An American on a Chinese river boat is a rare sight indeed, and language is not a barrier for long. Amid the families on deck with chickens and straw mats are teen-agers who ask, "Meiguo (American)?" Say yes and their eyes light up: "Disco!" Your cassettes go straight to the passenger lounge, where the Pointer Sisters play as you float down the Yangtze, the Li, the Huangpu.

China has 60,000 miles of navigable rivers used for transportation, irrigation, electricity and industry. Four of those rivers were vital links in six water journeys that brought me face to face with a different China from the one usually seen by tourists.

The idea for my 21-day, solo circuit of 2,000 miles by river, lake and ocean was essentially lifted from an expensive tour listed in a brochure. My $400 backpacker's version, designed to fit my own needs as economically as possible on vessels ranging from small motorboats to cargo passenger liners, took me from Hong Kong to two southern Chinese cities, Wuzhou and Guilin; through the industrial heartland on the Yangtze; on the West Lake and Huangpu River on the East Coast; and from Shanghai back to Hong Kong along China's southeastern rim.

I found myself happily giving lessons in dancing, English and the guitar to the Chinese crew and passengers. At times I was also uncomfortable, cold and hungry; fed up with being jostled in this jam-packed country; tired of hearing ear-splitting Cantonese and Mandarin spoken with machine-gun speed from predawn til past midnight; and sick of being stared at.

But I certainly had a taste of everyday Chinese life. I met riverside folk who would never have approached me if I had been part of a large tour group. They marveled at my cheap Hong Kong calculator, beamed at family photographs, walked me across town to hotels and pantomimed that it was time to return to the boat by tapping their wristwatches and holding up fingers. Some conversed about their occupations by pointing to ideographs in my phrasebook. And most impressed me with their alertness and nimble ways of circumventing the language barrier.

My slow boat to China began and ended last spring in Hong Kong. For the first leg of the journey, I headed northwest into China on the Xi River, leaving Tai Kok Tsui Pierat dawn for the 10-hour Hovercraft ride from Hong Kong to Wuzhou. Most travelers take a boat or train out of Hong Kong to Canton. But train, boat and bus connections to Guilin, a city surrounded by fabulous shark's-tooth-shaped mountains, are far simpler from Wuzhou than from Canton, 120 miles to the east.

I was the only westerner aboard the Li Jiang Hu. The Hovercraft quickly left Hong Kong's skyscrapers behind and entered China, and it is hard to imagine a starker contrast. Suddenly there was no color. Brown shantytowns with dirt-splattered water buffaloes clung to the banks of the muddy Xi. Peasants in coolie hats rode bicycles or carried buckets on shoulder poles. Decrepit houseboats bobbed in our wake.

Meanwhile, a vivid Mandarin soap opera, beamed from Hong Kong, played on the boat's color television. Four of the 80 or so passengers clicked their mah-jongg tiles as I feverishly studied my phrasebook. After lunch I walked out on deck. The scullery workers were busy washing the dishes -- in muddy water taken from the Xi. From the morning through the afternoon, the colorless landscape consisted of nothing but more shantytowns, and our wake made women washing clothes at the edge of the river scurry up the banks.

Looking out on the alien world of peasants and water buffaloes on the Xi's banks, the entire trip suddenly seemed quite daunting. How exactly would I manage anything here? The odds against my successfully buying tickets, arranging rooms and purchasing meals without any comprehension of language or culture seemed discouraging.

* We arrived at Wuzhou at dusk. Customs consisted of a woman who took my Hong Kong-bought oranges away with an apologetic smile. I filled out immigration forms, then a silent man behind the foreign exchange counter at dockside cashed my traveler's checks. This took about 20 minutes, and at last I was in the People's Republic.

Few westerners go to Wuzhou, an industrial city of 100,000, because there is little of interest to most tourists, and crowds of children gathered to stare as I explored the town. Fascination began to mingle with my misgivings about logistics and language. Darkness had fallen. Waves of bicycles without lights crossed a bridge, silent except for their tinkling bells. An occasional farm or army truck rolled past. There seemed to be no passenger cars -- here a family does well just to have a TV or a new bicycle.

A big department store (with abacuses instead of cash registers) was open and full of people looking at its single television set. Outside, cobblers sat with manual shoe-sewing machines, working by the light of the shopfront windows. The noodle shops and sellers of oranges, with their hand-held weighing scales, traded on the streets.

I spent the night in a four-bed dormitory room at Wuzhou's single hotel. A carefully bound-up mosquito net dangled over the bed of plywood, and sandals and a thermos of hot water for tea were provided. Noisy conversations in Cantonese echoed down the corridor the rest of the night. Happily, an elderly hotel employe had known enough English to book the room for me. He also bought my onward bus ticket, a providence that was to be repeated many times.

The next day, a bus deposited me, again the only foreign passenger, in the tiny riverside town of Yangshuo, 100 miles north of Wuzhou.

The Li River trip ends in Yangshuo, the thousands of tourists floating 50 miles down from Guilin through arguably some of the world's most eerily beautiful scenery. The jade-colored limestone mountains shaped like spires and shark's teeth are celebrated in Chinese art. A Chinese poet wrote 1,200 years ago: "The river forms a green silk ribbon, the mountains are like blue jade hairpins." I intended to attempt to reverse the journey, hitchhiking a ride upstream to Guilin on one of the dozens of boats returning empty. (The tourists go back by bus.)

But first I took a quick ride on a rented bicycle to Moon Hill, a pinnacle with a crescent-shaped hole in its peak. The hour-long ride took me right alongside peasants ploughing rice paddies with water buffaloes. The road passed through a narrow pass in the spires and over a wide green stream with a man poling a sampan. On that misty day the scenery was altogether otherworldly.

Back at the Yangshuo docks at midday, the hitchhiking began badly. I implored each boat captain -- "Guilin?" -- as flocks of Japanese and American tourists disembarked. After five refusals, one of the captains nodded and I, the lone passenger, hopped aboard. A tug pulled the small river boat, with space for about 60 tourists on a drafty single deck, upstream through this gorgeous landscape of twisting river and strange spikey mountains.

The six-man crew cleaned the boat and then pulled out Walkmans and guitars. The second mate, guitar in hand, opened a songbook containing "Love Me Tender" and "Country Roads." I helped him with the pronunciation and the melody -- for hours on end.

No one spoke English, but the crew attempted a guided tour anyway. They pointed to one spire, wrote slowly "car," and made swimming motions. They then pointed to the word "fish" in an English-Chinese dictionary. A light dawned. I drew a car and labeled it, then a fish and wrote "carp."

After laughs over Carp Hill, we all sat down to an awful dinner: tripe, what appeared to be weeds and rice. We docked at Yangti, halfway to Guilin, in the early evening. The crew slept on the boat's tables, while I stayed at the local rooming house, with its Third World decor: dirt floor, naked light bulb, no curtains or power outlets.

The next day we arrived at Guilin about 1 p.m. and moored midriver, lashed to the side of a boat that was, in turn, lashed to many others. I clambered across decks and sterns with steaming open-air woks, across a rope bridge and onto the dock. Guilin was full of tourists; Chinese scalpers who buy up train tickets and sell them to westerners in order to get "tourist money" -- the Foreign Exchange Certificates that are worth far more than regular Chinese currency; and black marketeers, who offer renminbi (peoples' money) at triple the official rate in exchange for the certificates. Though tourists generally must use only the certificates when purchasing accommodations, or air and train transportation, the peoples' money is accepted at restaurants, some gift shops, and for boat tickets. It was an unwelcome change after Yangshuo and the Li River.

Eight days later, after taking a train to Peking and then flying down to Chongqing (formerly Chungking) to continue my journey, I bought a fourth-class ticket for the 60-hour trip to Wuhan on East Is Red No. 5. (The vessel's -- and the shipping firm's -- name, bestowed during the now-decried Cultural Revolution, has since been changed to "Jiangyu.") There was no first class, only second class through sixth. Second provided a two-bed cabin, third meant four to eight beds in a room and fourth consisted of a 16-bed cabin. Sixth class entitled the holder to space on the outside deck.

There are more than 1 billion Chinese, and they always seem to be going where you want to go. Hence I had a two-day wait before leaving Chongqing. This industrial giant is now one of the world's largest cities. Imagine Dickensian London with 14 million people, gray, hazy and grimy with open coal fires burning everywhere. It seemed to offer little for the tourist. Yet just walking the streets of Chongqing proved to be an astounding experience.

There were performing monkeys; fetuses in bottles at a sidewalk freak show; a market where chickens' throats were slit and the blood gathered in bowls; giant building stones being carried by two men sharing a shoulder pole; and men in harness hauling carts up the steep streets from the docks.

The bleak city zoo featured six scruffy pandas. At the zoo's teahouse, I was sipping jasmine tea with floating white flowers, when a tiny girl tapped my elbow. She handed me a cookie, to smiles of approval from a nearby table of adults.

Two nights later the boat finally loaded up for the three-day, $12.68 trip. My bunk was in a room of 16. Two West German students were the only other foreigners among the 350 or so passengers.

The first night, a group of young trendies returning to Wuhan -- identifiable by slightly longer hair and vaguely Carnaby Street scarves and jackets -- corralled me outside the passenger lounge.

"American? Disco!" They politely tried dancing to the Pointer Sisters, and I self-consciously showed them my best shot at breakdancing. Eventually they switched back to their own more waltz-based pop music.

The second day brought sights of a sailing junk, East Is Red vessels going back up stream, terraced fields and a few nondescript hamlets. That evening we reached the city of Wanxian. Passengers shoved on board with babies on their backs and chickens dangling, pushing motorcycles draped with wicker baskets.

The next day we passed through the gorges, which are a bit grander than the stretches of the Potomac near Harpers Ferry but scarcely the world wonder, Grand Canyon-class experience we foreigners were expecting. Perhaps the Yangtze, or Chang Jiang as the Chinese call it, merely pales compared with the more exotic Li River. The scene was one of gray, luminous clouds; gray mountains 1,000 feet high; gray and clay-colored villages; soft red earth and subdued green in the terraced fields.

But to each his own. In Paul Theroux's book "Sailing Through China," one of the American millionaires on a special charter down the Yangtze says: "These gorges come up to expectations. Very few things do. The Taj Mahal did. The Pyramids didn't. But these gorges!" Meanwhile, our quarters in fourth class limited the potential enjoyment. The men smoked smelly Chinese cigarettes in the cabin, and the windswept deck was the only alternative. Incongruously, "Beautiful Dreamer," "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" and "Jingle Bells" were piped throughout No. 5's sound system.

The food was mediocre. One day we were served what appeared to be salted fish fins. At other times we had grayish meat (pork? water buffalo?), greasy vegetables and one utterly mysterious entree that resembled the exterior of a starfish. Mealtimes became a spectacle: I was forced to make a grand entrance to the eating hall, as the Chinese refused to let me wait in the long lines. The cooks, the cashiers and the servers waved and smiled as I entered for each progressively less appetizing meal.

The third day we floated down wide muddy waters, past flat distant shores, to Wuhan, a city of 3 million known for its iron and steel works. Another industrial giant in the heartland, Wuhan was even more like Dickensian London than Chongqing.

We three tourists spent the night in the Aiguo, which means "Motherland Loving Hotel." There were rats in the hallway, the bathroom was diabolical (I would walk across town to the plusher Jianghan Hotel's facilities), sheets were changed once a month (we learned later), there was no heat, and washing required taking a metal basin down to a standpipe and bringing water back to the room. Yet, the dear old Aiguo did have television in the rooms.

However, the two Yangtze River cities provided a look at the heartland of China. In Wuhan and Chongqing, I met friendlier people than in Peking. The young English speakers told me of $20-a-month salaries, how the state forced them to work hundreds of miles from their home towns and of their dreams of gaining entrance to an American university.

But I found the China of my romantic imagination, which the muddy Xi and Yangtze so cruelly disappointed, at the sublimely beautiful West Lake in Hangzhou. (I had first flown from Wuhan to Shanghai before taking the three-hour train trip southwest to Hangzhou.)

In the middle of the lake is an island, Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, with bright red teahouses and pagodas. Honeymooners strolled among flowers. A tourist boat took passengers over to the island and back for a few pennies.

Most of the 3 million people of Hangzhou were friendly and eager to talk to foreigners. The city offered walks, an interesting Buddhist temple and flawless German pastries at the Hangzhou Hotel, a pleasing building overlooking the lake. The hotel is well managed and serves fine dinners, while a string orchestra glides into '30s standards on a raised stage at the end of the restaurant. Two or three days in Hangzhou is an excellent tonic for the claustrophobia of China's busier cities.

Shanghai, by contrast, was nothing if not busy. China's first city in commerce offered a pleasant 3 1/2-hour round trip up the Huangpu River to the East China Sea. The Pujiang, a glassed-in tourist boat holding about 500 passengers, left the pier across from the Peace Hotel, passing the Bund, Shanghai's incongruous waterfront with buildings seemingly from an American city in the '30s. Giant cargo ships from around the world lined the banks for miles all the way to the sea, but unfortunately there were no junks or sampans in view. Aside from a few warehouses, there was little for a sightseer.

On our return to the Bund, we passed the berthed M.V. Haixing, a white passenger and cargo liner that I boarded the next day for the journey back to Hong Kong. I had a third-class cabin all to myself, with the blankets on the bed folded into upright fan shapes like dinner napkins. The Haixing had a library with English-language magazines and listings of Chinese TV programs, which included the cartoons "A Bitter Experience in the Fields" and "A Pig Chooses a Cat as His Guard." The ship also had video games, pool tables, a swimming pool lacking water and lounge chairs on deck for reading or sleeping.If one could fault the Haixing, it would be the skimpy meals included in the $73 fare. They were tasty, but there was not enough to satisfy.

The 2 1/2-day journey proved to be enjoyable -- although not because of the scenery; there was none so far from the Chinese coast. But it was a chance for the 20 or so westerners on board to share experiences.

Late at night in the passenger lounge, drinking Tsingtao beer and playing Springsteen on the stereo, we tried to make sense of what we had seen: a lost generation of uneducated, middle-aged Chinese, victims of the Cultural Revolution; the young Chinese with their incredible efforts at self-improvement and intense curiosity about the United States; the face of Communism, seemingly less repressive than what we had heard of the Soviet variety.

We had struggled with the language, and had been treated rudely by hotel, transportation and tourist office staff, but kindly by everyone else. Obsessed with this ancient and alien civilization, we talked endlessly to try to make some sense of it.

Our final morning, we encountered a fog bank as we rounded the southwestern corner of Hong Kong Island. We sat for four hours, listening to the foghorns of the oceangoing vessels just out of sight around us. Then the highlight of the trip: The fog cleared to reveal the skyscrapers of the Central District. We came upon Hong Kong as it should be discovered, from the water, not the air. We disembarked at Tai Kok Tsui Pier; five of us hired a cab -- and went straight to McDonald's.