It is a sunny October morning in Chungking when our ship - East is Red 36 - slips into the channel that will thread us through the fabled Yangtze River gorges. The 800-mile, two-and-a-half day trip down this angry river - so unlike the placid Potomac - will take us for a time out of the bustle of modern China into traditional scenes of the past.
A hundred years ago a cock would have been killed and its blood dripped onto the prow to ensure our ship's safe passage.
Today our supplication is a Chinese voice booming over a loudspeaker, exhorting passengers to bid farewell to their relatives and friends, reading an editorial from the People's Daily, and introducing the crew to the accompaniment of the ever-popular martial music "The East is Red."
On the first day downriver the Yangtze is a wide, brown, rushing river, banked by low hills populated with people fishing and farming, working and washing and watching. Here a fisherman uses a bamboo pole. There another swishes a long-poled dip net beneath the opaque silt brown surface to catch what he cannot see.
Giant gray and brown building stare down from the hills. One a factory, another a hospital, another a nuclear institution, still another a People's Liberation Army barracks or none of these. It is impossible to tell, and no one on our boat knows for certain. Though Chinese characters decorate the buildings' walls or chimneys, they do not spell out their identifying names. Rather, these are the ubiquitous exhortations: "Hold High Chairman Mao's Great Banner and March Forward Victoriously."
Our diesel-powered, Shanghai-built, 17-year-old ship stops briefly at a floating dock at Fu-Ling for refueling, then we're off again. Now the industrialization thins out rapidly. There are fewer people; less river traffic; the same beauty.
In the starry predawn hours of the second day - gorge day - we leave Wahsien, where steep and stunning steps connect river to town. (We had not been allowed ashore.) Downriver, after a few hours' journey, the landscpae begins changing. Brown cascading waterfalls split the lush green on both sides of the river. Black-eared kites and pied wagtails fly overhead. Two spotbilled ducks land ahead of the boat and take off again.
It is 9:18 a.m. when we enter the first of the three principal gorges - Chutang Gorge, roughly five miles long. Four minutes later we are staring at the Meng Liang steps - a series of identical holes stitched up a 700-foot escarpment. Legend has it that Meng Liang's army of the Eastern Kingdom had been trapped in this gorge within a gorge called Wind-Box by the army of the Wester Kingdom smug atop the escarpment. But the soldiers of Meng Liang chiseled the holes into the wall; stuck beam ends into the holes; and climbed their makeshift ladder to the top and victory.
In rapid succession now come other gorges within Chutang Gorge (Gorge of Errors); peaks (Goddess peak); and stories with each. An hour later we are in 27-mile-long Wu Hsia, the gorge with the sharpest escarpments. After a brief stop at a town called Pa Tung, we set off again for the third and longest (41 miles) principal gorge - Hsiling.
All along the way a wide assortment of other boats navigate the river. High above the Yangtze people - and goats - walk the old trackers' trail. Caves and dwellings resembling the pueblos of our Southwest scatter the mountainsides. In the last gorge men pound away at the rock. Others blast it, making the sound of wind chimes.
Twenty minutes before we pass through the last of the gorges we enter Lampshine Gorge. John Hersey once described it this way:
"On the bank on our right were steep, giddying limestone cliffs crowned with soft-formed, many-wintered rocks, while on the left shelves of less precipitous but still formidable mountains, picturesque villages and temples rested . . ."
It has not changed.
Once out of the gorges, the primitiveness and wildness disappear. Here is a broad river lined with apartment houses and other modern buildings. Ahead is a forest of derricks and smoking chimneys. We have reached Ichang, a booming industrial city.
One minute we were watching Chinese hauling crushed rock and huge boulders by hand and back onto wind-driven and tracker-pulled boats. An eternal minute later we are staring at modern freighters and brand new Italian dump trucks.
We have only one more night on East is Red 36 and then we are in Wuhan, the destination of this indelible journey.
It was like taking a steamer down the Mississippi River, only the Mississippi went through the Grand Canyon and past the New Jersey Palisades into a Norwegian fjord.