Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Up the Yangtze

A friend sent me an article from the NY Times about traveling up the Yangtze River. The full article may be read here. An excerpt is below. Enjoy.

Up the Yangtze River With a $50 Paddle

As the Hai Nei Guan Guang 2 blasted its deafening foghorn and pulled into the Yangtze River port of Fengjie, I brimmed with confidence. Two days earlier, I had nervously boarded a similar workaday passenger boat along another leg of the Yangtze, no idea what was in store. But now, I knew the routine. I’d say san-deng (third-class), hand over some cash, receive a handwritten slip with my cabin number, step over sunflower-seed-spitting passengers camped on the floor and settle into whatever rock-hard bunk remained in a room of instant-noodle-slurping Chinese passengers.

Soon enough, the ship would arrive at my destination — in this case, about 24 hours later in the mega-city of Chongqing.

But for novice travelers in China, there is always a surprise. I entered Cabin 2012 to find its four bunks overflowing with a family of five and a fluffy white cat with butterscotch splotches. I returned to reception, typed “cabin full” into my Google Translate app, and a woman accompanied me back to the room. She addressed the slumbering family — did I mention it was 4 a.m.? — in Chinese. This prompted a boy to vacate his bunk and climb into one with his sister. His bed became mine. There was no apology or change of sheets.

The mistake was mine: four beds didn’t mean four people.

By the next morning I was in a better rhythm, making stunted conversation with the family via a phrase book and accepting a free meal in the ship’s dining room from a young physical education teacher who ordered a whole fish in pungent sauce from a menu on the wall I did not even know was a menu. From the deck, I gazed through a ubiquitous haze at new Yangtze River cities, the result of the Three Gorges Dam project, completed in 2006. I posed for cellphone photos with passengers amused by the presence of a non-Asian.

I was an ignorant, hapless and occasionally clownish first-time tourist in the world’s most populous nation, and one of its most mysterious to Westerners. And I was enjoying (almost) every minute.

Here was the daunting mission: a 10-day trip up the Yangtze River, taking trains and boats, for $50 a day, enough to pay for food, bottom-end hotels and public transport, but not enough for the organized tours and cruises that travelers commonly take through this part of the country.

Along the way, I learned some key lessons that will help travelers avoid my mistakes. Don’t worry: you’ll still make plenty of your own.

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