Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Cruise Down the Yangtze Through the Three Gorges

After talking about it for some seventy-five years, the Chinese started building the world's largest and arguably most controversial dam in 1994.  Although some parts of the project are still being constructed, the dam itself was completed in 2006.  The plug was then put in the drain and the water behind the dam started rising.  The water reached its full height of 175 meters (574') above sea level in October 2010, exactly one year earlier than our visit.  In the process of that filling the river buried 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages under those waters, displacing millions of their residents.

The dam's supporters say it will generate a great amount of electricity and reduce China's reliance on coal to generate power; prevent massive floods that in the past have killed hundreds of thousands; improve navigation on the Yangtze by the flooding over of navigation hazards and the lessening of water speed; and divert water further to the north where China has been experiencing shortages.  Critics have challenged every one those assumptions and discussed other unfortunate side effects such as the population displacement, and our visit to the Yangtze did not make the resolution of the dispute any clearer to us, though it did deepen our awareness of the complexity of finding "an" answer to any one of the questions raised by the dam, let alone all of them.

What we can share with you our readers is what we saw through the filter of our eyes and camera, and let you have a sense of what the Yangtze looks like now and, rightly or wrongly, what it will look like for a very long time to come.

Our boat, the President Prime, has six decks.  Our room was on deck 4 and we spent some of our awake time on the balcony of our room and much more on deck 6, which had a large open deck forwards and a smaller one aft, shown in white on the diagram below, plus a lounge amidships and our dining room just aft of that.

We boarded the ship late afternoon on November 1, having spent the morning doing trip planning. The night before we had reached a decision: to drop our plan to fly to Hong Kong from Shanghai.  Instead, we will spend two of the six days allocated to Hong Kong in Shanghai and the rest to an early return to the U.S.  We can feel the cup of curiosity about China filling up, and want to leave before we start asking ourselves why we're still here.  Our plan also gives us a way of seeing another city not in the original plans, Hangzhou, by taking a fast train there and back from Shanghai.  It took a $25 phone call to Expedia to pull off the flight rearrangement, but we successfully swapped our two flights, Shanghai to Hong Kong and then from Hong Kong to LA via Seoul, for a single non-stop hop direct from Shanghai to LA.  Not only was there no penalty for the changes, we even got a bit of money back since the new plan involves considerably less flying.  We boarded our river cruise ship in good spirits.

No sooner did we board when we got hit with a smooth sales pitch for a room upgrade, complete with a look at the room already booked for us and then at a much nicer room, of course, for just so many yuan more.  We said no to a jump to the most expensive rooms but did pop for an uptick to the middle grade.  That's it to the left.  Then, wouldn't we like to see the smaller dining room on the top deck with a slightly better food selection than the one we had booked that's on deck 2?  .  .  .   OK, there go a few more yuan.  We did hold the line against paying for extra shore excursions, and at the end of the cruise decided we had made the correct decision in each case, but also felt a bit rankled by the way our budget for the trip was unexpectedly altered.  That said, we're glad we did the cruise, and the smaller dining room was nice, particularly in that everyone at our table spoke English.

We had a nice buffet dinner on board that first evening, and plenty of time to admire the lights of the city and of other boats setting out for the same journey, such as this Victoria boat that was fairly similar in size to ours.  At 10 pm we set sail ourselves and glided under 2 bridges, including a brightly lit one in the fourth photo down.  As we turned in for bed, we found that our upgraded room had just as hard a bed as the original one and as every other bed we've slept on in China so far.  In fact, the idea of getting into a soft American bed 18 nights from now instead of 22 probably factored into our change of itinerary.

At 6:30 am music began piping into the staterooms as a way of getting us down to the 7 am breakfast buffet.  By 8 am we were heading ashore in Fengdu to see a temple dedicated to ghosts, or to warding off ghosts, we never really got that clear.  Like a ghost in the mist, a hotel with the face of an ancient emperor looked down at the river nearby.  The temple roofs were a study in gold and green, and the statue of the priest who brands kids with a ghost-protecting tattoo was a study in oddity.

We walked over to a small pagoda near the edge of the hill and looked down, impressed at ourselves for how far we had walked up the hill to get to this spot.  As we walked back down the hill to the boat we just had to stop for one of the best specimens of Chinglish of our trip.

And as we walked the gangplank back to our own ship we turned to capture for our readers a view of some of the four or five vessels that accompanied us down the river, sometimes jumping ahead of us, sometimes falling behind, but all doing pretty much the same tour as us.

Signs of how the raising of the water level has affected the Yangtze abounded, from half-drowned bridges -- you can see the new one under construction on higher ground behind it -- to whole villages of newly constructed homes, whole cities moved uphill and rebuilt.  While many of the more than 1 million people forced to move undoubtedly grieve for their inundated homes, one also hears of many who are happy to have electricity and flush toilets for the first time.  Does the benefit for some outweigh the tragedy for others?  Whatever the answer, there's a lot of infrastructure restructuring going on.

One pagoda we passed was just a little too low to escape the rising water, but only a little, so a moat was built around it and it's more famous than ever.  In another city we saw how they adapt to changing water levels -- the river is allowed to drop up to 30 meters, almost a hundred feet, just before flood season, in order to provide a place for floodwater to go when drenching rains do arrive.  The river was pretty close to maximum height while we were there.  In this city they have four sections of escalators that fit into place, one below the other, as the water drops and the floating dock gets further and further below the city.

Our Three Gorges cruise was "three nights four days" in tourist brochure jargon, consisting of one evening, then two full days with a stop or two each day, then one morning.  There are indeed three gorges that we went through and that brought almost all the passengers onto the top deck to ooh and aah, and we'll get to those shortly.  But first we want to share with you some of the ever-changing scenery and the constant parade of boats of all kinds that kept us quite entertained the rest of the way.  We're going to turn off the commentary for a bit and let the photos paint the picture.  The first boat whizzing past is a jetboat that covers the same distance we did in a mere 11 1/2 hours, covering the 400 miles at an average speed of 35 mph, even including the ten intermediate stops it makes!  But check out the huge variety of other boats and of scenery floating by.

The slide in the background of the last two photos was the largest one we saw, and the Chinese government has admitted that there have been more slides than it anticipated, caused by standing water from the river drenching and weakening the soil.  These can be quite dangerous -- one on the Vaiont reservoir in Italy in 1963 created a tsunami-like wave that killed 2,000 people.  Yet another issue that dam critics have publicized.

Well, it's called the Three Gorges for a reason, and through all three we went.  They are somewhat less spectacular than in the past since the river is now much higher, dammed as it is (or as the dam critics would say, damned as it is).  But the hazy weather was a bigger factor for us in dimming some of the excitement.  Still, they are magnificent, even if they didn't photograph as dramatically as we would have liked.  We will again let the photos do the speaking, muffled though they might be by that smog.

On the second full day we pulled up near the Badong Bridge about 2:30 in the afternoon and transferred to smaller boats for what was, for us, the highlight of the trip: up Shennong Stream.  The Shennong is a tributary of the Yangtze coming in from the north, through a marvelously steep and narrow valley.  45 minutes up the river we passed bridge towers under construction for a superhighway being pushed through the rugged hills.

As we went along, we had a running commentary about the area and the Tujia people who live in this part of China.  With a population of about 8 million they are the 6th largest minority within China, and have their own language, also called Tujia.  One of the ancient customs was to bury important people in what are called "hanging coffins," and we had one pointed out to us as we travelled along.  Exactly how the Tujia people were able to build the platforms for the coffins and lower the coffins to the platforms is still something of a mystery.

Almost an hour after leaving the President Prime, we disembarked our medium-sized and motorized boats for the canoe-like small boats you see Louise climbing into.  Our oarsmen and sternsman moved us along smoothly while "Jennifer," our Tujia guide, told us more about the Tujia way of life out in the country.  Jeff got her talking one on one a bit later and learned that her husband is a farmer, that she learned English from tapes and then competed to get this job, and that she only gets to see her family for two days a week.  It's just too far, as she has to take one of these small boats a hour beyond where we were, then walk an hour.  When her daughter starts school next year, she will have to walk an hour then take a boat another 15 minutes, each way, to attend school.  We don't know how they do it!

When the stream got a bit narrower, two of the oarsmen hopped out to give us a 200 meter demonstration of how the boatmen in times past, before the rise of the Yangtze behind the dam, used to pull the boats up by rope.  On the way back to the medium-sized boat the boatmen had a little friendly competition and Jennifer sang us three songs in Tujia.  Jennifer had explained to us that tourism is now a major source of income on the Shennong Stream, and she seemed pleased by that and by the chance to educate us a bit about their culture.  Her father was a boatman, and she was also pleased to be keeping the tradition alive in her own family.

Our cruise ship was the last one that day to bring customers to the Shennong Stream, and our own canoe was one of the last ones to come in so when we got back underway on the medium sized boat we passed a few of the boatmen heading home, some already climbing a hill as part of who knows how long a hike to their remote houses.

Sometime after midnight the President Prime entered the locks at the Three Gorges Dam, too late for us to stay up to see it.  However, Jeff woke up around 2 am and realized we had just moved from one of the five lock chambers to another as our boat made its descent of over 100 m (roughly 325'), and that a coal barge was being pushed and pulled alongside us.  Grabbing his camera and putting it on the ASA 3200 setting he captured these two shots from our balcony.

Breakfast the next morning was at 6:45 so we could all file off the boat and into buses for our Three Gorges Dam tour.  We lucked out getting front seats on the bus and captured some scenes of city life, including, in the second photo, a truck that parked in a curve in the roadway leaving motorists to figure out how to get around him.  This being China, drivers took it in stride.

This being China, we were also provided with a souvenir and snack stand at the viewing area.  You just can't leave money-toting tourists still anywhere in China without giving them a chance to do something useful with their cash, now can you?    En route, the bus paused for us to get a view of the lowest lift chamber.  There are two "flights" of chambers, one for boats going up, the other for down, with the top gate of one chamber doubling as the bottom gate of the next one higher up.  Each chamber raises or lowers its ships about 20 m (over 60').  Boats going up and down thus resemble a slow motion pair of escalators.  Very slow motion, as the full trip takes about 4 hours!  Alas, the "escalators" had no customers at the time we viewed them from above.

The haze/smog was fairly thick but even on a clear day the dam itself does not look all that imposing from the upstream side since the dam is only about 35 feet above the water when the river is at maximum elevation, which it was close to when we were there.  From below, which we did not have a chance to see well enough to photograph, it's a much more imposing 600' high, the height of a 60-story building.

Those towers atop the dam are part of a boat lift that started construction in late 2007 and will be completed in 2014.  The locks take boats of up to 10,000 tons up or down in 4 hours.  The lift will carry boats of up to 3,000 tons -- but in only 40 minutes!  Between them, the dam's builders predict that ten times as much tonnage will travel on the Yangtze between the dam site and Chongqing in 2020 as moved through prior to the dam.  Last year over 100 million tons passed through even without the lift, an increase of sixfold from pre-dam days.  In fact this is one of the factors that has made Chongqing more attractive as a location for those all those factories being put up there.  We'll leave the dam with one last shot, the scale model in the visitor site that shows the lock, the future boat lift, then the dam itself.

We disembarked in Yichang.  Another couple taking one of those tours of China arranged by a company that handles all the details squeezed us and our two suitcases into the hired car that met them at the dock and brought us all to the airport.  They were lucky to be on a 3:30 flight, while ours was scheduled for 7:15 pm.  A fateful delay, as it turned out.  A powerful storm hit Shanghai about the time our flight was to leave, and no planes were being allowed to land.  We sat in the terminal and waited.  And waited.  And waited.

At 9:30 we learned through a fellow passenger who translated for the handful of us Mandarin-deprived that we were to be bused to a nearby hotel.  The airline put us up gratis and even provided us with the supper of sorts seen here.  When we checked the hotel out later on elong.net, we saw that the room prices were about half of those in the least expensive hotel we'd stayed at to that point.  But other than that it came with an intriguing business card under the door, our room was perfectly adequate.  And of course the price was right.  Don't know about adequacy or price of the young woman on the business card.  After an early but complimentary breakfast we were bused back to the airport and had an uneventful flight to Shanghai, with yet more food in a typical airline genre, seen in the second photo below.

Our revised itinerary was now Shanghai for 3 nights at a hotel in the French Concession, then 7 nights split between Hangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou, then 3 more nights in Shanghai staying at a hotel next to the Bund.  In order to put our account of Shanghai in one entry, we'll skip those first three days for now and take you in our next post to Hangzhou.

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