March 11, 2014
The Mississippi is Old Man River to us. The Yangtze is Mother to the Chinese. The third longest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon. It originates in Tibet and empties into the East China Sea near Shanghai. I am not sure where the West China Sea would be. Names are important as I learned in school that the same sea was the Sea of Japan. It is all a matter of perspective.
From Wuhan to the Three Gorges Dam, the landscape is flat. Much like the lower Mississippi. Since it is early Spring, there is little in the way of green. What there is plenty of are barges and ships carrying mostly raw materials like gravel and sand for the production of concrete. Rebar for reinforcement is also a common product. It is no joke that the Chinese national bird is the crane as there are thousands everywhere. The Chinese build up and not out. To see twenty or thirty story apartment complexes is normal. A low rise is under 10 levels. I cannot say that I find the style attractive but then I don’t live in a place where cities over a million are commonplace and even a city of four million is considered medium size. Wuhan was 10 million and we are heading towards Chungking with 35 million inhabitants.
Frankly, I do not find the huge tenement structures live able. The Chinese guides say that they are a vast improvement over the past. It is a matter of perspective.
We saw the ultimate symbol of the new China with our to the the Three Gorges Dam. The monstrous dam is the result of centuries of dreaming and decades of planning. The Chinese guides insist that its primary function is flood control and then electrical generation. There are other pluses for ocean going ships can sail as far as Chungking using the lock system that is part of the dam complex. Leaving out fish ladders for sturgeon and other native fish was an oversight. Hopefully, the special spillways will manage to keep the 500 million tons of annual silt from building up behind the dam.
We arrived at Yichang, a city of 4 million that before the construction of the dam boasted a population of 100,000. Our dock lay at the foot of a Walmart. We boarded a bus for an hour long ride through traffic and a rather dramatic highway that was constructed for the building of the dam and is used today to transport the 22 million tourists that visit the dam each year. The dam of such importance to China that it is militia ray zone with plenty of security and no nonsense soldiers. We went through security like boarding a place before being allowed to view the exterior of the dam and the ship locks.
The gargantuan scale is impressive. The demonstration of industrial might is grand. The whole place left me emotionally flat. The Chinese are enormously proud of this behemoth. I kind of see it as Hetch Hetchy desecration despite the obvious benefits to the Chinese people. The whole project culminated our river trip up the industrialized portion of the Yangtze. It was kind of like visiting Pittsburg, Cleveland, Buffalo from the river without seeing a stadium or scenic sight.
After the dam visit our bus took us through the I renovated portion of Yichang. I found it the most refreshing. There were street vendors selling everything and hole in the wall, Mom and Pop shops, and other signs of the old China. Our pleasant guide, Peter seemed embarrassed by the “backwardness” of these neighborhoods. I found them more like Naples. As a tour group we do not get much of a chance to see these normal folks. Too bad.
The highlight of the evening was a passage through a Gezhou dam lock. Much like other locks with massive concrete walls and heavy gates. We were joined with several prosaic barges carrying steels and gravel to feed the Chinese construction appetite. We retired to our room knowing that we would pass through the five locks that pass through the Three Gorges Dam starting around midnight. I awoke to see a mass of concrete outside our balcony. The passage was uneventful except when we were woken by a loud scraping on the side of the ship. Since there are no reported icebergs on the Yangtze, I dozed off again.
To summarize, I am impressed with the energy, determination and progress demonstrated by the Chinese. I also,learned that I have no interest in living in China beyond our visit. Too many people. Too much concrete. Too many high rises and not enough open space. Other than that, it remains unique.
Although the Three Gorges stand out as something one needs to see as like the Wall of China when one goes to this country, I think I would be a wee bit frustrated not to be able to roam through those neighborhoods you found enchanting. You really never get to rub elbows with the common people. But then again, on your own in a city of 36 million, would most certainly be frightening.
Did you ever read the book, A Single Pebble? It’s about a trip up the Yangtze. One of my favorite books, but probably very dated, given the dam. He tells of cliffs with slots carved in them for men to haul boats upriver–only tall enough for men bent double with labor. Fascinating!