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Sailing the Yangtze

  I sailed 1,500 miles downstream, from Chungking to shanghai. Every mile of it was different, but there were 1,200 miles I did not see. It crosses ten provinces, 700 rivers are joined to it-all Yangtze statistics are hopeless, huge and ungraspable, they obscure rather than clarify.And Yangtze Riversince words have a greater precision than numbers, one day I asked a Chinese ship captain if he thought the river had a distinct personality.

  He said, 'The mood of the river changes according to the season. It changes every day. It is not easy. Navigating the river is always a struggle against nature. And there is only one way to pilot a ship well.' he explained he was smiling and blowing smoke out of his nostrils-'It is necessary to see the River as an enemy.'

  Later a man told me that In the course of one afternoon he had counted nine human corpses bobbing hideously down the river.

  The Yangtze is China's main artery, its major waterway, the source of many of its myths, the scene of much of its history. On its banks are some of its greatest cities. It is the jountainhead of supelstition, it provides income and food to half the population. It is one of the most dangerous rivers in the world, In some places one of the dirtiest, In others one of the most spectacular. The Chinese drink it and bathe in it and wash clothes in it and shit in It. It represents both life and death. It is a well spring, a sewer and a tomb, depthless in the gorges, puddle-shallow at its raplds. The Chinese say if you haven't been up the Great River, you haven't been anywhere.

  They also say that in the winter, on the river, the days are so dark that when the sun comes out the dogs barb at it. Chungking was dark at nine in the morning, when I took the rattling tin tram on the cog railway that leads down the black crags which are Chungking's ramparts, down the sooty cliffs, past the tenements and billboayds ('Flying Pigeon Bicycles', 'seagull Watches', 'Parrot Accordions') tothe landing stage. A thick, sulphurous fog lay over the city, a Coketown
of six million... Doctor Ring rose, who was from Leeds, sniffed and said, 'That is the smell of my childhood.'

Paul Theroax, Sailing Through China, 1984


What to See In Yangzhou

• Sailing the Yangtze