We cruised along the Yangtze River for three days and about 650 kilometres – from Yichang to Chongqing. I find it so hard to describe most of our experiences in China. Partly this is because of the scale of everything we’ve seen and experienced - as described in the previous post. Time frames in particular are either inconceivably long, across dynasties and centuries, or remarkably short, such as the rapid modernization of cities and the damming and resettlement of the Yangtze valley.
Waking on the first morning of our river cruise to mists and fog and the majestic cliffs and slopes of the first of the three gorges – the Xiling Gorge – was a moment of delight; probably, for me, the most memorable experience of the trip.
The cruise ships, barges carrying coal, cars, containers and unidentifiable cargoes, and particularly the small local ferries are dwarfed by the river itself and its cliffs.
Over the first two days of our trip we also passed through the Wu Gorge and reputably the most beautiful, though least extensive, the Qutang Gorge. We also made a side trip on a smaller ferry and then a wooden sampan along the Daning River - a particularly picturesque tributary of the Yangtze. This area is known as the Lesser Three Gorges and is possibly even more beautiful than the major gorges, though I’m not sure whether you can judge degrees of beauty when everything is so wonderful.
One can only imagine what the Yangtze must have been before the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and consequent flooding of the gorges and management of the river levels. The walls of the gorges would have been higher and even more impressive, and the dangers and difficulty of navigation along the riverbed exciting and challenging, though clearly less efficient and less economically viable. There are not-so–old photos of ‘trackers’ who worked along the Yangtze pulling on bamboo ropes, with every muscle straining, to enable boats to navigate rapids and rocks along the river. One of the virtues of the controversial damming of the Yangtze has been to facilitate navigation by relatively large ships to and from coastal Shanghai to the inland industrial mega-city of Chongqing (which has a population of around 30 million people and is the site of the recent corruption scandal involving previously much-favoured but now disgraced party official, Bo Xilai).
We marveled at the scale of the locks at the Three Gorges Dam that enable shipping traffic to negotiate the different water levels above and below the Dam. Our ship progressed at night through five enormous locks, accompanied each time by cargo and other ships within reach of our ship;
each time waiting for the locks to fill and the ship to rise and then anticipating the magic moment when the massive lock gates opened for us to progress to the next stage.
We stopped from time to time for shore excursions. Our guides for these excursions were people from the local area. Invariably they would describe the mixed feelings of people affected by the Dam and its consequences. More than 1.3 million people needed to be relocated when the Yangtze was dammed (again, the scale is almost inconceivable). Some have moved to farms on higher land where there is encouragement for them to experiment with more diversified farming, such as growing citrus crops. Many have relocated to existing or to bran new towns and cities near the locality of their flooded homes.
Whole cities have arisen in the last twenty years, such as new Fuling – a city of high-rise buildings with a population of over a million people. Our guides told us that for younger people relocation is often beneficial. They have the opportunity to acquire new, larger homes (mostly apartments) with more convenient facilities, and they have better access to employment. But for older people, the move has meant the loss of community and of the memories and sense of place that comes from generations of inhabiting a particular locale. And there are what look like newly-built ghost towns – collections of buildings where the exterior shell has been provided by the government but where people have either chosen not to live, or have been unable to afford to finish the structures.
By the end of our cruise we'd been well-instructed by our guides that the Dam had three objectives – opening up the navigation of the River, avoiding the horrific loss of life that occurred periodically when the Yangtze flooded, and the generation of hydro-electric power. Initially, in the 1990s, the Dam generated 10% of the nation’s electricity, but as demand for electricity has grown exponentially, the output is now between only 3 to 4% of China’s needs. It will be interesting over the next decades to see further impacts of this massive project in environmental and human, as well as economic terms. One can’t help being impressed; but one also can’t help being fearful.