Shall I sing a Tujia love song for you?” asks our river guide,
Shirley, referring to the ethnic Chinese heritage of her
grandparents. The Tujia “Trackers” as they are called have been
rowing and pulling wooden sampans along the shallow stretches of
Shennong Stream, an off-shoot of the famous Three Gorges on the
Yangtze River, for generations. Graceful and delicate in her
fuchsia silks, Shirley serenades us with an enchanting melody that
reverberates through the sheer granite walls on either side of us.
Its sorrowful strains speak directly to the heart, as great folk
songs do, language notwithstanding.
The impromptu serenade during our 10-night Uniworld “China Grand
River Cruise & Tour” in late spring was but one touching
glimpse of the past in a country fixated on the future. From the
4,000 skyscrapers of Shanghai that nightly provide a kaleidoscope
of moving pictures that makes the Vegas Strip positively dim in
comparison to the staggering locks of the Three Gorges Dam that
turn those of the Panama Canal into mere toys, this is a land of
extremes population, technology, consumer goods you name it, it’s
here in bigger numbers and in the latest model. And when it comes
to natural beauty, China offers scenery that is unsurpassed.
Thanks to the partnership between Uniworld and Victoria Cruises,
our journey provided the best of what is old and new in China. The
tour, from Shanghai to Beijing, included a four-night cruise on the
Yangtze and the spectacular scenery of the Three Gorges.
Thirty-year veteran river cruise and tour operator Uniworld handles
all land-tour arrangements, including intra-China air transfers
between river embarkation cities Yichang and Chongqing. Impeccable,
fluent English- and Chinese-speaking guides accompany guests from
the moment of their arrival, including air and river cruise
segments of the journey.
The centerpiece of these tours, of course, is the Yangtze River
cruise on the award-winning Victoria Cruises fleet. From my
spacious Junior Suite balcony aboard the recently christened
Victoria Anna, I could gaze out on the sparkling new infrastructure
springing up along the Yangtze, such as graceful bridges connecting
glistening new riverfront developments. I was also mesmerized by
broad valleys, terraced farmland, monolithic stone cliffs and
dramatic mountain peaks. With its glass elevators, onboard spa and
upscale Western specialty restaurant, the Victoria Anna provides
every necessary amenity for relaxation and pampering. Seminars on
Chinese calligraphy, rug-weaving, kite-making and Chinese history
were favorites among guests, as were guided shore excursions and
exotic Chinese medicinal treatments. I even took a turn on deck
flying traditional Chinese silk kites, courtesy of a master kite
maker, whose family made kites for the last dynastic emperors. I
watched my dragonfly dance on the wind between the walls of the
Gorges and lost myself in the past.
On May Day, we found ourselves in the epicenter, the crossroads of
modern and ancient China: Tiananmen Square. The mood in Beijing
felt like the Fourth of July festive, friendly and exuberant.
Fathers scrambled to take photos of their families against the
backdrop of Chairman Mao’s portrait, or asked us to pose with them.
Later that night, we ventured into a McDonald’s packed with
giggling teenagers. Though the young cashier speaks no English at
all, and my Chinese is limited to “hello” and “thank you,” it was
comforting to know that a cheeseburger and a coke are universal. So
are a few other things.
I think of Shirley, our river guide, who wore her Tujia heritage
as prominently as her smile. After her serenade, she asked us to
please interpret for her the lyrics to her favorite song a ballad
by Karen Carpenter. She began, “When I was young, I listened to the
radio, when they played my favorite songs&” Immediately, all
the Western passengers recognized the tune and enthusiastically
joined in with the remaining lyrics of “It’s Yesterday Once More.”
Somehow fitting, I think.