Clockwise from top left, crossing the Yiling Yangtze Bridge; the main street in Badong; figures at a temple in Wuhan; the riverboat cabin the author shared with a family of five.
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, 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.
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.
A meal of instant noodles, the main source of nourishment on the riverboat.
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 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.
It’s Not Like Traveling Anywhere Else
Getting ready for a trip through China, especially planning anything outside major cities like Shanghai and Nanjing, is unlike planning a trip elsewhere. The usual sources — guidebooks, Web searches, user review sites — either don’t provide the information you need or are in Chinese. Compared with, say, Southeast Asia, China has not been overrun, and thus well-documented, by independent travelers.
So what should you do? First, learn how to use Google Translate. It works and is cheap to use, even if you have to turn on international roaming. Second, get a phrase book in which key phrases are written out in large-font Chinese characters. Third, learn how to count from 1 to 10 on one hand as the Chinese do: this is how prices will be relayed you.
Trust the Locals
When I travel to far-off countries, I tend to guard my possessions maniacally. But everyone told me crime was a nonissue in China, and by the time I reached Fengjie, I was taking them at their word.
So when a portside shopkeeper offered to watch my bag for 5 renminbi, I thought, why not, and took off to explore the hilly town unburdened. But I had to come back when she closed at 6 p.m., and the boat wouldn’t pull in until 4 a.m. “Where can I wait?” I typed into Google Translate.
It was as if a starter’s gun had been fired. She grabbed my suitcase and bolted across the street. I chased her down an alley full of drying clothes and rotting trash, into a wide-open door and up a decrepit staircase. In some parts of the world murder would have seemed imminent. But I trusted this woman. She led me to a family-run flophouse with crumbling walls and dirty, squat toilet bathrooms, but also bedrooms with crisp white sheets, working Internet and a TV with about 100 cable stations. It cost 30 renminbi, and it was perfect. I left my bags, computer included, and continued to explore Fengjie by night.
Don’t Skimp on the River Trip
There were supposed to be frequent ferry launches, but in reality, there was only one at 4 p.m., which I booked. And it turned out I had to take a bus to the boat, which actually left around 6 p.m., passing through the gorge after dark and defeating the purpose.
Farther up the river, the only noncruise, daytime option for my trip from Badong to Fengjie turned out to be the faster, more expensive hydrofoil. The windows were thick and cloudy, which is fine for most passengers, who would rather watch the communal TV.
Thanks to my no-cruise policy, I missed a chance to see the Three Gorges Dam, as well as many of the side highlights of the Gorges. I did catch the 17th-century Shibaozhai fortress, a 12-story pagoda formerly set high in the side of a cliff but even that sighting was only because a thoughtful Chinese passenger pulled me out of my cabin to alert me.
Explore the Old, as Well as the New
If you’re on your own, though, what takes effort is to seek out old China.
It was still dirtily urban, so when the English-speaking son of a hotel worker suggested I take a taxi out of town to a “famous” cave that I had heard nothing about, I jumped at that opportunity, even if even if it would cost 80 renminbi for a taxi and 90 for entrance to the park.
What I found was Bashan Forest Park, which was straight out of some mystical Chinese past. A stone path snaked along partway up the side of a gorge. Greenish-gray waters of what I took to be a narrow Yangtze offshoot ran below; above, lush, green hills faded into mist.
The path led to the entrance of a cavern, and, where the same man I had paid for my ticket appeared again, leading me onto a rickety wooden boat, which he propelled, gondolier style, through subterranean passages illuminated with electric lanterns and Christmas-style lights.
About the time of the pricey cave trip, I was getting way over budget. For lone, 40-ish male travelers like me, Couchsurfing can be hit or miss. But Chongqing’s Couchsurfers were the most eager I’d ever encountered: I got three lodging offers and several other invitations.
I chose to stay with someone closest to my age, YangYang, a 35-year-old woman who lived with her mother and daughter near the Chongqing Zoo.
That night, YangYang took me to meet her “sisters” and their families for dinner at an exclusive restaurant even she could not afford, the V.I.P. restaurant of the Chongqing DLT Hotel.
About 15 of us sat around a huge, round table covered in flowers, under a wall-size painting of tumbling waterfalls. An attentive and excessive serving staff placed endless dishes — delicate dumplings, sesame-encrusted chicken, seafood soup, crispy okra, more than 20 in all — on a mechanized lazy susan. It was luxurious, gluttonous and absolutely free; one of YangYang’s friends’ husband was the assistant general manager, and he was treating. The ostensible occasion was the coming Chinese New Year. But for me, it felt like my graduation ceremony from China boot camp.