Like a toy boat in a rain barrel, the East King slowly rises toward the rim of its containment as the waters of the Yangtze swirl around its hull. This would be the first of five locks, each one large enough to transport several oceangoing freighters at once, and the ship’s passengers gather on the sundeck to marvel at the forces that are lifting the 5,500-ton cruise ship 40 stories above the waters that had borne us here. The sense of the surreal is magnified by the steel and concrete walls of the locks, which block all else from view as the ship hurdles the most immense structure of our time: China’s Three Gorges Dam.
When viewing the dam from a downstream bank, as we had earlier that day, it is difficult to imagine breaching this monolith. The dam looms like an impregnable fortress, 60 stories high, 1.3 miles wide, and half the length of a football field thick. Jets of water shoot from its lower sluices, driving the turbines that, when fully operational in 2009, will produce as much energy as 20 nuclear power plants. The welter of ongoing construction has turned the southerly bank into a kind of mechanized jungle, with herds of cement mixers snuffling like robot armadillos through a forest of building cranes.
The scene presents a striking contrast to what we were told lay on the other side of the wall. Beyond the locks there would be breathtaking gorges studded with ancient temples and pagodas, mysterious sarcophagi that are thousands of years old and are suspended from the cliff walls high above the waters, and tribes of aboriginal river people so primitive—or enlightened, depending on one’s point of view—that they only recently began wearing clothes. We might even see tribes of Yeren, yetilike creatures—as the official Chinese media have reported from time to time—that appear to be half man, half animal and stand 7 feet tall. It is said they occasionally wander down from the forest north of the river.
So that we could more fully appreciate the local culture, lectures and demonstrations of indigenous art forms would be conducted on board. Still, we were not sure what to make of one upcoming event, for which the ship’s program urged passengers, “Wear your very best for this affair; lots of concubines are on the loose. You might want to bring along your camera.” Surely that was an error in translation; the People’s Republic would not sanction such licentiousness on the Yangtze. Nevertheless, I made a note to bring my camera.
Three hours after we entered the locks, the last of the steel gates swings open. The passengers cheer as the East King steams out onto the open river, which is bordered on both sides by mountain slopes covered with orange trees and mossy ledges scraped into farms accessible only by rope ladders. Straight ahead, clouds float along the water’s surface like gossamer sampans, while above us, sea eagles cry as they chase each other across the sky. Contrary to rumor, the Yangtze is still here.
we had boarded the East King the evening before in Yichang, some 500 miles inland from the Yangtze’s debouchment into the China Sea and about 30 miles east of the Three Gorges site. Once we had unpacked and settled in, the first order of business was a safety drill. As a crew member explained, the most important thing to remember while cruising the Yangtze is, don’t fall in. After pausing for laughter, he continued. “But if you do, don’t try to swim. The current is too swift, and you’ll just tire yourself out. Just stay afloat and somebody will be by to pick you up.”
Just who that would be, he never said, but his words were a reminder of Mao Tse-tung’s famous dip. In 1966 the then 73-year-old chairman of the Chinese Communist Party dove into the river and paddled to the opposite shore. His feat was reported around the world and memorialized on his country’s postage stamps. But Mao had greater plans for the Yangtze; in a poem he foresaw a wall of stone across the river “’til a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.”
Mao was not the first Chinese leader to envision a dam across China’s 3,400-mile-long river. Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, proposed such a project in 1919 as a means of controlling the river’s raging floods, which occurred on an average of about once every 10 years, often leaving millions of Chinese dead from drowning, disease, or starvation. By the 1980s, the Chinese government had begun taking steps to make the dam a reality. Besides affording a means of flood control and serving as a source of hydroelectric power, its proponents argued, the dam would facilitate navigation and even tourism on the river.
From the outset, however, the plan had its critics. Some contended that the dam would be too costly, that the reduced water flow would increase pollution, and that an earthquake could cause the dam to burst, producing even greater floods. Further, the construction might spell the end of already endangered species such as the Yangtze River alligator, dolphin, and sturgeon. Even if all went as planned, the higher waters would inundate some 1,300 archaeological sites and countless more farms and villages. In the process, the Yangtze of legend—the river of raging rapids and awesome canyons that has inspired generations of poets and painters—would disappear.
Balderdash, said the government. Archaeological digs could be excavated and people relocated before construction ever began. And although some gorges and rock formations would be lost, access to other parts of the Yangtze would be gained. As always, the Chinese government had more than rhetoric on its side, and the most vocal and prominent critics were imprisoned.
Resettlement began in 1993; people who had been living on the lower slopes of the Yangtze’s banks were moved to houses built higher up, and farmers were given new properties to cultivate. The latter was not a difficult policy to enact in a country where the government owns all of the land.
Construction began the following year, after the river was diverted to the south. In 2003, with the dam in place from bank to bank, the Yangtze was routed back to the channel it had carved out over millennia. But it was transformed. Gone were the rushing rapids that had made the Yangtze one of the world’s wildest rivers. Instead, here was the lake Mao had envisioned, rising hundreds of feet above the previous high-water mark and reaching all the way back to Chongqing, 375 miles upriver.
Now the Yangtze boom was on. A frenzy set in as travel agents everywhere advised their clients—contrary to the assurances of the Chinese government—that if they ever wanted to see the Yangtze, now was the time, before it was too late. As a result, the Three Gorges—the most scenic stretch of the river—has become the most coveted ticket in tourism, with travelers from near and far booking passage through the gorges on anything that will float. The most budget-minded pilgrims pay $20 to cruise on rickety barges that sleep 16 to a cabin. In contrast, the 300-foot East King accommodates its 160 passengers in an ambience of post-Mao glitz.
with the various excursions to explore tributaries and towns and temples on shore, it will take the East King four days to steam from Yichang to Chongqing, and once it is beyond the dam, life on board settles into a rhythm typical of a cruise ship. Shortly after dawn, there is tai chi on the sundeck, which invariably attracts fewer Chinese than Westerners, who make up about half the passengers. The ship also has a health club, a spa staffed by giggly young Chinese ladies adept in reflexology and other forms of massage, and a fortune-teller. Mealtimes are happy events; breakfast and lunch are buffets, and dinner consists of endless courses of Szechuan pork, beef, chicken, fish, vegetables, and condiments with nary a sea slug—a staple of Chinese banquets—on the menu. At least, not that we are aware of. After dinner, Valentino’s, the ship’s nightclub, offers music and karaoke. Most of the day is spent on the sundeck, comparing notes on the panorama sliding past.
The name Three Gorges refers to the array of spectacular mountains, cliffs, caves, grottoes, and limestone labyrinths that extend some 120 miles upriver from Yichang. The first of these is the Xiling Gorge, whose craggy limestone rock formations and forested slopes span about 20 miles on either side of the dam site. The Wu Gorge begins about 25 miles farther upriver and twists and turns for 30 miles past a series of foreboding peaks. About an hour later you enter the shortest but most dramatic of the canyons, the 5-mile-long Qutang Gorge, where the river narrows while coursing between sheer cliffs rising 4,000 feet overhead.
For serious gorge-goers, it is not enough to ooh and aah at the scenery. Like bird-watchers on the trail of some rara avis, they focus intently on the Yangtze’s banks, juggling maps, guidebooks, binoculars, and cameras, the better to identify every passing geological, mythical, and historical site by name. This is no mean feat, considering that almost every bend in the river has its own claim to fame. In the Xiling Gorge alone, sharp-eyed rock-watchers spy the Nanjin Pass, site of ancient forts, and the Three Travelers Cave, which bears inscriptions from Tang Dynasty poets. A few minutes later, the Yellow Cat and Hanging Lantern tributary gorges sweep into view, followed by the Huangling Temple, where Emperor Da Yu is said to have invented irrigation. Next come the Yellow Ox, Ox Liver, Horse Lung, and Rice Granary gorges, before the ship floats past the site of the ancient town of Ziqui, where, in 278 B.C., the poet Qu Yuan cast himself into the river to protest the corruption of China’s imperial court.
Some of the sights are especially compelling. Approaching the Wu Gorge, everyone presses to the rail to view the Goddess Peak, perpetually veiled in mist. Its mystical occupant is said to appear from time to time, and to catch sight of her brings good luck. Farther upstream, nobody can resist taking out a 10 yuan note, which depicts the Qutang Gorge, to compare the picture on the bill with the real thing as we cruise past. There is much murmuring of “Oh, yeah, there it is,” as the passengers squint to recognize the outcropping on the shore.
Landmarks that once stood as signs of timelessness have become reminders of impending change. Again and again a crew member points to a cave, a grotto, or a rock formation and observes, “You see that? In two years, it won’t be there anymore.” A billboard overlooking Wushan, a bustling industrial town near the Wu Gorge, bears the succinct inscription “175m,” marking the 600-foot level to which the water will rise. From the river, the sign appears to be higher than the town. But then, the same waters that soon will reshape Wushan have given back the Shennong Stream, a tributary that runs through pine forests to empty into the Yangtze near Wushan.
on the third day of our cruise, we board a launch to chug through once-inaccessible narrow limestone passes with gaping caves and waterfalls that splash 800 feet into the water around us. The Shennong is home to one of China’s age-old mysteries. About a half hour into the canyon, our guide calls out, “Look, up in the cliffs.” Barely visible is a large boatlike object situated in a cleft hundreds of feet above the waterline. We have reached the burial grounds of the Ba people, a race who lived here 2,000 years ago. Just why, or how, they consigned their dead to the cliffs in coffins resembling the boats they had paddled in life, no one knows.
To penetrate deeper into the upriver forests of the Shennong, we clamber into pea-pod canoes paddled by Tujia people, descendants of the Ba. Before the lake swallowed the rapids, teams of hundreds of Tujia pulled ships through the Yangtze’s white waters by ropes, singing as they went, wearing nothing but shoes in warm weather. Today, perhaps out of consideration for the tourists, their new clientele, they wear swim trunks. But they still sing boisterously, their melodies accompanied by the splashing of their crude oars and the sound of their boats scraping over the rocks.
By our fourth day on the river, the East King has steamed far beyond the Three Gorges, but one of the most charismatic of the Yangtze’s landmarks—the Shibaozhai Pagoda—still lies ahead. Arriving at the temple’s dock and moving past the inevitable stalls of souvenir hawkers, we begin the long climb to its doorway, where we find the now-familiar message: 175m.
Shibaozhai is notable on several counts. The bright red, 12-story temple is the work of 17th-century Buddhist monks who built it into the solid face of a rocky outcropping without using a single nail. Inside the pagoda is a hole in the rock that, legend says, used to dispense rice to hungry monks. Alas, one of them once went back for seconds, and the rock has refused to feed them or anyone else ever since. But the pagoda’s magic has not disappeared entirely; a pond in a courtyard behind the pagoda is home to a 6-foot-long giant salamander, an eerie-looking creature that allegedly protects Shibaozhai against evil spirits. Whatever the reason, the pagoda’s luck is holding out; by the time the Yangtze rises above the temple’s lower floors, a surrounding wall will have been built to keep the edifice dry.
without the concubines or the Yeren having made their appearances, the cruise concludes at Chongqing, a city of 7 million that sits tiered like a wedding cake on a mountain overlooking the Yangtze. Here, at the edge of the dam’s reservoir, the oldest section of town will soon disappear as the water rises 40 feet.
But the Yangtze’s encroachment occasions little foreboding in this port city; rather, it is cause for jubilation. For the first time, vessels the size of oil tankers—three times larger than the largest ships formerly seen in Chongqing—are able to dock at its harbor. Commerce and tourism already have begun to boom, and the city’s population is expected to double in the next 10 years. Throughout the city, new streets, new hotels, and new skyscrapers have been built. Indeed, here in Chongqing and across the heartland of China, the Three Gorges dam is changing everything.
Whether that change is for the better is a matter of debate. Some still see the dam as a Faustian bargain with consequences that have yet to be addressed. These include the cost of construction, which the Chinese government pegs at $25 billion but which others say is at least twice and probably three times as much. Some worry, too, that the Yangtze has lost its soul, that the raging river depicted on scrolls and in watercolors is vanishing.
Yet future generations of poets, painters, and writers will no doubt find a lake almost 400 miles long that, with cliffs and terraces reflected on its surface, is just as romantic and evocative as the turbulent waters that inspired those of the past. For the traveler, the prospect of exploring such newly opened waterways as Shennong is no less appealing than identifying another chasm along the Yangtze. Unless, of course, the traveler comes from Wushan.
Abercrombie & Kent (the East King’s exclusive booking agent), 800.554.7016, www.abercrombiekent.com