4.3.09 — Nanchong; bus to Chongqing; Yangtze River

April 17, 2009


At first my parents tried to dissuade me from the Yangtze excursion, saying that it was too last-minute, that it would cut short my time with the family in Nanchong, that a woman should not be traveling alone on an old river. But I fiddled with my little camera, absorbed in resolve, and said simply, “I’m going.”


I’m drawn to narratives about disintegrating landscapes, indeed to such abstractions as the dying building, the abandoned city, the forced transfer of dreams and hopes from a warm home into a cold house. Pedro Paramo‘s precious ghosts unnerve, Jakob von Gunten‘s servant school is a subversive delight, Too Loud a Solitude‘s trash maker rapturously celebrates literature, All the Name‘s benevolent Central Registry overwhelms the most ordinary of men, and Bait‘s record on the impossible narrative tickles the storytelling bone—and so my fascination with the Yangtze and its lush, farm-dappled gorges being submerged by one of the world’s largest dams, a power-harnessing beast sixteen years in the making, first proposed in 1919 by the founder of the Republic, Sun Yat-sen, and of course embraced wholeheartedly by Mao himself, and now with only a year left till completion. River diversions are common—and there are more to come—but this dam’s unprecedented scale has since hastened the destruction of marine life, caused massive earthquakes and landslides, buried centuries-old relics, temples, and tombs, and displaced more than a million people. “An environmental catastrophe,” according to reports both Chinese and Western. “A disaster in the making,” the Chinese government had itself admitted last year. In my mind: countless stories to be told, imagined, written down—a small project of conservation.



At a nearby travel agency, a stark office where two young women sat behind a well-worn desk each shouting hoarsely into a phone, my cousins and their husbands helped us book the Yangtze tour tickets. Six to a room, or four? Four. Three or four days? Three. Toilet or squatting preferred? Toilet. My mother to pay for the trip, or my cousin? My cousin. My cousin to accompany us, or we brave a Chinese tour on our own? On our own, please, no need to interrupt one’s busy schedule, not when visiting ancestors’ graves is nigh, not when the weather will be chilly, not when—et cetera.

After a while my attention drifted, as it does when a task has been taken over by a greater, more organized force such as my mother or my sister. It has always been my nature to not pay attention—that is, to bury my head in the nearest cloud, blinking into the fine mist of what-ifs or, as is also the case with my father, into the poetry of detail. In this case, the detail was language itself. I barely understand Sichuanhua, but I can easily grasp its weight, humor, and exuberance. The dialect is aggressive and rapid, and to my putonghua ear accustomed to intonations that lean into one another as in a musical scale, this trilling, up-down-up-down rhythm is at once disorienting and revelatory. Sometimes it sounds like Taiwanese or Cantonese, even Japanese, but when I shared this observation with various members of the family, they each scoffed.

I tilted my head as though waiting for a whistle to blow. Can’t you hear it? I kept asking.

You don’t hear a thing, they kept saying.


img_0596 For the morning send-off, we ate cool mi fen swimming in chili-flecked broth, a breakfast staple in the area, as well as white mantou, fried eggs, and warm sweet soy milk. We were joined by my cousin’s husband’s parents, my aunt, and another cousin who later that morning would be returning to his restaurant in Santiago. His next project there is Spanish-Asian fusion; fusion, he says, is so in vogue, he can make up just about anything as long as the menu includes noodles and rice. I asked him if he spoke any Spanish. He shook his head. There’s no reason for him to; he just points at the thing he wants, and it eventually reaches him. He said, “Life in Chile was difficult for me for the first six months. It’s been five years now, and it’s still difficult—but now I can get by.” “I would like to visit you next April,” I said to him, around a mouthful of my third bowl of mi fen, “and see for myself.” He nodded and saluted. Then he was off.


at the docks, in Chongqing

The bus ride from Nanchong to Chongqing, where our rickety old boat awaited us, took four hours. The movies at hand were Shaolin Soccer and 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. I felt no guilt for napping, no exhaustion once I awakened, no sense of me at all. I was on my way to the great Yangtze River, after all, where dear, homesick Li Bai had fallen drunkenly off his boat and drowned, probably all the while composing a final poem about the moon or his departed friends. A favorite:

For three days, the boat traveled up Ox Gorge.
For three nights it advanced slowly.
For three days and three days the hair on my brow
Grew white without my knowing.


img_0792 We stopped at a temple, and I had my first real taste of how chaotic crowd control can be in this country. Guides with bullhorns politely repeated instructions to keep order, to not push one another, to walk steadily from Point A to Point B, but the momentum of bodies, three-plus tour groups in total, didn’t allow for any space or even to think about your own space, and so there’s no choice but to go with the flow. My irritation at being crushed ebbed, though there was a lingering anxiety about stampedes and the ground falling beneath our feet. A simple railing at key points in China would solve everything.


supervision, in Chongqing

Most pictures I took of construction were of wide office buildings and tall condominiums in various stages of development, but there were only a handful of pictures of work done on the ground. I think I spent most of my time looking up, which must be a common phenomenon that afflicts the tourist.



On the way back to the boat, people bought noodles, duck’s neck, and tchotchkes from rows of patient vendors. Nobody had been interested in the offerings on the way up the hill, but now the market was bustling with loud bargaining and Say-Cheeses. I bought a giant mantou. My mother had told the cousins earlier that morning that my favorite food was bread. Though I hadn’t considered any sort of favorites since the start of the trip, this reminder—as any reminder does for me—served to spark the urge for the thing being discussed, and at the first sight of a giant mantou I thought of my grandmother and her Buddhist prayers and of the things that easily pleased me, and I ate the bread leisurely and with contentment, wondering if perhaps my footprints already fading from this faraway hill would show up one day on the other side of the world.


2 Responses to “4.3.09 — Nanchong; bus to Chongqing; Yangtze River”

  1. bint battuta Says:

    Beautiful prose. Reading this has been the most worthwhile thing I have done today.

  2. Peter Says:

    “. . . a woman should not be traveling alone on an old river.”

    I love the feel of that.

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