Memo From Mac



The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Burlington, Iowa

Wild And Beautiful Yangtze Stuns The Senses 

Chongqing, China The scary airstrip Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers used when the fog let them is still a visible slash on Shanhuba Isle beneath the city, in the middle of the Yangtze. The fog is still here, too, so we almost didn't make it to Chongqing.

Our old Russian turbo-prop finally came down from Xi'an in the late afternoon rain instead of early morning as scheduled so we missed our day's sightseeing before boarding our boat for the dramatic plunge through the Yangtze gorges.

Chongqing (formerly Chungking) is a great, gray cliff dwelling of a city, a mountainous peninsula wedged into the junction of the Jialing and the Yangtze rivers, rising in tiers 2,000 feet above the water. Its central-city population of 800,000 has spread out over the surrounding plateaus to total 6.5 million. Some still live in the old air raid shelter caves.

We'd landed at the new airport 30 miles from town and drove through twisting green canyons and terraced cornfields in the darkening twilight. We had time only for a quick walk through the hot, rain-slimy streets, and a sampling of spicy Sichuan cuisine in a restaurant with terrible toilets, before finding our hotel.

The Amazon and Nile are longer, but the Yangtze stuns the senses. It flows 3,400 miles, our Mississippi only 2,300. The Mississippi trickles down barely 1,500 feet from its source to the Gulf; the Yangtze starts at 18,000 feet in the Tibetan highlands of the Himalayas, plunges 17,000 feet in its first 1,600 miles, drains a basin 2,000 miles long and 600 wide with a third of a billion people, and waters 70 percent of the country's rice, a third of its cotton.

In a 200-kilometer stretch downstream from here, it has dug the longest canyon in the world, a series of gorges with granite walls and limestone cliffs up to 2,000 feet high with the river running 500 feet deep. Dredging and damming and blasting have made it no longer the danger it once was; but it is still regarded among the world's wildest, most wondrous beauties.

We were at the dock in the fog-damp dawn, or rather above it, for it was 200 timeworn stone steps down from the street to the ship's gangway. As we felt our way gingerly down, the porters trotted past with our suitcases two at each end of a pole balanced across their shoulders, muscles in their bare, brown legs knotted like ropes.

Dongfanghong ("East is Red") No. 8 is one of a fleet of passenger ships that make this one of the world's busiest waterways. It's 220 feet long, 50 wide, drawing 8 feet of water, capable of 20 miles an hour down the swift current, with its 2,400 h.p. twin diesel engines. With a crew of 100, it carries 1,000 passengers.

Our privileged group is divided among the 9' x 11' 2-bed cabins, each with a little desk and wash-stand, all opening onto the second deck and sharing a lounge overlooking the bow, for a fare of about $35 for the 3-day, 850-mile voyage to Wuhan. The better-off Chinese are paying about $13 for six-to-a-cabin bunk beds. On lower decks, for lesser amounts, Chinese are crammed in 4-tiered bunks running the entire, sweltering width of the ship. And finally, for only a few cents' fare, the poor are sprawled with children and belongings in hot, smelly passageways or any available deck space.

Old No. 8 backed away from the dock, dropped anchor just above where the Jialing meets the Yangtze, and bobbed there most of the morning, in fog too thick to proceed. It was a photographer's despair, but the imagination's delight, with the mournful music of foghorns answering one another as junks and sampans and coal barges and ferries splashed their way through the gloom. The ghostly city hovered dimly in the clouds that have hidden us away from the world.

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