We employ hydrodynamic equations to investigate nonstationary channel flows of freely cooling dilute gases of hard and smooth spheres with nearly elastic particle collisions. This work focuses on the regime where the sound travel time through the channel is much shorter than the characteristic cooling time of the gas. As a result, the gas pressure rapidly becomes almost homogeneous, while the typical Mach number of the flow drops well below unity. Eliminating the acoustic modes and employing Lagrangian coordinates, we reduce the hydrodynamic equations to a single nonlinear and nonlocal equation of a reaction-diffusion type. This equation describes a broad class of channel flows and, in particular, can follow the development of the clustering instability from a weakly perturbed homogeneous cooling state to strongly nonlinear states. If the heat diffusion is neglected, the reduced equation becomes exactly soluble, and the solution develops a finite-time density blowup. The blowup has the same local features at singularity as those exhibited by the recently found family of exact solutions of the full set of ideal hydrodynamic equations. The heat diffusion, however, always becomes important near the attempted singularity. It arrests the density blowup and brings about previously unknown inhomogeneous cooling states (ICSs) of the gas, where the pressure continues to decay with time, while the density profile becomes time-independent. The ICSs represent exact solutions of the full set of granular hydrodynamic equations. Both the density profile of an ICS and the characteristic relaxation time toward it are determined by a single dimensionless parameter L that describes the relative role of the inelastic energy loss and heat diffusion. At L 1 the intermediate cooling dynamics proceeds as a competition between "holes": low-density regions of the gas. This competition resembles Ostwald ripening (only one hole survives at the end), and we report a particular regime where the "hole ripening" statistics exhibits a simple dynamic scaling behavior.