Our journey started in the huge metropolis of Chongqing, home to a solid mass of humanity with as much twenty million people calling it home. We didn’t see much of it, having arrived late to board the 5-star cruiser ‘Yangzi Explorer’. What we did see of the city, from the deck of the boat, did not elicit any feeling of regret that we had effectively by-passed the city. I’m sure it has many interesting features, but all we saw was a throng of soulless towers and neon lights. Instead, we settled in with a few beers as the Explorer made way on the journey downstream on the Yangzi. With the aid of a healthy current, we moved at quite a clip along this reach of the river. The boat rocked about quite merrily as we sailed into the night, but come morning we had reached the upper reaches of the Three Gorges reservoir, and we slowed to a gentler pace as we reached the city of Wanzhou for a shore excursion.
Docking at Wanzhou revealed a city that was simultaneously experiencing its own destruction and a rebirth. Massive placards in the nearshore area indicated the anticipated depth of water when it finally finished rising. A sign that simply read ‘185 [meters]’ told its own story. The old town, still a hive of activity, would soon be submerged. Despite this, street traders napped in plain sight, tended their meagre storefronts, sold their wares, and played board games in dilapidated alleys as the city was torn down around them. On higher ground, modern concrete high rises had started to populate the skyline. New suspension bridges appeared on the horizon, creating an interesting juxtaposition with fisherman working the river in more classically designed sampans. Departing downstream from Wanzhou, there was plenty of time to gaze back at the city, bathed in a strong yellow sunset, and reflect on the lives of these populations that were so profoundly impacted by the reservoir. Other than watch new cities grow in the high ground as we cruised, this was would be the end of our exposure to the uncomfortable realities created by the project. We were sailing towards the famous Three Gorges and a landscape that we’d never forget.
As we reached the longer Wu Gorge, the hazy morning light was still in evidence and some gloriously coloured light bathed the other cruise boats that were shadowing, offering plentiful opportunities for silhouetted layers of rock, as it dived deep beneath the reservoir. A gentle wander downriver was all that was planned for that day. After a week or so of travelling through China making do with more meagre accommodations, this was a day sit on the porch with a beer and watch rural China sail slowly by. In fact, this lazy day offered a number of opportunities to observe – from a distance – the cities that grew on the hillside, before we tied up for the night at Badong, in readiness for another shore excursion the following morning.
As we re-boarded the Yangzi Explorer, we had one more gorge to traverse: the Xiling Gorge, which would take us all the way downriver to the upstream face of the dam itself. The landscape in Xiling Gorge is not as dramatic as in Qutang, but life along this reach of the river had clearly adapted quickly. Heavy industry had found a perch high up on the hillside, rudimentary car ferries were linking either side, and shipbuilding had established itself on the narrow banks. As another sunset lit up the sky, a steady clutch of cruises and coal carriers streamed towards the dam, joining a queue of vessels waiting to enter the ship lock. I recall one of the passengers remarking that the dam was not as grand a sight was she was led to believe it would be. However, as we entered ship lock; with the company of five other large vessels, you could not help be overwhelmed by the scale of the dam structure.