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Full Circle

Day 63: The Yangtze River - Yichang to Wushan

Michael Palin - Full CircleSeven-thirty in the morning. From my window in the Ping-Hu Hotel in Yichang I enjoy a view of urban desolation - a featureless cityscape of dull, dirty blocks, unalleviated by any living colour, sprig of greenery, or man-made element one might consider graceful or uplifting.

'Welcome To The Three Gorges' reads a dusty red and yellow concrete sign on the other side of the road.

It's difficult to believe that this is the focal point for one of the greatest construction projects in history. Work began on the Three Gorges Dam in 1993 and will not be finished until 2009. The reservoir it creates will be the largest in the world, stretching back 400 miles. It was Chairman Mao's greatest unfulfilled ambition and now, twenty years after his death, it seems to be coming true. The mighty Yangtze will become the Ping-Hu - the Placid Lake.

All Ping-Hu means to us at the moment is a filthy hotel with delightful staff. Breakfast conversation takes a depilatory turn. I had found long black hairs on my pillow. Steve, our assistant cameraman, had found pubic hairs in his washbasin.

Yesterday we travelled over 600 miles from Shanghai by plane and bus, through rain and nondescript countryside, so today we are all looking forward to slower progress and finer scenery as we board the Oriental Star Number 1, a broad-bottomed Yangtze ferryboat shaped like a great green marrow. It has four levels of accommodation ranging from double cabins to open decks. The last docking cable is cast off two minutes after our scheduled departure time and with a sonorous blast on the horn the Oriental Star pulls out into the stream. Hooting our way past greasy tugboats, sampans, colliers, junks and small two-deck local ferries we make our way towards a cavernous lock beside the present Yangtze dam at Gezhou. The doors holding back the river are 100 foot high. I feel vaguely uncomfortable trapped at the bottom of these black slimy walls. Cyclists and pedestrians pour across the top of the lock gates way above us. When the Three Gorges Project is finished there will be five locks this size.

Once released from the lock we find ourselves in open water, narrowed by the steep sides of the Xiling Gorge into a funnel for a cold, hard head-wind. A tourist boat, the Yangtze Paradise, passes us on its way to Yichang. It's virtually empty.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 63
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Yichang
  • Book page no: 89

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