Last Gasp for the Three Gorges

With waters on the rise, tourists are flooding China's Yangtze River, for what is touted as the cruise of all time. Over-hyped or trip-of-a-lifetime? Whatever, for this writer, it's all aboard.

By Ron Gluckman/On the Yangtze River, China

AS THE LAST PASSENGERS HUSTLE ABOARD, an all-girl brass band blows a spirited salute. On cue, the whistle sounds, the gangplank lifts, engines shudder. Even before the ship is under full rudder, the main deck is packed.

  The morning air is thick with mist, but nobody seems to mind. Most of us boarded last night, then tossed and turned on our tiny bunks, wound tight with the anticipation of travelers on the cusp of adventure. Now, we share a collective sigh. At last, we're under way.

  Like school kids on holiday, we're quickly pointing out sights, of a sort. Green hills frame shoreline, punctuated by puffing chimneys. Through smoke and haze, buildings emerge than vanish, concrete landscape bobbing surrealistically in the eerie dawn light.

  Not typical cruise highlights, but this is no Mississippi paddle-wheeler nor Caribbean luxury liner. Instead, we're pressed to the railings of Princess Jeannie, pride of the Regal China line, chugging across the heartland of the Middle Kingdom. Jokes about slow boats to China are stowed below, because the mood on deck is decidedly upbeat. After all, first views notwithstanding, this may be the hottest cruise ticket on Earth.

  That's partly because the river we ride is the mighty Yangtze. From soaring peaks at the rooftop of the world, it darts across the Tibetan Plateau, then snakes 4,000 miles to Shanghai. Third largest river after the Amazon and Nile, the Yangtze is lifeblood of 400 million people - one and half times the population of America. Hence, the riverside bustle and billowing smokestacks as we pull out of Chongqing, a hilly-city not without boom-town charm.

  We are bound for Wuhan, three days and 1,000 miles downstream. Soon, urban clutter will give way to traditional Chinese tile roofs. Steep gorges will sprout impressively-sited temples, and tourists will dig deep into guidebooks for the entertaining names of evocative rock formations that have beguiled visitors for eons. But the real attraction is the Yangtze itself.

   Author Pearl Buck called this the "wildest, wickedest river on Earth." A boat a day was often lost in the olden times to shifting currents on the perilous upstream journey from Wuhan.

  In "A Single Pebble," Pulitzer-Prize winner John Hersey wrote: "The Yangtze's waters, I could see, moved not only seawards but also up and around and down, stirred by rocks beneath, and none of the water was ever on the surface long enough to be moved by mere wind. It fought stone, not the plastic sky. It was sheer power."

  That was a half-century ago, when water roaring through Shadow-Play Gorge and The Gorge of the Ox's Liver and the Horse's Lung scared away all but the greatest explorers and fearless captains.

   These crept upstream through almost-mythical gorges, dragged inch by inch around boulders and sinkholes by teams of barefoot trackers sometimes hundreds strong on shore, crawling along miniscule footpaths carved into sheer rock by the passing of so many human oxen before them.

  Hersey's tale has a touch of irony. The main character was an engineer with a crazy dream - of damming the Yangtze. Ironic because, far downstream, past Dai Stream and Green Stone Cavern, beyond the view of Kong Ming Tablet and Goddess Peak, a wall now cuts across this river, bigger than anything Hersey or most men might dream.

  Three Gorges Dam will be the largest ever built, 600-feet high and 1.2 miles long. Soon, this new Great Wall will start filling, forever altering the great Yangtze. Before it does, we have come for a look.

  There is a certain sadness surrounding such a tour, considering many sights will soon be buried beneath the swelling river. At some points, the rise will be 175 meters. Even in Chongqing, 600 kilometers from the dam at the far end of a future lake, water levels will rise 16 meters.

  New docks will be built, but prosperity will flow to Chongqing, along with ships from Shanghai, China's grandest city.

  A different fate awaits hundreds of tiny villages in the path of the rising lake. Already scores have been razed, to avoid future seafaring obstacles. In all, more than a million people will have to be relocated.

  Tourists, too, are on the move, drawn to sellout Farewell to the Three Gorges. "There is a frenzy," concedes Joanna Codrington, tour manager for Bales Worldwide, an up-market British travel company.

   "All our Yangtze tours have been full for years, but things are really packed now. There is the general perception that this is it, the end. That you can't see the gorges after this."

  In reality, neither spectacular gorges nor the boat trips will disappear, at least not completely, and not right away. The real impact will come after the dam begins filling in stages, beginning next summer.

  Already, time is running out for Fengdu. The name has many meanings, among them, Ghost City, because of the spirit-chasing sculptures erected at a series of hilltop temples. The idols haven't protected Fengdu, which will be submerged.

  For now, it's a popular stop, where you can hike the hills through some of China's thickest jungle - credit the Yangtze mists. Most cruise passengers take the ski-style cable chair lift, a fun ride with soaring views of the thickets below.

  One could spend weeks boat-hopping among all the river towns, some perched upon seemingly impenetrable cliffs. They bring to mind Meng Liang, a Sung Dynasty general whose war ships were trapped in Wind-Box Gorge by chains laid by his enemies across the river. In the cover of night, his men chiseled holes in rock and built an escape route, straight up the 700-foot cliff.

  Such resolve is still evident along the river, like at Fuli, where an entire city is being lifted to higher ground. Or at Shibaozhai, a 12-story wooden pagoda that will survive the river's rise on a new island, behind its own dam.

  Even more inspiring is the Yangtze scenery itself, an inspiration to Chinese poets and painters for centuries, particularly the Three Gorges, which we reach on day two of our cruise. By then, the buildup has been manic.

   In the tradition of cruises everywhere, we've passed time with idle chatter and by gorging ourselves on huge buffets, thrice daily, watched educational videos (including an excellent one narrated by actress Jodie Foster) and read through the boat library.

  Cheerful staff have filled evening hours with talent shows. And shore excursions have been eye-opening. Through it all, passengers have patiently awaited the main act.

  As we sweep into Qutang Gorge, first of the big three, the show really begins. Shortest of the gorges, just eight kilometers long, Qutang is also the most dramatic, steep cliffs eliciting ample oohs and ahs from passengers.

  Along cracks and crevices, we spot the footpaths used by old trackers. Many are barely a hand wide. Imagine trackers treading these threadlike paths, dragging boats like ours while death looms in the water below.

  Twenty minutes later, we're through the first gorge, then sail past a wonderful array of mountaintop temples and towns into the next of China's Grand Canyons.

  Wu Gorge is another world - wide and expansive. Nearly six times the length of Qutang, it takes 90 marvelous minutes to traverse. Passengers who pressed to the fore deck for first views of Qutang Gorge retreat to deck chairs and relax.

  That's the real joy of a Three Gorges cruise. Watching the scenery scroll past is a welcome relief from sightseeing in China - pressed into tour buses and trundled pretty much non-stop from sights to trinket shops.

  We still get our share of both. One cruise highlight comes after Wu Gorge, when we transfer to tiny "pea boats" for an exhilarating excursion up Shennong Stream, one of many Yangtze tributaries. Packed behind village pole-men, we bounce over rapids as they paddle or push us forward, straining poles against river rock or gorge walls.

  When all else fails, into the water they leap, tugging the canoe while shouting tracker cries of encouragement that have gone unchanged for centuries. All rather romantic, until we reach a bend where, stretched across wet rocks, is an unreal stretch of trinket stalls.

  And there's more at the huge wall of concrete across Xilong Gorge, largest of the Three Gorges. Visitors are spirited around the world's largest construction site, past a site model, then into - surprise - another gift shop.

  Still only partly operational - the water begins backing up against the dam in June 2003, but high water levels won't be reached until years after the scheduled completion date of 2009.

  Yet it's already a genuine tourist attraction; several passengers have been talking non-stop of the dam since the band saw us off in Chongqing. More will come when the massive five-stage locks and world's largest boat elevator are operational.

  "The dam will create more tourism," notes John Burger, director of business development at the new Hilton Hotel in Chongqing. Like others along the cruise path, he's positive about the future. "People keep pointing out what is being lost, but the dam gives us a whole new tourist product."

  Crass perhaps, but by nature the Yangtze has never been static, changing its flow with each new season of flooding.

   "Some attractions will be lost, but there will be new ones, too," adds Jon Ho, a vice-president of Regal China, who touts temples and rare sights now hidden down canyons that will only be reachable in higher water.

  "Tourists will still come, they'll still see amazing things."

   That is, if they can get a ticket.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been roaming around Asia since 1991, when he was based in Hong Kong. Since 2000, he has been based in Beijing, covering China for a wide variety of publications including Destinasian ( an excellent new travel magazine that ran this story in its October 2002 issue (along with a feature on the province of Sichuan and its spicy food.)

For another take on the Three Gorges trips, check out Ron Gluckman's story for the Asian Wall Street Journal ( Weekend Edition August 30-September 1, 2002).

For booking and other info, turn to Three Gorges information.

To return to the opening page and index

home.jpg (5606 bytes)

push here