Tidewater Traveler - February 2010

 

The Yangtze Revisited
by
George W. Sellers

In the February 2003 Tidewater Traveler article, following a trip to the Peoples Republic of China, I wrote ...
“The current challenge for travelers is to cruise the Yangtze River before the water rises to the point of obliterating the famed Three Gorges and many of the quaint, ancient riverside cities. When it is completed, it will take a few years for the water level to rise to the projected heights, but if you have ever dreamed of being swept by the swift current through the fabled Three Gorges of Central China, you should not wait to make your plans.”
In September 2009 I returned to the Yangtze River, escorting a group of Maryland folks, none of whom had ever visited China. Not uncommon for first-time visitors to China, may of them were apprehensive about traveling to a land perceived to be so different from their own. Some were concerned about the food: would they find food to be adequate and palatable? Others were uneasy about safety and security: one rarely considers China without at least a fleeting thought of the Tianenmen Square incident of the late eighties. The length of the flight was a worrisome issue for several; was their state of health satisfactory to sustain a flight of 13.5 hours? Thankfully for all, these fears were dispelled and quickly replaced with attitudes of amazement and great appreciation for an ancient culture and a resilient, caring people.
My personal apprehension was that the Yangtze River would have undergone such a dramatic transformation as to not be the thrilling experience it had been nearly a decade earlier. In 2003 I wrote ...
“As I experience the Yangtze cruise, two remarkable features make bold impressions on me: one a natural feature; the other man-made. Ironically, it seems these two features are in a direct and brutal competition from which only one will survive.
“The most impressive natural element of the river is a stretch known as the Three Gorges ... I was mesmerized as we approached the steep-sided gorges, rugged mountains and deep, rocky canyons .... From some distance away, the passage appeared so narrow that I wondered if our boat would squeeze through. As we passed through the gorges there were extended moments when the sun was blocked out by the sheer height and steepness of the narrow canyon walls. And because the mighty Yangtze is forced through the canyon bottleneck, the boat was tossed about by the violent swirling of the downstream currents... For about an hour I stood on the open, top deck of our small ship; stood literally in awe of what I was seeing as we were swept on downriver.”
“I an area of the Three Gorges pass where the walls were not so steep, several pairs of huge white signs with bold red lettering were visible about two-thirds of the way up from the water level to the crest of the mountain. One of the signs displayed large numerals reading ?300’ and a bit higher on the mountainside a second sign displayed ?400.’ I learned that these signs were placed to show how high the future water level of the Yangtze River would be in the area of the Three Gorges – between 300 and 400 meters – or about 1,000 to 1,300 feet. It is hard to comprehend that the steep-walled canyons, sculpted by thousands of years of wind, rain and currents, will in just a short time be underwater.”
In September 2009, passing through the gorges, I can still see the signs labeled 400 meters, but the 300 meter signs are well beneath the surface of the deeper, wider river. The narrow, turbulent channel I remember from before is now tamed by the risen waters. 2009 is also a historic time to experience the Three Gorges of the Yangtze because the river-level is now rising (still) at a rate of about one meter per day, and in a few weeks the Yangtze will reach its new maximum depth near the big red-and-white 400 meter signs.
In the previous article I wrote...
“Enter the second incredible feature of the Yangtze River cruise – the Three Gorges Dam. When I saw the dam construction site, the concrete monolith had not yet reached across the river. Yet the massive dimensions and potential impact could be easily imagined. When completed (some still say IF completed), the Three Gorges Dam will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. It will stretch about a mile and a half across the Yangtze. Its reservoir will reach over 350 miles upstream and force the displacement of nearly two million people. Thirteen cities and over thirteen hundred villages will be inundated and disappear from civilization as the Three Gorges Dam project is completed. Construction began in 1994 and is scheduled to take 17-20 years. It is proposed to cost over $24 billion.
“Why destroy so much natural beauty and displace so many people? By listening and reading, I learned that the completed project will produce much-needed electric power for central China (potential of 18 gigawatts); cities as far inland as Chongqing and beyond will become seaports for ocean-going ships; flooding will be controlled (flooding on the Yangtze is a major annual problem); and a new supply of water will be available for northern farmlands. Cruises for tourists will continue. Though old sights, like the Three Gorges, will be changed forever, the higher level of water will open up vast new areas for cruising that until now have been unreachable by boat.”
Yes, all of this has come to pass. I’m sure the cost has far exceeded the estimates of a decade ago, but as I stand here at the railing of the observation deck peering through the mist to see the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, I am saddened by what has been lost, yet truly impressed by the accomplishment. I have to concede that the Chinese people and economy are probably faring better because of this massive undertaking. Unlike during my last visit, every Chinese citizen I have asked this time is “pro” dam; I suspect the former “cons” have simply resigned themselves to the inevitability of reality.
During my 2009 trip I had the opportunity to see some of the new cities and to visit the relocation home of a farmer whose ancestral property is now inundated. This visit and the farmer’s remarks will be the focus of a future article.
I must add that everyone in my group thoroughly enjoyed the Yangtze cruise and related shore trips. Using the same superlatives that I had used a decade before, they found it difficult to envision that things in the past could have been any more spectacular. I am a bit melancholy that the old experience is gone, but very pleased to know that for the first-time visitors, encountering the Yangtze is still incredible.
Some perspective ... if someone told you that the Grand Canyon of the U.S. Southwest was to be flooded by a massive river dam project, and in seven or eight years the mighty chasm will be a huge, deep lake, would you take the time to go see it before it happens?
May all your travels be happy and safe!

George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel Web site and travel planning service SellersTravel.com. Comments or suggestions about Tidewater Traveler articles may be directed to George@SellersTravel.com.