Down the Yangtze River

Cruise Introduction
The Yangtze River has been a top tourist destination in China ever since it became possible to visit. I remember seeing a picture of Bill Clinton enjoying a short cruise back when he was president, though I now wonder what he was doing out here in the middle of nowhere. The Yangtze is one of the world's great rivers, starting in the Himalayas and making its way over 6000km across southern China before emptying into the sea around Shanghai. Over 1000km inland from Shanghai, in the Hubei province, the river passes through three impressive gorges. Like many tourists, I signed-up for a three-day journey down a 600km section of river from Chongquin to Yinchang in order to see some of the scenery. A second class ticket for a bed in a room with three other people cost me just over 50USD, but including food, optional tours and whatnot, I spent maybe 100USD in all.

Trevor, Family, Kids
As with my hike up Mt. Emei, the people on this boat trip really made it worth it. I just happened to be booked in a room with a British guy named Trevor who has been studying Chinese in Beijing for the last year or so. He previously taught English in Korea and is also working on a masters in economics and politics. He was a great companion for the three days and also helped me understand China a bit more. Also, since he spoke some Chinese, we were able to communicate a bit with the family that occupied the other bunk bed in our room. This husband, wife, and one kid came all the way from Guangdong to enjoy see what all the tourists are raving about. They were so friendly and defied almost all of the negative stereotypes that I can imagine about Chinese people (except the ones about rotten only-child syndrome kids). Trevor also managed to become friends with four university students who were using the boat as their return ticket to school in Wuhan. There were also countless other people who walked up to us to say hello, take a picture, and practice their English.

Mingshan Temples and Ghost City
After setting-off about 8pm on the 23rd, we arrived bright and early at our first historical sight. Mingshan, or Mt. Ming, is a hillside which has been covered with Buddhist temples for some time. Honestly, when traveling in Asia you get tired of temples about as quickly as you tire of churches in Europe. The unique thing about temples in China is that people burn absorbitant amounts of incense, fake money, and other decorations to the point of having legitimate fire hazards. Although Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have all been adopted as the official state religion at some point in the past, the communists prefer to suppress religion and this has contributed to the growing religious indifference of most Chinese today. Most of the Chinese tourists (and our boat is 95% Chinese) seem more like tourists than worshippers as we file through from hall to hall listening to the explanations from the tour guides. The Ghost City, though, turns out to be much more of a tourist trap. Supposedly this area has some mysterious past linking it to the appearance of all kinds of spirits, but it is now home to a Disneyland-wannabe haunted mansion complete with a little car ride inside the castle walls. I decided to skip most of the on-shore antics after this one.

Three Gorges
The main event, of course was seeing the three gorges themselves. We passed through the Qutang Gorge on the second day and then saw the Wu Gorge and Xiling Gorge early morning on the third day. In between, we had a side trip up a tributary to see the Mini Three Gorges and then the Mini Mini Three Gorges. This sounds a bit cheesy, but this was actually fun because we were on really small boats in a narrow valley for the mini-mini part and the 70+ aged guide was singing old mountain songs reminiscent of Swiss yodelers. Singing aside, the gorges all reminded me of Lake Powell in the western US. The Glen Canyon Dam in the US backed-up the Colorado River just a bit downstream from the Grand Canyon. The result is a long narrow lake with a lot of inlets and steep rocky walls which are ideal for cliff diving. The Yangtze (damn or no damn) has the same steep canyon walls plus the added bonus view of many farms and small towns along the way (the Lake Powell is mostly uninhabited).

Three Gorges Dam
The other major reason I wanted to take this trip this year is due to the construction of the huge dam just downstream of the gorges. Typical of China, there is a lot of misinformation about the status of the dam project and what impact it will have on the three gorges area. Some people say that this trip will no longer be possible (or at least, not interesting) after the dam is completed. Others believe it is already too late. As far as I can tell, the dam is basically completed, although the last "ship elevator" and some of the power generators will not be operational for a couple more years. The dam will eventually raise the water in the gorges area from about 90m (above sea level) to 156.3m in the summer and 175m in the winter. However, so far the water stands at only about 135m. All along the river people are working frantically to move the last of the 1,000,000+ residents whose houses will be covered by the water. Some entire villages were relocated while others just creeped up the hill a bit. Most of the current work seems to be concentrating on reinforcing the steep riverbanks which will soon be overrun with water. It is a very impressive project to watch and ponder and seems like something only the Chinese would try.

The Five Locks
Aside from flood control and power generation, the third goal of the dam project is to improve navigation along this corridor. With the extra width and depth of the river all the way up to Chongquin, it will be possible to sail 10,000-ton barges (big, I guess) with no problem. Well, the one problem is the big dam in the middle of the river. That is why they built this five-step system of locks which will raise (or lower) ships from the 175m reservoir level to the 85m downstream level. Each lock can hold six large ships at a time. When the 40m-high doors are closed behind you, the water level goes down about 20m until you are level with the water in the next lock. Then the doors in front of you slowly swing open (while you hum evil Darth Vador music) and the boats move forward into the next lock. It was fun the first time, but after five locks, you start wishing they had the elevator completed so they could lower the boat in one quick movement!

--By the Way--
I never managed to remember much about the geography of China on previous trips. When traveling here, everything seems so immense with people all over and most of the names seem unfamiliar and confusing. However, an easy way to think about the China is via its similarity to the US. The landsize is about the same (though the population of China is more than 4X the US!) and the layout is similar too. Most of the people live on the east coast. The three major cities break-up the country into what is sometimes referred to as Northern China (Beijing), Eastern China (Shanghai), and Southern China (Hong Kong). North and east of Beijing there are still plenty of big cities, kinda like Boston and whatnot. As you move west there are still tons of major cities with more than 4 million people each. Many of these are provincial capitals. Since there are only about 25-30 provinces (give or take special municipalities, autonomous regions, etc), each one has 30-60million people each. The far western provinces are huge, but have fewer people because they are covered by deserts and mountains, just like the US. Today, after getting off the boat, I spent an hour in the city of Wuhan before flying to Beijing. This random city of 8million likes to think of itself as the Chicago of China.

Aaron Bishop
27 August 2006

-- China 2006 : Arrival | Chengdu | Emei-shan | Yangtze | Beijing | Photos--
S. China 2000 | Shanghai & Nanking 2003 | Weekend in Taipei
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