Deep muted horns sound over the water, echoing in the darkness. Dim lights glide past and are broken up briefly by the waves. By 6 a.m., dusky mauve at the horizon silhouettes long lines of figures climbing the steps up the steep hillsides of Chongqing.

I am on the Yangtze, aboard the MS Kun Lun, operated by Lindblad Travel. She is an elegant grande dame of a ship. Built by the Chinese government to host visiting heads of state, she is an exact replica of a ship used by Mao Tse-tung. Trimmed throughout with brass, she has old-fashioned parlors and spacious staterooms, each fitted with a large desk and easy chairs and complete with a full-tub bath. Afternoon tea is laid out at 4, and there is a well-chosen library of works on China, redolent of an era when travel was a part of a gentleman's education.

She is designed for a life of well-planned leisure, and she thus sets the exact tone for a trip through interior China. This is not a cruise for the sybarite, although service on board is superb and the ship has by far the best food (classical Chinese) that I encountered during six weeks in China. It is instead an unequalled opportunity to observe the life of a China little touched by tourism, to explore otherwise inaccessible reaches of one of the most fascinating, important, and least-known nations in the contemporary world.

Traveling the Yangtze is traveling time itself. It is one of the great thoroughfares of history, encrusted with legend and known to the Chinese simply as Chang Jiang, the ''long river.'' Still the core of transportation in a land of harsh mountainous terrain and difficult climate, it rises in the Kun Lun Mountains directly north of Lhasa and flows more than 3,600 miles, almost the whole breadth of China.

History hangs about it like the mists on the mountains that force her through the famous gorges on the Sichuan-Hubei border. One can almost hear the 19 th-century trackers' chant - 60 men to the thick, half-mile bamboo rope - as they clamber barefoot over the vertical rock faces, hauling salt junks up past the treacherous shoals.

The Yangtze is third among world rivers after the Amazon and the Congo in the volume of water it carries. It is fourth in length and supports 70 percent of the aquatic rice grown here.

My passage begins at Chongqing - ''double happiness,'' in Chinese. The name, given by an emperor of the Song dynasty, describes the ancient city today. It is the center of Sichuan, a fertile cornucopia that would make China rich, were it not for its enormous population. The destinies of Sichuan and the Yangtze have been linked for centuries: the felicitous combination of exceptional river and unusual riches at the end of it. A veritable rainbow and the pot of gold.

The land on which Chongqing lies is mountainous. Terraces of intense green ring the city with rice fields. A maze of irregular worn steps leads down to the river and the life of the city spills along this steep twisting street. A young boy is bouncing a battered hoop along the roadside with a stick. Young women are crowded with rows of vintage sewing machines into a cubicle, mass producing something in neon-bright red synthetic cloth. Everywhere layer upon layer of rooms stretch back from the steps - interiors with beautiful light, all open through to the street, all occupied.

I walked one afternoon through Chongqing. Although I felt that I intruded upon private space in the crowded residential streets, I saw only great curiosity (generally held in check) and a gracious hospitality. Several times I was offered a chair by a family as they sat in the neatly swept dirt square of their tiny front yard.

You are not insulated from China upon boarding the Kun Lun. The ship is, as are all tourist ventures in China, Chinese. The veteran crew makes the ship home , and her passengers, therefore, are always close to glimpses into Chinese life. On the top deck is a small garden set in pots: roses, palms, a sunflower, and most spectacularly a gardenia in bloom. Every morning at 5, the bottom deck is crowded with crew members doing t'ai chi ch'uan. And to perform the ancient movements of t'ai chi surrounded by the early light on the mountains of the Yangtze is an indelible experience.

As you are with the Chinese on board ship, so you are with the river. There are no buffers: no hotel lobby, no bus to interrupt the experience. You can wake at 3 a.m. to watch the eerie spotlights of passing ships in the congested channel at Wanxian. Or you can arise at 5 and sit in the lounge, watching the light come up on the steep ridges of Qutang Gorge. While the ship is under way, there are daily lectures by the Lindblad sinologist. But you can always choose the river.

Down from Chongqing, in the afternoon sun, the pagoda roofs above the small village of Shibaozhai suddenly disengage from the trees at the top of a large stone pillar that juts up at the edge of the river. As we wind around, 11 stories of pagoda-style pavilion come into view, climbing up the sheer face of the rock, leading to an 18th-century Qing temple. It is utterly improbable - a sample of the fairy-tale loveliness of old China. We are able to climb it the next morning, up worn wooden steps past faded-red columns, and out into a courtyard with moon windows outlined in yellow. The upturned eaves of the green tile roofs are finished with forms of cranes in flight, a symbol of longevity.

Wanxian, downriver, is a uniformly brown city, the result of headlong industrialization by China. Modernization has swept bare the banks that cascade small houses in old photographs, substituting a block of utilitarian concrete steps (high to accommodate the fluctuations of the Yangtze, sometimes as much as 100 feet). And yet Wanxian proves that China is compelling everywhere. People sit on the steps for hours, watching the river.

Just to the left of the steps is a huge crane that operates into the night. It is a Dantesque scene in the darkness with Caravaggio lighting - the great metal arm swinging around, the operator illuminated surreally in his booth. China is determined once again to be the center, the Middle Kingdom, to achieve parity technologically.

It is for the spectacle of the three gorges that many people come to the river. And they are lyrically beautiful, ridge moving against irregular ridge to create constantly changing blue abstractions. The 17th-century painter Wang Kai wrote: ''. . . Water also has strangely shaped peaks. Rocks are like great billows that roll and smash against mountains. . . . The waves are like galloping horses, and at that moment one sees lofty mountains and peaks in their full grandeur.''

The most dangerous reefs and rocks have been blasted away since the Communists took over in 1949. And one cannot help but mourn the taming of the great river.

Past the gorges at Yichang, a mammoth project is under way to tame the river further. The Gezhouba Dam will provide energy for a country in desperate need of it. The site is a vast area covered with white dust; among the giant machines move men in straw hats - often walking with the bamboo carrying pole.

The Yangtze flattens past Yichang between wide green banks. At Jiujiang, however, we are still close enough to the mountains to visit Mt. Lushan. It has been the retreat of poets and scholars since the Jin dynasty in the third century AD. The day we saw it, the beauty of the mountain was classical Chinese, thin clouds concealing and then revealing different parts of the view. The path around the mountain dips into ravines and skirts chasms, its grace precisely in its precipitous line. Until 1954, Lushan was accessible only by sedan chair, and it is a stirring five-mile walk down the old steps, carved with characters and worn by centuries of bare feet. Su Shi, celebrated Song poet, wrote about the mountain: ''I cannot get a whole picture of Mt. Lushan/ Because I am in its embrace.''

At Nanjing, a great bridge crosses the river. Consulting engineers pronounced its construction virtually impossible, but the Chinese built it. Arching for three miles over unpredictable currents and the great load of silt, the bridge is a testament to modern China, the second to span the Yangtze. On it, I passed an old man walking slowly along the edge of the pavement, his face creased into ridges of wrinkles. He carried a yoke, balancing two small hand-hewn boats. On one of them perched two cormorants, their green eyes cold and sharp, their necks ready for the diving rings.

On the trip I took, the last portion to Shanghai was over a route parallel to the Yangtze on the Grand Canal via Suzhou. In 1984, the Kun Lun will follow the river in an uninterrupted course for its entire navigable length, 1,800 miles. Traffic on the Yangtze increases dramatically close to Shanghai, China's most sophisticated city. It is a crescendo to the course of the Yangtze.

Chongqing and Shanghai, the old city and the new, stand at either end of the Yangtze; symbol of the connection between China's past and its present.

Practical details:

Lindblad Travel is the first American tour company to operate its own programs in China. Lindblad offers a 27-day cruise on the MS Kun Lun (14 days of the river with additional time in Peking, Shanghai, Canton, Hong Kong, and Tokyo), departing every other week in April, May, June, September, and October. Prices begin at $5,500 a person, double occupancy. In July and August, the MS Kun Lun departs weekly as part of a 21-day tour; prices begin at $3,395. Lindblad is introducing a new Yangtze cruise-land package for 1984 aboard the MS Goddess (17 to 28 days). The ship will spend seven days on the river and travel between Chongqing and Wuhan. There are four options for the land portion of the trip. Prices begin at $2,195.

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