Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Yang-tizzy
Days 23-25 of our southeast Asia odyssey

The Yangzi River. So mighty, compelling, pivotal...such power to fascinate, not to mention to lure national and international trade that countries will fight over.  Brian and I succeeded in our goal of cruising on the Yangzi (aka Yangtze) River through the Three Gorges. We were bound and determined to do this, and we made it happen on our second trip to China. What a river it is!

I also managed to delight myself almost beyond recognition by reading Simon Winchester's The River at the Center of the World, which chronicles his Yangtze journey, while we were on the river! So meta! So inspiring! And informative, too.

Careful readers will notice that I'm interchanging the spellings Yangzi and Yangtze. I mean, they're both approximations using a different alphabet, and the new system of romanization of Chinese words renders some of them differently than the old long familiar spellings. I must confess to preferring Yangtze, if only because of Thirteen Ways to Sink a Sub, a book I read during elementary school that was all the rage when it came to our library, with waiting lists and everyone clamoring to be next in line. In that book's opening chapter, the boys and girls are headed to school and a few students will be giving some sort of class presentation that day about China and the Yangtze, but one of the little third(?) graders -- or fourth? -- pronounces it "Yang-tizzy."  That book was really the first time I encountered the Yangtze, and I learned a thing or two, in the way that you do when you read intermediate fiction and the authors sneak in worldly facts that I sometimes wonder if I would have learned any other way. By the way, it's still spelled Yangtze in lots of places, including the Yangtze River Hostel where we stayed in Chongqing for 2 nights before departing on our cruise.

I should clarify here that I use the term "cruise" loosely. We were actually on a Chinese traveling boat filled with people going home for the Chinese New Year big holiday period. It was the extremely low season, being not just January and cold and drizzly but also heading into the holiday when the entire country shuts down (and leading up to which the entire country is busily migrating back home, wherever that home may be). We did not take a luxury cruise geared toward foreigners (mostly Westerners) or even a touristy Chinese boat. We had a very simple two bed cabin and announcements in Chinese and a restaurant that wasn't always open and a heater that didn't work (China really hates me when it comes to heat, seriously) and quite frankly we would have not had much of a clue of what was happening, ever, were it not for our random new friend across the hall who just so happened to be from California, cruising with his mother, and totally bi-lingual and fluent. Our hero!

Actually, we did manage to figure out a few things, namely, when it was worth it to brave the drizzly misty cold to go stand on the tiny front deck (a few feet away from our door) to behold the Gorges. And behold we did. As you may know if you ever read any news about anything beyond the U.S. talking heads parade of bullshit rhetoric and terrible reality show celebrities, the Three Gorges Dam in China is like this huge monstrosity of an accomplishment that has irrevocably altered the landscape, displaced people, provided gobs of energy, cost a lot of money, attracted controversy but also investors from around the world, etc. Well, we got to see it!  At the end of our cruise, we took a little side trip. But during the cruise, we got to gaze at the gorges that have started to fill up with water behind the dam, and we got to ponder their beauty that still exists even if someone somewhere says I should have seen it sooner, and I got to read so much history as Simon traveled in his book the length of the river, while I glimpsed just that portion of it, and I thought about how the Yangtze is so much bigger than me.

Rivers are cool. I could go on a tear reading literature about people journeying up and down the world's mighty rivers. I've read Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness and now Simon Winchester's Yangtze odyssey. But rivers don't just take people to different places; they take society and civilization to different places.

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