After the Flood: The Three Gorges
Updated: May 8, 2018
Qantas: The Australian Way, March 2012
The Yangzi is one of the handful of iconic rivers that everyone knows of, even if they’ve never seen them; it’s up there with the Amazon, Nile and Mekong among the great river systems of the world. And to the Chinese, it is of truly immense importance. The area drained by the river is home to 500 million people – roughly one in 14 of every human on earth. It has been an artery of freight, communication and agriculture; it has killed millions through its power when it floods; and it has been a muse to millennia of Chinese literature and art.
At its heart are the Three Gorges: a beautiful sequence where the river banks rise high into the misty sky as the river winds between mountains. This is a trip into the heart of central China, to understand the natural forces that have underpinned its culture and history. It’s a sight so central to China that it appears on the 10-yuan banknote, and is considered one of China’s three great tourist draws alongside the Great Wall and Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors.
But it’s changed, and changes still. In 1994 China began building a mighty dam halfway down Xiling Gorge, the furthest downstream of the three. Water began rising behind it from 2004. Pretty much since construction started, Chinese travel agents have been touting the line “Last chance to see the Three Gorges!” every year, arguing that once the water reaches full capacity, there will no longer be any gorges left to see.
Well, the water hit near-capacity in 2008, but the cruises continue, as popular as ever – and rather than being put out of business by the dam, they have simply incorporated it as an attraction on the cruises. Now, the line is: the Three Gorges aren’t gone, just different.
So is it still worth visiting? Old hands say the gorges were undeniably more impressive beforehand; by definition, an extra 100 metres to the water level (as is the case closest to the dam) must mean that there is 100 metres less of towering gorge above you. “Before the water level rose, we would have to crane our necks to see these peaks,” says one guide wistfully. But the scenery is still impressive and the rising waters have made some side tributaries more accessible – and the journey smoother and safer, lacking strong currents and rapids. And for some, the huge and controversial dam is just as big a must-see as the scenery.
Assuming you’ve taken the downstream option, you set sail from industrial Chongqing at about nine or ten at night; most of the first part of your cruise is done while you sleep. Get out on deck and you quickly realize why. First impressions of the Yangzi at Chongqing are not, let’s be honest, especially favourable: it stinks and is jammed with industrial traffic, freighters and barges looming out of the darkness amid the cruise ships. In fact, being from Liverpool, my first impression of the Yangzi is that it seems a lot like the Mersey.
Yangzi trips are slow burners: it’s not until the second full day you get into the gorges themselves, and the first day is normally padded with lectures and demonstrations of local handicrafts. But when you do reach the Qutang Gorge, normally before 7a.m. on the second day, it’s a sight to behold: usually shrouded in mist and low cloud, green slopes sheer upwards towards rocky peaks. The Wu Gorge follows shortly afterwards, and the biggest, the Xiling Gorge, within which the dam is built, in the late afternoon.
The cruises all offer side trips, which vary from one operator to another but are central to the experience. Many take their first trip to the Ghost Temple at Fengdu, a town that has been largely inundated by the rising water and whose old-town residents have been relocated higher up or elsewhere in China.
Yangzi Explorer offers an interesting alternative here; it takes you to a family in the sort of home that was typical in the old town, and to another that has been resettled in new accommodation, to see how their quality of life was affected. The older houses are rustic in the extreme, with clay or wooden walls and roof, and no obvious sign of plumbing. The new houses built for repatriated villagers are much bigger brick and concrete constructions with air conditioning, several rooms and various modern appliances. The message you’re clearly meant to take from this is that in being forced to move, people improved their standard of living; set against that is the fact that they didn’t have a choice, their communities dislocated.
On day two, many offer a side trip to the so-called Little Three Gorges, or to the Shennong stream, which involves taking to smaller craft in order to head up tributaries. Some find these more impressive than the Gorges themselves, with the chasms noticeably more sheer. They offer the chance to meet one of China’s minority races, the Tujia, famed for their trackers who for thousands of years have hauled boats upstream by hand – naked (although not, these days, when the tourists visit). The women follow a curious tradition where they are expected to cry for 15 days before their weddings.
And on the morning of day three, the side trip is the dam itself. The box below explains some of the many controversies about the dam, but today it has been built into the fabric of the Three Gorges tourist experience. Heading downstream, the dam is approached on the second evening, when cruise boats enter a series of five huge locks which take them down to the water level below the dam (doing this upstream is particularly awe-inspiring: like lifting the Titanic over the Statue of Liberty, they say.) Some consider these locks the highlight of the trip, and compare it to the Panama Canal: each lock can take six large ships apiece, and it is an imposing feeling to see the 50-metre tall gates closing behind you, sealing you in.
Downstream, boats then moor near the dam and take a closer look the next day, visiting an exhibition centre and then a park from which it can be seen at reasonably close quarters. It’s not an especially gripping sight unless a lot of water is being discharged when you visit; it lacks the Hoover Dam’s craggy majesty, and is much less tall, though far wider. Also unlike the Hoover Dam, you can’t stand on top of it or see the turbine rooms. But for engineering buffs, many return home with more to say about the dam than the gorges they originally came to see.
The last hour gives you your only chance to see the gorges at pre-dam water levels before you disembark and return to the industrial grit and crowds of central China. Three days floating down the gorges may not be the experience of majestic scenery it once was, but it’s still impressive, and today more than ever offers a chance to understand the shifting patterns of China’s journey through millennia of rich history to this insatiable period of modern development.
The Three Gorges dam is one of the most controversial infrastructure projects ever attempted anywhere on earth. It involved the displacement of more than one million people, who had no choice in the matter. They were given homes elsewhere, often better ones, but the sudden end of their communities, and loss of their artifacts, was not something they had a say in and has particularly devastated the elderly. On top of that, there are grave questions over the environmental impact of the dam, and recently even the government itself has admitted that the dam had negative impacts that it did not foresee such as slope erosion and worsened pollution.
It would be wrong, though, not to acknowledge the other side of the coin. Each of the dam’s 26 generators (which will become 32 in 2012) would take a coal-fired power station apiece to replicate – and China is, of course, being urged very strongly to move away from coal as a fuel source to greener alternatives. But what often gets missed is that power was not actually the main imperative for building the dam, but flood control. Over the years millions of people have died from flooding of the Yangzi – up to four million in 1933 alone, and 3,000 as recently as 1998 – and if the dam is successful in alleviating that then it has a stronger moral rationale than is widely understood.
There’s a wide range of options available for those who want to see the gorges. Top of the range is the Yangzi Explorer, targeted very clearly at the western market. Your money here buys you western meals, perfect spoken English, an on-board doctor, service where everyone knows your name, and constant onboard entertainment from lectures on the region to demonstrations of Chinese arts to staff cabarets.
Next in the cost chain are the five star local cruises like the Victoria group of ships; more than decent, but much more oriented towards Chinese tastes. Below that you can move down the various star ratings, or for the cheapest and quickest way to see the gorges, use one of the public transport options that locals use in the region such as a hydrofoil.
While Chongqing – with a jaw-dropping population of 32 million within its municipality – is easily accessible from all over China, and has international flights from Singapore and Hong Kong, Yichang is a much smaller airport and presents a few logistical challenges; most people fly on from there to Shanghai or Beijing in order to get home.
What’s in a name?
Most westerners refer to the Yangtse, but that’s a western anachronism; it fits into the same family of now-obsolete names as Peking. These days, Yangzi is considered more accurate.