The journey ended in Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan city which has always had a weakness for self-indulgence and luxury. Here I found a Ferrari store, fine wine shops and Armani boutiques. One of the restaurants I used to like seven years ago when I left now offers valet parking – this in a city where back in 2000 almost nobody owned their own car and most vehicles belonged to the government. Now pricey imports are double parked outside the best restaurants, showing off a new level of extravagance in a city that has built 4,000 skyscrapers, twice as many as Manhattan.
I climbed to the top of the tallest building in China -- the 101-floor Shanghai World Financial Center, nearly a third of a mile high with a huge counterbalancing pendulum suspended at the top to prevent the building from swaying too much in high winds. This is taller than any building in the United States, which was part of the point in building it. Shanghai is not shy about its ambitions.
Golf is the new sport of choice for businessmen in Shanghai, with 16 new courses built in the past few years. I went to play with some shipping executives at the Palm Beach Club about a half hour's drive outside the city. I was a nonbetting participant; they were playing for up to $6,000 a hole, in a country where the average annual income is about $2,000.
The caddies who were carrying our clubs earned less than $200 a month, including tips. I had to remind myself this was communist China. But the players were not at all fazed by the income disparities. One of my golfing partners, Harry Zhang Zuohai, said, "China has always been like that."
I was thinking quietly to myself that China periodically has had revolutions, too, and when Zhang said, "Nobody knows what will happen in the future -- that is what we worry about, so we are always saving money… because if we don't, maybe in the future we will lose everything… all rich Chinese worry like this."
Harry Zhang may be rich, but in the end he doesn't know if some storm will come and blow the wind off his house. Chinese work hard and endure a lot, but there is a sense that some things will always be out of their control. So too the Yangtze -- even as their best engineers try to tame it with dams, it resists in unexpected ways.
China is moving ahead strongly, many -- but not all -- peoples' lives are improving, and the country feels like a more open place than when I left in 2000. But there is a fundamental unpredictability to China, just like a river that may burst its banks in any rainy season.
How can a country growing at 11 percent a year not be unpredictable? A country where you can buy a Ferrari from a few smart real estate deals but where a single Internet posting criticizing the government can send you to jail.
On my last day I took a boat from Shanghai downriver to where the Yangtze meets the sea. The ships were lined up out, waiting to come upriver. A century ago they would have been British, French or American ships, waiting for cargo to enrich their owners at China's expense. Today they are mostly Chinese container ships, ready to export to foreign countries to enrich China. The terms of trade have been reversed, the pace of trade has accelerated and the Yangtze keeps flowing.