Asia | China – Down the Yangzi
It was fifty-three years to the day that Mao Zedong had proclaimed the birth of a new China. We gathered our gear and walked through the metropolitan center of Chongqing, dwarfed by towering high-rises and blinded by neon billboards. It had taken only 53 years to negate any form of egalitarian dreams that might have been entertained on that cool Beijing morning in 1949.
We plied through the middle of the burger-frenzied crowd that stood before the McDonald’s, past the shiny facades of stores that could easily exhaust the average per annum income of the majority of Chinese with but a single purchase, and descended through the booming capitalism to the Chaotianmen Docks below.
We were led alongside the gleaming white ships that we had seen in the brochures and were then pointed towards a much smaller version that was surely ‘the pride of the fleet’…though evidently dozens of merciless years had come and gone since that fine day.
We entered the cabin and after brushing the numerous rodent turds from the bed and table, we tried to find the angles used in the photos that we had pointed to while booking our tickets. Children of the West are all too quick to accept the flashy exaggerations of tourist propaganda and we were now face to face with the fact that we had fallen into the dark void behind the glossy photos.
We were riding 3rd class on a boat that had long since fallen from any level of formal classification. Of course, that didn’t keep me from coming up with a passable classification of my own; a grimy bucket of bolts better suited for breeding rats (a concept that had apparently already been introduced) than for serving as a floating hotel. As the ‘Love Boat’ pulled away from the pier a dark shadow darted between my feet, succesfully retrieving the last remaining crumb from the previous journey. If only the rest of the cleaning crews could have worked with such efficiency…
As it wasn’t the word ‘cruise’ that had lured us to the Yangzi, our purposes would be well served as long as our grotty boat could manage to stay afloat for the next three days. We had come to pay our respects to a landscape that would soon be lost, submerged under the rising tides of ‘progress and modernization’.
The third longest river of the world and China’s greatest and most significant artery, the Yangzi River begins as a trickle of water melting from the glaciated peaks of the Tang-gula Shan Mountains, high on the Tibetan Plateau. Seven provinces and 6300 kilometers later, it flows into the South China Sea just above Shanghai.
Roughly halfway along the river’s spectacular journey between the barren expanses and it’s merger with the saline waters, construction is well underway to build the largest hydroelectric dam the world has yet to see. Bigger-better-stronger, higher-faster-sooner, it’s the image that counts and neither man nor nature shall stand in the way. More than 2 million people have already been relocated to accomodate the rising waters, which when finished, will become the largest man-made reservoir in the world; an artificial lake stretching from Yichang to Chongqing, some 550 kilometers long.
Environmentalists and experts, both Chinese and western, have said it won’t work and that the damage and potential for calamity far outweigh any advantages that stand to be gained. Downstream from the dam lies one of the most densely populated areas in the world,literally hundreds of millions of people, and a major earthquake or, dare I say, a misguided airplane, could trigger the greatest catastrophe that the last few millenia has yet to see.
Should this fact have already caused a few beads of sweat behind the stiff collars in Beijing, you wouldn’t know it elsewhere. As in the rest of China, construction continues like there is no tomorrow. Only fittingly, tomorrow will surely continue on like there was no today and that could just send a third of China’s population into the sea…time will tell.
Aside from the human and environmental fronts, beauty will become a victim as well, as just upstream from the dam lies one of China’s most spectacular landscapes; the Three Gorges. Once the flooding is complete there will be very little left to see of them and it was this soon-to-disappear landscape that had brought us to the soon-to-be-stagnant mighty river.
Sometime during the first night we docked at the town of Fengdu. At 4:30 in the morning the squalid cabins emptied onto the dock and began to form groups. Over a steaming cup of nescafe the chaos was almost entertaining, and when the 900 passengers had finally found their assigned guides we were herded like cows through the dark streets of the sleeping city. The sleepy-eyed herd came to a bottleneck as it merged with the contents of a half dozen other boats at the entrance to the ‘Ghost City’ of Pingdu Shan. There was a baffling sense of panic wafting through the morning air as tickets were distributed and the herds began the ascent to the generously-templed mountain.
It could have been a scene from a film demonstrating the horrors of mass tourism, but if it was, it’s meaning was lost on the thousands of Chinese tourists that were pushing and elbowing their way up the narrow stairways. We made it as far as the first temple and in the midst of hundreds of hopelessly misguided camera-lenses, we slipped away from the masses and found a quiet spot to ignore the show. It didn’t take long before we ourselves, the pale-faced-long-noses that we are, also became an attraction and it was in the blinding light of countless flashes that we made our hasty retreat back down the mountain, leaving the noisy hordes to the silent ghosts.
After a stroll through the town we returned to the pier. Daylight now offered a clear view of the rubble that rose from the shore and stretched along the extent of the city’s boundaries. Workers were hammering away at large blocks of concrete to free the, apparently still valuable, steel reinforcement bars inside. The lower reaches of all of the towns and cities between Chongqing and Yichang have been demolished to make way for the coming lak and the results are about as charming as a city tour of Grozny.
The day passed as smoothly as the rural landscapes and our timing couldn’t have been more perfect as we entered the first gorge in the total darkness of mid-evening. If this rather inopportune viewing had ushered in a sense of dissapointment it wasn’t shared on the packed decks, where the cameras were running over-drive and their faint flashes found themselves consumed in darkness just a few meters from the boat. And while I am sure that Mr. Kodak would be pleased to know that our night passing had little effect on the expected film consumption, I can honestly say that I wasn’t.
The following day began again at the un-godly hour of 4:30 am. and it was to take the better part of the next 1 1/2 hours to get the groups organised and packed into buses…BUT come hell and high water, both of which were on their way – the hell sooner and the high water later, we were to see the ‘Lesser Three Gorges’ in the light of day.
I would never have thought it possible to recreate, let alone exceed, the chaos we’d experienced in Fengdu the morning before, but arrival at the next pier certainly took the cake…and the plate it was served on. It was here that we first realized what a mistake it had been to be travelling during ‘Golden Week’,the week that follows National Day, when approximately 1.3 billion people have nothing better to do than swamp every ‘attraction’ from the Great Wall to the dried panda fetuses in Chengdu.
We were herded down to the Daning River, a tiny tributary of the Yangzi, and there between the imposing cliffs were no less than 200 small boats and several thousand Chinese tourists crowding the planks to board them. The boarding procedure was as calm and orderly as would be expected; like bats out of hell with no holds barred, as if we were leaving a sinking ship and there was but a single lifeboat. The panic was difficult to understand but I suppose in a land where the masses compete for space inside an overwhelmed infrastructure, it is simply a survival mechanism that kicks in automatically.
Despite the ammount of boats plying the narrow waters, the ‘Lesser Three Gorges’ proved to be well worth the morning’s trials. The sheer stone faces rose from the river to heights of 300 meters and at times there was barely 50 meters separating them. High on the cliff walls there were several hand-carved niches to be seen. These graves from a long forgotten civilization had withstood the test of time and I couldn’t help pitying the gravedigger’s efforts, especially considering that the ancient corpses would soon be floating aimlessly through the lake.
Once we and the rest of the zoo had found our way back to our floating cages, the anchors were raised and we soon entered the second gorge. (Surely something had gone wrong as we were now viewing one of the main attractions in full daylight…I didn’t ask) The Wu Xia, or second gorge, was, by far, the most impressive of the three (though I am tempted to think that this had something to do with the fact that it was the only one that daylight allowed us to view properly).
The cliffs rose 900 meters above us and even the sun made a rare appearance, setting the golden stone alite. Were it solely for this dramatic 40 kilometer stretch, the trip would have already been well worth it.
Well, come to think of it, the whole trip WAS for that 40 kilometer stretch as darkess invaded the scenery long before we had reached the last and longest gorge. I caught the very beginning of it but as I ran back to the cabin I found Jana helplessly caught in a conversation with our, otherwise scrutinizingly silent, cabinmates. Her eyes were pleading with me to slip into the chat and to free her of the awkward limelight. I, of course, high-tailed it back to deck, just managing a feeble Zaijian (goodbye) while slipping out the door.
My conscience got the better of me however, and a few minutes later I was knee-deep in our phrasebook and caught in a storm of laughter. The conversation did prove to be one of the highlights of the trip though. It had taken 2 1/2 days to break the ice and it seems that a tidal wave of eager questions had been waiting on the other side. It was a pity that we hadn’t made more efforts before and what we had mistakingly taken for icy cold glares had in fact, been that they just didn’t know what to say to us. At least this is what we told ourselves later. To be honest, I think that being in close quarters with road-worn backpackers was a serious dissappointment for them, though once they had learned a bit about us and our journey they were quick to thaw.
At any rate our newfound friends were soon to be yet another fading image in the rear-view mirror. We all returned to the deck as we passed the monstrous Three Gorges Dam and shared a few last oohs and aahs together with the rest of our fellow passengers. Bright spotlights lit the ongoing construction as the ship passed through the last remaining narrow gap. The bright lights of Yichang were glimmering downstream and our trip had ended, quite fittingly, at the mighty river’s massive gravestone.
As on countless other fronts, the Earth quietly watches as man attempts to harness her power and paint over her landscapes. There is little reason to object as all of our destructive efforts will inevitably be erased in the course of time. A quiet witness and a silent tear but she keeps turning, alternating between the light of day and the shadows of night, a constant reminder that nothing is of permanence but the revolving heavens above.