Explore the great Yangtze River

Explore the great Yangtze River

The Yangtze River is a massive tempestuous monster. For centuries it has been both the life  and death of the Chinese people, providing food, water for irrigation and a critical transport  route, but turning fierce with immense and destructive floods. In 1998, the last such flood  drowned some 2000 people and millions more made homeless. This final malicious act of the  Yangtze would be the last. If China was to grow and prosper, the beast must be tamed and  made to work for the masses.

Our journey begins in Chongqing, a vast, sprawling metropolis now bearing the title of world’s largest city. With a population of 32 million it is three times the size of New York City thanks mainly to the relocation of former riverside inhabitants displaced by the Yangtze’s rising.

Both shores are undergoing momentous transformation with great cranes and concrete pourers working overtime to construct new apartment blocks and shopping centres. The ancient riverside villages are gone, replaced by the energetic and progressive new 21st Century China.

We visit some of the few remaining archaeological sites en route and the macbre Ghost City of Fengdu is a standout. Visitors are welcomed by a parade of stone demons each depicting unholy vices and terrifying acts. Displays inside the temple are guaranteed to leave you squeamish.

The Three Gorges themselves are Qutang, Wu and Xiling, occupying a section of about 120 kilometres of the river between Fengjie and Yichang. Despite their stunning scenery it was one of the most hazardous stretches. As river levels rose and fell with the seasons, navigating the fury of its waters was a white-knuckle experience for crew and passengers alike.

We divert from the main channel to the Daning River and proceed up the “Lesser Three Gorges” (Dragon-Gate, Misty and Emerald) where former farmers and river traders are now tour guides in one of the most scenic locations in all of China. The few farms and dwellings we see are slowly being consumed by the rising waters.

Mr Zhang, our boatman, now sports smart leather shoes and trousers but dons a traditional fishing jacket and headdress as he sings a song and poles us up the narrow tributary bordered by dizzying, sheer cliffs. He’s happy that his boat is full of paying travellers, but the notes of his song are tinged with sadness. He’ll never sing this tune like his father and grandfather did, hauling in the nets and selling the fish.

After four days cruising, we meet the manmade monster designed to subdue the Yangtze and in the middle of the night, we toast the new Great Wall as we descend 100 metres via a series of locks to the old riverfront at Sandouping.

Any way you look at it, the Three Gorges Dam is one of the world’s engineering marvels, rivalling the Panama Canal or even the original Great Wall itself. Always controversial, the dam was first proposed in 1919. Proponents argued that flood mitigation would save many thousands of lives and improve irrigation, navigation and water utilisation The hydro-electric plant would produce 22,500MW or the equivalent of ten per cent of China’s industrial requirement.

Opponents cited the dislocation of millions of residents, hundreds of tonnes of damaging sediment, loss of historic relics and the danger of catastrophe due to earthquake or landslide.

Begun in 1994 and completed in 2006, the dam comprises 27 million cubic of concrete, all of which had to be laid in one continuous pour. The dam wall is 2335 metres wide, 101 metres high and contains 39.3 cubic kilometres of water.

After breakfast we gather our cameras and floppy hats and prepare to embark a fleet of buses. Clearly visiting the dam is a popular outing for the Chinese. Hundreds of folk are jostling and nudging, as is the Chinese way, for the few vantage points and I hurriedly snatch a few photos before my arbitrary time limit.

Downstream of the dam, the river is much less affected and the water levels are more-or- less unchanged. Traditional villages reappear and there are glimpses of what life must have been like once upon a time on the other side. While we can lament how the Three Gorges Dam has transformed the Yangtze forever, the enormous upheaval thrust upon those along its course is indicative of a rapidly changing China, a country throwing off the ancient shackles of reluctance and charging headlong towards a prosperous future with the promise of plenty for all. Let’s hope the Eastern wisdom doesn’t repeat the many mistakes of the West.

Written by Roderick Eime. Republished with permission of MyDiscoveries.