When the ocean turned to gold we knew we were in China. The East China Sea had been an inky indigo, as seen from the bridge of the Ocean Pearl in the moonlight. Suddenly we crossed a sharp line of demarcation, and the sea turned to a golden yellow.
We had entered the outflow of the mighty Chang (formerly called the Yangtze) River, and although we were still 10 miles offshore, we were already surrounded by thousands of tons of Chinese soil -- loess from the steppes and soil from Tibet, washed out to sea in an endless process of destruction and renewal.
This was part of the China we had come from Maryland to see -- a land of natural and man-made upheavals and continuity, a land of 3,500 years of continuous civilization (the longest on earth) and a land of industrial development and ancient beauty.
Before we went, we examined the political and practical questions involved in traveling in China. The first question was: Is it safe and reasonable to travel to China, given the demonstrations and upheavals of 1989? In researching this issue, we learned that the United States has normal relations with China, that there are now no demonstrations in the cities, that the crime rate is low and travel is very safe.
Having decided to go, we asked our second, more practical, question: How do we get there, and how do we get around the country? Flying out was no problem -- Northwest and United offer excellent service to the Far East from the Baltimore-Washington area. But touring China was more of an issue. Many of our friends and relatives had been to China on traditional land tours and some became ill from changes in the food or water, or exhausted from the lengthy schedules.
We investigated a more relaxing option -- sailing along the China coast in a Western-style cruise liner. After much research, we learned that several lines stop at one or two Chinese ports, but only one offers an extensive cruise of the China seas -- Pearl Cruise Line's M. S. Ocean Pearl.
We boarded the ship in Hong Kong for an 18-day cruise that would end with a land package in Beijing. As the Ocean Pearl sailed out of the dramatic harbor and headed north at 17 knots toward the Taiwan Strait, we explored the impressive vessel that was built in Finland and most recently refurbished in 1988. She was 518 feet long, 66 feet wide, drawing 20 feet, with stabilizers, 254 cabins, a small pool, cinema, well-equipped gym and an attractive decor.
Two days out of Hong Kong, in the middle of the night, we entered the yellow-gold waters of the Chang River delta. As dawn broke a few hours later, we began one of the highlights of the voyage -- a 120-mile cruise up the Chang. The Chang is 3,200 miles long and is the third largest river in the world.
The river was almost a mile across, bordered by a flat, dusty green countryside that stretched away into the distance until it was swallowed up in the haze that covers much of China. Occasionally a line of hills marched away into the distance, usually topped by a many-tiered pagoda. On shore, farmers tended their neat rice paddies and stared at the great liner that was so different from the hundreds of small coal barges that usually ply the river.
Ahead of us a police escort boat warned off some of the barges that tried to come too close to the Ocean Pearl. Asked about this behavior, the captain explained that many Chinese boatmen believe that their boats are followed by a string of evil spirits, and that if they can cut close ahead or behind another larger vessel, they can cut the string and dump the evil spirits onto the larger vessel.
Our Chang cruise -- minus any evil spirits -- ended at sunset at Nanjing, near our next highlight, the amazing Grand Canal. The canal runs for 1,000 miles from Shanghai to Beijing, and is the longest canal in the world. It was built from A.D. 605 to 610 and required 5,500,000 forced laborers urged on by 50,000 guards.
We boarded small boats for a brief cruise on the canal in the town of Wuxi near Nanjing. We dodged under low bridges and waved at solemn-eyed children staring at us from houses overhanging the edge of the canal. At one split in the meandering canal, we came upon a raft of more than 70 barges, each with a family living permanently on board.
Cruising back down the Chang aboard the Pearl, we stopped in the commercial capital of China, Shanghai. With 12 million people, it is the third largest city in the world. Even though it has only about 1 percent of China's 1.1 billion people, it accounts for one-sixth of the country's trade.
A highlight of Shanghai is a visit to the area from which all this commerce is controlled -- the famous Bund. The Bund, with its row of English and European-style buildings rising beside the river, was built in the early 20th century and was used by the European colonial powers as their center of commerce and trade. Now Chinese banks and institutions inhabit the old colonial buildings.
After leaving the Chang and cruising north through the East China Sea, we visited the ports of Qingdao and Dalian. In Qingdao the highlight was a fascinating visit by small groups of passengers to the homes of Chinese families. Our host family was headed by Wang Gui-yin, a manual worker in a fish-processing factory.
Mr. Wang, his wife, a dispatcher in a taxi cooperative, and his daughters, an accountant and a tram conductress, live in a very small two-bedroom apartment in a six-story building with no elevator. The Wangs were quite willing to discuss their household income -- not a taboo topic in China. They told us they earn $120 per month, of which they spend $13 on housing and electricity, and much of the rest on food. They said they are happy in their work but admitted looking forward to retirement -- Mr. Wang at 65 and Mrs. Wang at 45, when they could retire at 90 percent of their salaries.
We left the Pearl in the port of Tianjin and took buses to Beijing, where we saw the fabulous classic cultural attractions of the capital -- the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven. But for us the highlight was meeting the youth of China.
In Beijing and throughout China we talked with Chinese students about their hopes, worries and the political situation. All were happy we had come to visit and learn their stories. We found them usually open about their desires for more democratization and privatization of Chinese institutions, such as the free enterprise produce markets that are flourishing throughout the country. They were anxious for us to return to see them again soon -- and we know we will.
As our departing plane raced toward home, we looked down and saw the setting sun glinting off the yellow-gold seas of China. We're looking forward to again sailing those golden waters.
If you go . . .
Pearl Cruise Line will offer seven China cruises throughout 1992 and can be reached toll-free at (800) 426-3588 or at 1510 S.E. 17th St., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 33316.