Cruising the Three Gorges on China’s Yangtze River

Childcare Center at Chao Yang, Shanghai, China. I visited there on my way to Wuhan.

by Lee Foster

Cruising the Three Gorges section of China’s Yangtze River exposes a traveler to a stunning scenic section of the third longest river on Earth. Only the Nile and the Amazon exceed the Yangtze in length. At the Provincial Museum in Wuhan, near where the cruise ends, a traveler also makes the acquaintance of the historical greatness of the Chu State in this Yangtze River region. The tomb of one Chu leader from 433 B.C., known as Marquis Yi of Zeng, yielded artifacts as impressive as those in King Tut’s tomb in Egypt. The musical instruments from this ancient tomb, including 64 large bronze bells, will amaze a visitor.

Cruising the Three Gorges also acquaints a traveler with one of the largest and most controversial construction projects ever undertaken on Earth, the Three Gorges Dam, which raised the level of Yangtze River water in the gorges 175 meters. This is a modern construction as impressive as China’s Great Wall. The new dam is sometimes called the “Fourth Gorge” because it has become such a tourist attraction in itself. The dam, which has an an enormous effect on China, has its passionate advocates and opponents.

Three Gorges

Getting to the Three Gorges is a major undertaking. There are two ways to do the river trip, from Chongqing down the river to Wuhan and from Wuhan up the river to Chongqing. I chose to cruise down the river. I flew to and from these inland river cities from Beijing. Chongqing happens to be one of the most populous metro regions on the planet, with 32 million people.

Each Gorge has its own compelling beauty as the ship motors through the 118 mile stretch known as The Three Gorges. About a fifth of the vertical height is changed by the rising water (175 meters of the thousand-meter tall peaks) and some of my fellow travelers on the cruise ship Yangtze Angel had seen the gorges before the dam and noted an aesthetic difference. However, I had never seen the Gorges earlier and found the towering peaks, often 800 meters above me, a moving experience, especially in the rain and mist that is typical of the local weather. Heavy vegetation of bamboo and conifer trees lined the hillsides.

The first gorge, Qutang, seemed to have the steepest precipices and the narrowest width. Indeed, this was the most treacherous gorge for ships going upriver in the past, before the dam improved navigation. The Gorges were major subjects for the ancient Chinese poets, as my guide liked to point out. The area known as Kuimen Gate is the most spectacular place in Qutang Gorge. The poet Bai Juyi wrote, “The shore looks like two screens. The sky has been cut out.”

The second gorge is the Wu Gorge. Here the river zigzags through the walls of green scenery, with misty peaks and drifting clouds showing an ethereal elegance. As another ancient Chinese poet wrote of the Wu Gorge, “As the boat sails on the river, passengers feel they are moving in splendid paintings.”

An intriguing shore excursion was offered at Badong in the Wu Gorge. Because of the higher water, more side rivers are now navigable. We took a small boat partway up the scenic river known as the Shennong Stream. This tranquil river, with its towering peaks, was a pleasing counterpoint to the surging power of the Yangtze River. At the end of the navigable stretch, we were met by the local people, men of the Tujia tribe, who have designed boats that they power by oars, bamboo poles, and by brute human strength walking along the stream bank. These boats can navigate very fast water. When the stream became quite small, the Tujia men literally jumped out of the boat, harnessed themselves with ropes, and pulled the boat upstream. The Tujia are a resilient and ancient people, descendants of one of the earliest ethnic groups here, the Ba people. The Tujia are self-reliant, fashioning their boats and even their ropes and sandals from local materials, especially from bamboo. “Boat tracking” or pulling the boat upstream by walking through the shallow water by the bank was the ancient way in which all boats went up the Yangtze or the smaller side streams before the era of the motor.

Childcare Center at Chao Yang Shanghai, China
Childcare Center at Chao Yang Shanghai, China

The third and longest gorge is Xiling Gorge, where the dam is located. Part of the gorge is below the dam, so its aesthetic is not affected by the dam. My ship went through the five-level shiplock that allows passage across the dam. This dramatic event took two and a half hours. For smaller ships under 3,000 tons, there is also a ship elevator rising 175 meters in one motion.

Yangtze River Dam

Wherever you are on the Yangtze, the power of the river is a major experience. The speed and volume of water is a force to be reckoned with. Taming the Yangtze has been a dream since the beginning of civilization here, partly because of the frequent and damaging floods it caused. However, the dream received new impetus in 1911 when the vision was articulated again by the founder of modern China, Dr. Sun Yatsen. The Chinese government voted to build the dam in 1992. A visitor view point at the dam allows everyone to see the shiplocks and the surging water coming out of the bottom of the dam. The scope of the project is awe-inspiring, especially up close, as you watch the surging water that produces electricity. About 30,000 workers were involved in building the dam.

From many perspectives, the dam is a major cluster of superlatives. It is said to be the largest dam in the world, surpassing the recent leader, Itaipu in Brazil. The electricity generated is supposedly the highest amount of any dam. The inundated area behind the dam has a larger surface area than the lake behind any other dam in the world.

In a conversation with Ding Xi-Hua, the Director of Construction Management, I learned why the Chinese built the dam. There were three main reasons.

First, flood control. People along the Yangtze suffer devastating floods, roughly every ten years. This has been a known fact of Chinese life for thousands of years. Most recently, a huge flood in 1998 displaced two million people, killed 4,000 people, and caused an estimated $25 billion in damages to the fertile farmlands and cities in the Wuhan region south of the dam. Wuhan is so fertile, producing rice, cotton, wheat, and aquaculture fish, that it is sometimes called “The Land of Rice and Fish.” It is said that an abundant crop in the Wuhan region can feed the country. During the flood, a half-million soldiers were mobilized to build ever higher dikes, but the waters could not be contained. Because this is the most fertile farming region in China, the loss to floods is always great. The Yangtze River basin has about 400 million people, roughly a third of China’s 1.3 billion population, and produces about 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The city of Wuhan itself has 8.3 million people. Losses from that single flood surpassed the $12 billion cost of building the dam.

Second, electric power generation. The size of the dam  produces an amount of electricity almost impossible to imagine. The 26 generators are said to produce 84.7 billion kilowatts, or about one-seventh of the energy needs of China. This will allow China to retire many of its old, polluting, coal-burning electric plants. Since many people use coal also to cook food and warm their houses, anything that can be done to use clean hydro-electricity rather than coal has a substantial positive effect on the environment. The air pollution from coal in the past, especially in a place like Wuhan, in winter, has been great. The dam is projected to reduce coal burning by 50 million tons per year. With more electricity, the marginal wood gathering for fuel and home heating will also diminish, allowing the re-forestation of China, which is in the midst of a major tree-planting phase.

Third, improved ship navigation. The Yangtze is a swift and treacherous river, especially at certain narrow places, such as in the Qutang Gorge. Freighter and passenger ships will now be able to move freely upriver from Shanghai to Chongqing, opening up development and a higher standard of living for the interior and western part of China. It is estimated that the freight costs from Shanghai to Chongquin will be reduced about 35 percent by the dam. One aspect of this is that 46 one-way channels in the narrow parts of the river will now be usable by two ships passing each other. A year-around predictable water level for freight will also minimize the loss due to the interruption of shipping at low-water periods in the dry season, when the river is too treacherous for shipping.

Environmental Concerns

Opponents of the dam raise a number of issues. The change in the scenery of the Gorges is lamented. Some cultural artifacts and unknown cultural resources will be inundated. Some 47 rare and endangered plant species and 26 animal species will be affected, but most of these are above the high-water mark.

About 1.1 million people along the river have been moved to new housing, often directly above their old housing on the bank. There is a fear, as there is with all dams, that a collapse of the dam due to political sabotage or an earthquake would cause incalculable downstream loss.

Migrating fish, such as sturgeon, will be restricted in their movements, requiring the Chinese to compensate by establishing sturgeon fisheries above and below the dam. Sedimentation of the dam may gradually impair the usefulness of the structure.

Some environmental changes may be subtle but far reaching. If the mass of water raises the regional temperature, as it is estimated to do, by even one degree, the effect on the local environment could be major.

All these issues have been studied by the Chinese, who have their answers. No arguments from detractors affected the Chinese plan to complete the dam by 2009.

The cruise ship I experienced was the Yangtze Angel, one of the upper-end crafts on the river. These ships are smaller than most ocean cruisers, a necessity because of the river’s limitations. The cabins on the Yangtze Angel were clean and had small balconies for enjoying the river. The food was tasty, served buffet style.

Cruising the Three Gorges is one of the special river cruises available on this planet, plunging a visitor into a special Chinese natural beauty, Chinese culture both ancient and modern, and an informed understanding of one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken by man.


If You Go: Cruising the Three Gorges on the Yangtze

For visas and information on China travel, contact the China National Tourist Office, www.cnto.org. Be sure to get your visa arranged in advance of your trip.

Air carriers serving China include the government airlines and the commercial carriers. Air China has non-stop flights to Beijing from San Francisco.