Up the Yangtze River With a $50 Paddle
By SETH KUGEL
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.