts to capture marinated mushrooms with chopsticks.
My trip was also a diversion into a more ancient China. While in Beijing, the city into which I had flown, I was armed with an extraordinary guidebook detailing more than 200 museums and archaeological sites throughout the country. As idiosyncratic as China itself, it took me to a eunuch cemetery.
We drove to a street called Moshikou. It was another enchantment. Gone were the clumps of stern apartment blocks, and four-lane highways tarred all the way to the future. Suddenly the roads were narrow, milling with people and dappled by trees. The buildings were single-storey – little courtyard houses and small workshops. There were food stalls and bike shops, a man skinning pineapples and a woman selling big balls of wool. Nancy, a guide for 10 years, had never been here before.
Tian Yi’s tomb is distinguished by both mystery and, for me at any rate, a pelvis-clenching confrontation with the realities of eunuchdom. In the small interpretive centre next to the museum there is a picture of The Knife. “Special design,” said the female curator with, I thought, unnecessary relish. According to the museum’s book, eunuchs treasured their severed genitalia, which they called their “Precious”. Tian Yi was nine when he was castrated, and 72 when he died in 1605. He rose to the significant position of Directorate of Ceremonies at court.
The mystery is not that he rose to such prominence: that’s what eunuchs did. Their sexual neutrality gave them equal influence with both the emperor and his wives and concubines. They threatened neither to destabilise a dynasty nor to start one of their own. What is puzzling about Tian Yi is the splendour of his tomb, its size, as well as the quality and symbolism of the carving. The marble gates and statues, the courtyards and temple before you reach the burial chamber, are comparable to a miniature version of one of the imperial Ming tombs. At least five other eunuchs chose to be buried in the same cemetery and to throw in their lot, and their Precious, with Tian Yi. Once parted, so to speak, a eunuch and his Precious were inseparable.