Dispatch, China 2: Three Gorges Dam, the good and bad

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Ken in ChinaTravel Weekly’s Kenneth Kiesnoski is touring China with Uniworld. The trip includes a Yangtze River cruise on Victoria Cruises’ newest ship, the Victoria Jenna. His second dispatch follows.

Having cruised the storied Nile, the world's longest river, in April, I was eager to board the new Victoria Jenna and set sail on the world's third-longest, the Yangtze.

Much as the Nile has defined and sustained Egypt for millennia, so too has the Yangtze been China’s iconic lifeline. Like the Nile, the Yangtze has undergone massive, history-making change in recent decades — but on a scale undreamed of in Egypt or anywhere else in the world.

Traveling with Uniworld, I’m a witness to history myself on this four-night cruise upstream from the town of Sandouping (near the port of Yichang) to booming Chongqing, population 6.7 million.

China’s outsized Three Gorges Dam on the river at Sandouping — designed to control disastrous flooding as well as generate untold gigawatts of hydroelectric power to help fuel the country’s meteoric economic rise — makes the huge Aswan Dam, built in the 1960s on the Nile, look like beavers’ play.

kkchina-ferryHere along the Yangtze, whole towns and cities — many of which are thousands of years old and crammed with antiquities — are now underwater.

With the damming of the Yangtze, water levels have risen by hundreds of feet. At the town of Wushan, between the stunning Wu Xia and Qutang gorges, the river once ran at about 275 feet above sea level. It now flows past at up to 570.

Miles of river are now lakes and tributaries. Millions of people had to be relocated, willingly or not, to new communities like the new Wushan, built from scratch on riverside slopes.

The multibillion-dollar enterprise, hailed by China’s government as the greatest engineering feat in human history, raised a predictable hew and cry among environmentalists, archaeologists, human rights activists and tourism interests, who called it something else.

From a travel perspective, the dam initially looked like an unmitigated disaster, partially drowning one of China’s most attractive destinations.

Dick Carpentier, senior cruise director on the Victoria Jenna, recalled initial reaction of many travel agents.

"There used to be something going around with agents, who would tell clients they’d have to come see the gorges before they disappeared," he told me during a short excursion from Wushan through the Three Little Gorges on the Danang River.

"Well, as you can see, the gorges are still here. But if you sailed here 15 years ago, the water was much lower so probably the impact of the gorges was much greater."

This is my first cruise here, so I can’t tell the difference. The gorges, whether wider on the Yangtze or narrower on the Danang, left me breathless, the dam be damned.

The gorges loom hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet above emerald-green waters, shrouded in cloud and mist and dotted here and there with photographer’s delights such as temples and pagodas; mysterious, millennia-old coffins sticking out of crevices; and bands of romping rhesus monkeys.

kkchina-swansThe captain of the Victoria Jenna, Zhong Li, is a Chongqing native who has sailed the Yangtze for three decades. Having piloted ships before and after the Yangtze's damming, he makes no bones about his preferences.

Before the dam construction, water levels varied throughout the year, Li told me. Precarious rocks protruded from the water and shipping channels changed constantly, making steering difficult. Boats couldn’t measure longer than about 100 feet.

"Now with the dam, it’s so easy. The most dangerous stretches of the Yangtze have been flooded, and the river’s wider and deeper," he said. "The boats can get bigger and bigger, and longer and longer." Without the Three Gorges Dam, there’d be no Victoria Jenna.

Carpentier said the flooding has opened a lot more tourism possibilities.

"I came here seven years ago before the water had risen considerably, and you could only go up to the first gorge here on the Danang," he said. "I think everything is relative. I’ll have certain passengers who were here a decade ago, and they remember a certain village that’s no longer here. If you’ve never been here before, you won’t miss those things."

Whatever gorge glories remain, there is certainly much to miss, I surmise. Hundreds of those "hanging coffins" placed in precarious cliffside caves high over the rivers by the ancient Ba people have been moved to museums or other locations, said John, my Danang River guide.

River trackers, local men who once pulled boats through Yangtze shallows in the nude to save on clothing wear and tear, have had to find other, less exposing work.

And the beautiful coffee table book, "Civil Architecture in the Three Gorges," which I picked up for 200 yuan ($30) during the official dam tour at Sandouping, details in glorious color and somber black-and-white much of the Chinese architectural heritage, both humble and grand, that’s been submerged forever.

But much has also been preserved, protected or simply spared. The "White Emperor City," a revered hilltop temple complex at Baidicheng, sits safely above the rising waters, although it’s now an island instead of the peninsula it once was.

And the riverside, bright-red Orchid Hall pagoda and mountaintop temple at Shibaozhai have been shielded by a new retaining wall. Other threatened structures, such as the Zhang Fei temple, now at Yunyang, were relocated brick by brick.

"There were other sites thkkchina-dickcarpentierat were less touristic and more archaeological in nature where the authorities tried to take away as much as they could," Carpentier says. "As with any major project, there are a lot of pros and cons. But I think tourism-wise, the people who come here will still enjoy it."

One negative apparent even to a first-timer is the stark modern and industrial character of the new construction along the Yangtze.

While the Three Gorges proper remain largely pristine, nearby river slopes are crowded with ungainly apartment complexes, factories, bridges and piles of coal.

Whatever the Yangtze’s appeal as a vacation destination, the fact remains that millions of people call this river valley home. Carpentier sees a silver lining in this development cloud.

"The Yangtze itself will change dramatically in the next eight to 10 years as far as what’s available in terms of tourism product," he said. "You’re going to see more hotels, for example, along the river.

"And as long as the authorities don’t mess too much with the tributaries, tourists to the region will have plenty of opportunities to interact with nature up close and personal along the Yangtze for many years to come."

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