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Full Circle

Day 66: On the Yangtze

Michael Palin - Full Circle'Build Wanxian Into A Big City With 5,000,000 Population In 2000.' This huge hoarding, which looms up on our starboard side at breakfast time, is recklessly optimistic. Two-thirds of Wanxian, including nine hundred of its factories, will be inundated by the Three Gorges' floodwaters. Whatever big city it is built into by the year 2000 will not be the one we look out on this morning.

Which may not be a bad thing. From the river it looks hellish. Countless smokestacks and factory chimneys feed every shade of smoke from deep black to rust brown into a sky already turgid with low, pus-yellow cloud. A rubbish-tip smoulders on the shore and murky water streams from the town walls through great cavernous sluices. Trails of white scum, residue from an up-river paper factory, swirl past the boat, too thick to be broken up and not heavy enough to sink. My clothes retain the stink of sulphur long after my walk on deck.

These are the dark satanic mills of the Yangtze and, pausing only to set down and take on passengers, we proceed onwards, adding our own dose of diesel smoke to the thick, sticky gloom. I'm feeling quite seriously deprived of the sight of a sunrise or a sunset, a star at night or just a puffy cloud or two - anything to break the dispiriting colourlessness that has hung over the country since we left Shanghai.

The gorges are behind us now and the river turns quite sharply southwards. We are almost exactly twenty-four hours from our destination, Chongqing. All this and other information is relayed to us by the ship's announcer, a pretty twenty-three-year-old, with dark hair combed in a fringe, small mouth and full lips, who won the job in a competition. She would rather have been an actress but she's settled for announcing. Her own neat little cabin on the upper deck has the top half of the doorway curtained off as in a photo booth. When she's not at the microphone, she sits behind the drawn curtain, knitting demurely.

The scenery is pastoral again. An atmospheric mist shrouds tranquil terraces and villages. At Shibaozhai we pass a fine pagoda, eleven storeys high, built into the black-stained limestone rock of the west bank. Its blood-red walls and blue and white trimmed roofs inject a rare burst of colour into the landscape.

The day passes slowly. Chinese passengers hang over the deck rail clutching flasks of green tea which look like dumb-bells. At Zhong Xian more coal-black concrete factories pile up the river bank. In the fields around crops struggle to push their way through a layer of soot. But bad air and bad buildings don't necessarily mean bad food. Zhong Xian is the gourmet centre of Szechuan bean curd. As our ferry pulls alongside, choice delicacies are being freshly-cooked on the jetty. Frantic buying and selling goes on. As we leave, last purchases of bean curd are hurled across the water to the departing boat.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 66
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Zhong Xian
  • Book page no: 95

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