Reporter's Notebook: A Journey Down the Yangtze

Yu Falun is a retired metals factory worker, and I met him on the banks of the Yangtze River above Yibin, picking colored stones from the water.

He is 63, has a winning smile and collects the stones as a hobby -- a peaceful pastime that gets him out by the river for hours at a time. For him the Yangtze is a geologic marvel, water wearing down stone for millennia, its slow changes over time producing smooth pebbles for someone with the patience and interest to find them.

When I told him I had come to China to see how people felt about their rapid economic change and growing power in the world, Yu just shook his head and laughed.

China was not rich, he told me in tones one might use to explain the world to a small child. Didn't I know that the only thing they had was cheap labor? How could they make much money like that? No, no, "China," he said emphatically, "is still a poor country."

I know what he means -- there are still plenty of poor people in China -- by one estimate 150 million Chinese live in poverty on less than $1 a day. But 1,700 miles downriver, where the Yangtze flows into the sea at Shanghai, the country does not look poor at all. This is the fourth-largest economy in the world, growing at 11 percent a year, buying up foreign banks, oil companies, computer makers and huge swathes of African rainforest. Like the powerful Yangtze River, China is on the move, and it is getting rich -- fast.

Click here to read Terry McCarthy's blog entry "The River and the Dam: Partners in Changing China."

It has been seven years since I lived in China, and the journey down the Yangtze was a way of checking back to see how much China has changed as it gears up for the Olympics and the eyes of the world next summer. The Yangtze River is, in many ways, the pulse of China, and my journey was a way of taking that pulse.

Spanning the Breadth of China

At 3,964 miles long, it is the longest river in the country. Some 385 million people live in its extended watershed -- almost a third of China's population. They rely on its waters for irrigation, for transport and, sadly, often for dumping waste materials and sewage. It spans the breadth of China, from the desolate nomadic regions of the Tibetan Plateau, down through the poor mountainous areas of Yunnan and the densely populated agricultural province of Sichuan, across the flat -- and often flooded -- center of China to the enormous and just completed Three Gorges Dam and finally reaching its end at Shanghai.

I started the journey just upriver from Yibin, which is about as far as the Yangtze is navigable. The river is yellow-colored here, and in Chinese this stretch is called Jinsha, or Golden Sand river, after the yellow sparkling sand particles it washes down from the steep mountain gorges.

After I said goodbye to Yu, I found an older farming lady, Yang Yingzhen, who works a small scrap of land on a steep hillside that drains into the Yangtze. Now 61, she has been widowed for 10 years, and as we sat on her terrace cracking walnuts on the ground with a cleaver she told me how hard life is in the countryside and how she could only afford to eat meat at most twice a month.

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