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 (third-class), 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 megacity of Chongqing.
But for novice travelers in China, there is always a surprise. I entered Cabin 2012 to find its four bunks overflowing with a family of five and a fluffy white cat with butterscotch splotches. I returned to reception, typed “cabin full” into my Google Translate app, and a woman accompanied me back to the room. She addressed the slumbering family — did I mention it was 4 a.m.? — in Chinese. This prompted a boy to vacate his bunk and climb into one with his sister. His bed became mine. There was no apology or change of sheets.
The mistake was mine: Four beds didn’t mean four people.
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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.
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 (almost) 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, though: You’ll still make plenty of your own.
Traveling in China is not like 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. (Don’t count on your Mandarin pronunciation.) Third, learn how to count from 1 to 10 on (mostly) one hand as the Chinese do; this is how prices will be relayed you. (Online videos can help.)
Fourth, familiarize yourself with the English pages of Elong.com and Ctrip.com, China-based online travel agencies, where you can find endless English-language listings for cheap Chinese hotels. I usually paid about $20 a night.
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 (where I would be boarding the Hai Nei Gun Guang 2), I was taking them at their word.
So when a portside shopkeeper offered to watch my bag for 5 renminbi (78 cents at 6.1 renminbi to the dollar), 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
A trip up the Yangtze, from Shanghai to Chongqing and through the stunning Three Gorges, can be done in a number of ways, including weeklong luxury cruises for upward of $1,500. As a frugal traveler, I chose the do-it-yourself version, taking trains partway and then using the frequent, crowded and dingy passenger boats that I had read about in a guidebook and online accounts. The problem? They were right about the boats’ conditions, but not the frequency.
There were none at all between Wuhan and Yichang, as far as I could tell. (A Chinese friend I made in Nanjing had called the Wuhan port at my request.) I took a night train to Yichang and got to the port to catch a morning boat to see the Xiling Gorge during daylight hours.
There were supposed to be frequent ferry launches, but in reality there was only one at 4 p.m., which I booked (for 111 renminbi). 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 (at least in February) turned out to be the faster, more expensive hydrofoil (145 renminbi). The windows were thick and cloudy, which is fine for most passengers, who would rather watch the communal TV.
The only exceptions were children (three) and foreigners (me), which was a lucky break, because the tiny hatch that was open to the elements could fit at most four sightseers at once. Along with Li Xin, 12, Wang Jun Peng, 10, and Liu Wei Wen, 9, I braved the wind and cold to stare at sheer-faced cliffs, steep cone-shaped hills stretching up into the mist and occasional barges bearing cars or heaps of something earthy. The scenery needed little explanation, and the children made sure I didn’t miss anything. After I had ducked my head inside to warm up, Li Xin shouted something. I emerged in time to see an impressive cavern that had been worn or blasted into a cliff face.
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 (it now peeks up from behind a coffer dam), but even that sighting was only because a thoughtful Chinese passenger pulled me out of my cabin to alert me.
Eat with abandon
For vegetarians, vegans, those who don’t eat pork, can’t have gluten or those who are scared of street food, this trip would have been a challenge. Luckily, my own restriction — high prices — posed no problem. Thirty renminbi for a meal was a rare extravagance, even in simpler sit-down restaurants. I broke 50 only once, during a 10-course street food gorgefest in Wuhan. And I ate so many delicious dumplings and bowls of noodles that I sometimes wanted to bring the vendors home with me.
One small detail: I wasn’t always eating what I thought I was. This became clear to me at Shunxing Restaurant, near the Fengjie port. The menu, with entrees averaging 20 renminbi, was in Chinese only, so I selected my order by pointing at dishes on other people’s tables with a waitress in tow. That technique’s flaws became evident when what I took to be a particularly colorful vegetable stir-fry turned out to include pig stomach.
Still, in general, I found the locals useful guides when it came to food.
After reaching the gargantuan train station in Wuhan, I was starving but saw no options other than fast-food chains like McDonald’s. Yet all around me, passengers were slurping instant noodles from disposable bowls the size of a child’s beach bucket.
Investigating, I found a convenience store stocked with the same bowls in seemingly infinite (and, to me, incomprehensible) varieties, and I bought one for 5 renminbi. When another man bought his own and darted off, I followed him to a room labeled (in English) “Drinking Water.” Inside, people were maniacally focused on tearing open the multiple packets that came in their bowl, squeezing the contents onto the noodles, then adding hot water from machines. I did the same and the result was a surprisingly satisfying (though very spicy) meal to slurp alongside everyone else. I also felt, however fleetingly, like I fit in.
Explore the old and new
You can’t miss the new China we have all read about: urbanizing masses working in low-cost factories and living in bland high-rise apartment buildings. Even the smog — more constant in winter — that obscured the skylines of every city I visited couldn’t hide it. On the other hand, there’s contemporary art to be enjoyed in semi-hidden Shanghai galleries and a high-speed train running from Shanghai to Nanjing and on to Wuhan that is too convenient to avoid, even if it strains your budget. (I paid 134.50 renminbi to Nanjing and 168 on to Wuhan.)
If you’re on your own, though, what takes effort is to seek out old China.
There are the Three Gorges and the riveting Nanjing Massacre Memorial, a rich tribute to those who died in the cruel 1937 Japanese invasion of the then-capital. In Wuhan there’s the Guiyan Chansi Buddhist Temple and its 500 19th-century arhats, gold-painted statues of Buddhist disciples with 500 expressions, from wise to mischievous to grinning to troubled.
But sometimes it’s worth delving deeper. I chose to stop in Badong because I had read that it was one of the few cities in the region mostly untouched by the flooding that resulted from the building of the dam. It was still dirtily urban, so when the English-speaking son of a hotel worker (whom she had enlisted as my free concierge) suggested that 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. (For once I believed it wasn’t smog.) A laughing Buddha statue overlooked the water; a sign warned us, in comic but effective English, to beware creatures perched on rocks above: “Careful monkeys throw stone. Stay brisk, Mo!”
The path led to the entrance of a cavern and, where the same man I had paid for my ticket — in fact, the only other human I saw in the park — 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. I decided to look for a Couchsurfing.org host for a free stay in Chongqing, the end point of my journey. For lone, 40-ish male travelers like me, couch surfing can be hit or miss. But Chongqing’s couch surfers 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 (famous for its pandas). Her family’s generosity was touching. She insisted that I wake her by phone when my boat docked in Chongqing at 5 a.m. so she could direct the taxi driver to her tidy apartment. Her mother gave me breakfast (poached eggs served in a sugary broth); YangYang went back to sleep when I went off to the zoo, but later we headed off together to explore the city.
Chongqing is often portrayed as soulless and frighteningly immense, but I instantly loved it because of its plentiful open squares and pedestrian areas with people everywhere: rushing, strolling, eating, eating, canoodling, doing tai chi. In part, it was because I had a guide, but also because I had adapted to China. Sure, I still could not recognize a single Chinese character and my nose was now burning from pollution. (“Better than Beijing,” said YangYang, in Chongqing’s defense.) But ordering street food and riding the subway had become old hat. And I wasn’t even fully mute, having mastered the most all-purpose Mandarin phrase in existence: Wo bu mingbai or “I don’t understand.”
That night, YangYang took me to meet her “sisters” (close friends) and their families for dinner at an exclusive restaurant even she could not afford, the VIP 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.