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Yangtze River –Three Gorges Dam Expedition

April 22, 2012

Chongqing: Yangtze River view.

A 4-day Yangtze River tour was on our agenda this week, so first we flew via Lucky Airlines (sic) West from Nanjing to the sprawling Chongqing municipality (population about 32 million) — in central China at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers.  Chongqing is the point of departure for most of the commercial tour boats wending their way to Yichang, just East of the enormous and famed and controversial Three Gorges Dam, in all of its architectural sublimity.  I’ll be back in Chongqing to give a lecture at Southwest University in a few weeks, at which time I hope to see more of the city proper, but this was an opportunity to see the Yangtze River and to see as well the many changes it has gone through over the past 20 years or so.  Before boarding the ship, we briefly toured the impressive Three Gorges Museum.  The main event here was a nationalistic film short of about 20 minutes — displayed in a special 360 degree Imax-type theater — describing the Three Gorges Dam project as a major point of cultural pride.  More authentically impressive was the rest of the museum, notably a display featuring a dramatic sculptural rendering of traditional river laborers (boatmen) who in generations past made their living by first shedding every stitch of clothing before setting off on their grueling daily efforts: working in teams to muscle stranded boats over rocky shoals on the previously (pre-Three Gorges Dam) low-running Yangtze River.

Yangtze River boatmen: sculpture at the Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing.

These days, things are much easier thanks to the over 100 meters of river depth added by the Three Gorges Dam project, and there’s no need for these muscular boat haulers from riverside communities to do this kind of dangerous work.  In fact, many of the river communities have been voluntarily or forcibly “relocated” up to higher ground because their villages are now entirely submerged by the addition of 100 meters of river depth along the Yangtze between Chongqing and Yichang.

Yangtze River: Three Gorges region, between Chongqing and Yichang.

It’s now possible to travel quite easily all the way by cruise ship from Chongqing to the Shanghai port on the Pacific Ocean but most of the best scenery occurs on the descent from the mountains of Chongqing to Yichang, a smaller city along the Yangtze that has most of its economic activity devoted to the practical aspects of hydropower engineering in this energy-rich part of the river.

Yangtze River cruising: Sailing East from Chongqing.

Constructed over about two decades and nearly completed, the Three Gorges dam is a marvel of engineering that has provide inexpensive electricity for much of Eastern China, while altering semi-permanently the climate of the Yangtze River watershed area.  In any case, it’s an incredible achievement in civil engineering infrastructure that has also dramatically improved the navigability of the river while ensuring greater control over the dangerous flooding that used to occur regularly here.

Three Gorges Dam: ship elevator construction scene on April 21, 2012.

Apparently, this project was first envisioned early in the twentieth century by the great Chinese nation builder, Sun Yat-sen, although it was not brought on line at full capacity until about 2010.  And the project continues, with locks for shipping completed, but with the cargo ship “elevator” to finish construction within several years.

Three Gorges Dam: night view of ships in the locks.

Controversy continues about the ecological wisdom of making such a great change to the river’s geology and the region’s geography.  Some say that species are threatened, all agree that more than a million citizens have been relocated, and there are dangerous mudslides that threaten some of the remaining communities living along the riverside.  In any case, with passage Eastward made easier by the new dam project, the “Golden Freeway” as the Yangtze River is now called by the local tourism boosters, is filled almost to bursting with Chinese cruise ships, cargo freighters, and container barges.  All wending their smoky way 24/7 on the world’s third largest river: a once-crystalline tide fallen from Mongolian plateaus and Himalayan peaks downriver toward the factories and marketplaces of Eastern China.

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