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China Cruise

By Gail BryanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 1982

Nanjing, China

Water has meant transportation and communication - and in its control through irrigation, life itself - to the Chinese for millenniums. China's rivers and coast give the cruise passenger entree to the country through ancient gateways and, between cities, surround him with the vibrant life of water traffic: sampans, junks, long convoys of small, narrow boats towed like boxcars. It is a highway heavily redolent of the past.

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Water is an important symbol of power for the Chinese, the water more commanding over time than stone. It is a concept of time that assumes continuity beyond the lifetime of the individual. The highly prized eroded rocks of classical gardens were often harvested by grandsons long after the death of the man who carefully selected and placed them in lake currents. It is not incidental to an experience of China to be in daily contact with a principle, an element, so integral to Chinese culture.

But the traveler on the Yao Hua (the Brilliant), a newly introduced cruise ship under the direction of Lindblad Travel, will be aware first of the beauty of China's waterways, beginning at the old southern capital of Nanjing (the former Nanking), on the Yangtze. The great legendary river, highway immemorial into the inaccessible interior, its presence laden with the images of centuries of trackers hauling junks upriver along towpaths against the deadly magnificent turbulence of its upper reaches.

At dawn it is a lovely pastel, light blue-gray, with a slight cast of yellow. Seen directly from above, the water seems to have an ocher boiling up in it, a delicate smoke, beautiful, impenetrable. Small accents intensify the monotone. A barge with blue sides and orange bits of structure passes loaded with even conical piles of fine black - coal. A line of junks floats by, their sails bright white in the first sun.

On another boat, a man eats a breakfast bowl of congee, his blue shirt centered against a green patch of cabin with a black rectangle for a door. But the dominant impression on the wide expanse of water is that of ocher: sampans with woven mats, planking, and long oars all the same uniform tone of the river silt. The river color becomes the whole world, obliterating the horizon, shading into an envelopment in blue.

Coming into Shanghai, the great ''city above the sea,'' takes hours, it is so immense. The surface of the water is covered. Huge cargo ships and rusting freighters slide heavily by; elegant junks maneuver gracefully among them; endless small open boats ply the shifting open spaces, carrying a miscellany from scrap metal to crated hogs. The banks of the Huangpu are coated solidly with the massive effluvia of shipping - docks and enormous ships and great cranes. The riverscape is an abstraction in metal, a long mobile sculpture in subtle tones of brown with an occasional plane of bright color. The Yao Hua, in brilliant naval whites with her rainbow of ribbons, becomes simply a part of the throbbing, infinitely varied life of one of the largest ports in the world.

The canals of Suzhou are linked to the Yangtze and to the sea by the Grand Canal, one of the major engineering feats of ancient China. But large modern ships cannot negotiate the shallow water.Thus Suzhou's canals retain a quiet loveliness. They reflect the patina of the old city (Soochow): the venerable white houses with heavy, uneven gray tile roofs, the aged stone walls at the banks. Facades are reflected in repeated verticals as they recede into the distance, and long strands of willow trail down into the water in a sinuous echo. Suzhou's waterways draw the visitor into a uniquely intact old urban interior.