Cruising the Three Gorges rIDING THE YANGZI RIVER

The Yangzi River (or Yantgze), stretching nearly 4,000 miles from west central China to its mouth at Shanghai and the East China Sea, is one of the most iconic waterways on this Earth. It is also one of the most controversial, however. After nine years of construction, the Yangzi’s Three Gorges Dam was finally completed in 2012. It left quite a mark on the landscape. Vast swathes of farmland were flooded, more than a thousand archeological sites were inundated, and it led to the migration of up to four million people.

By any measure, the impact of the dam’s construction is staggering. By western standards, such impacts would likely have shuttered the project long before the first cubic yard of concrete was poured in the massive gravity dam. One feature relatively positive feature of the dam, though, is that it attracts tourists. The dam impounded nearly 200 metres of water, which created the eponymously titled Three Gorges Reservoir, stretching 120 miles upstream beyond the city of Wanzhou. In 2008 we were lucky enough to cruise the Yangzi River, which included a meander through the magnificent Three Gorges themselves.

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.

Having tied up for the night before entering the gorges, the ship’s purser urged all passengers to drag themselves out of bed at 5 am for an unforgettable sunrise. Watching a sunrise is quite a fulfilling experience in of itself, but to combine it with such a glorious landscape and have a DSLR at my side was all the better. Indeed, sunrise photography would never get old for me, and remains as fulfilling now as it did back then. As the sunrise progressed, we reached the first of the big three gorges: the Qutang Gorge. Two massive headlands, reaching 4,000 ft into the sky, greeted us; almost like a pair gates to an ancient territory. Indeed, this chalk wall, which looked magnificent as the sunlight glistened off the steep sheer face, is also known as the Kuimen Gate. As we cruised into this, the narrowest of the three gorges, the steep sided faces offered a perfect opportunity for some minimalist sunrise photography: combining the glorious pink colours with some deep matte shadows. The steep sided faces of this gorge made it difficult to imagine what this gorge would have looked like without 150 metres of water, although not for the want of trying. In fact, it was a question which many would have pondered before. This particular gorge was subject to substantial losses as a result of the raised water elevations; with many ancient and historically significant sites being consumed by the reservoir for ever.

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.

The shore excursion at Badong took us up a tributary to the Yangzi, where we were met by the boatmen of the Shennong Xi. These boatmen, rippling with muscles having spent a generation hauling boat loads of tourists up and down river, toiled hard as they propelled us around an array of intimidating, narrow, and steep side gorges. I recall that it was a strange encounter. The men did not do much to acknowledge us; satisfied that we had safely re-board the ferry, they quickly disappeared back up-river as fast as they had appeared.

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.

Passing through the dam and visiting the downstream edge of the stilling basin the next morning was a suitable climax to an amazing trip. We had the privilege of witnessing some of the finest natural spectacles along this short journey, and finished it off marveling at one of the most significant man-made structures on the earth; all the while enjoying it from the comfort of a luxury cruise ship. Continuing the journey through the less spectacular, albeit interesting, legs of our China itinerary was actually something of chore after such a trip. However, that speaks more to the enjoyment of the trip down the Yangzi, and the education it afforded us.



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