The Three Gorges
Seven-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.
After three hours on the river we reach the village of Sandouping, site of the Three Gorges Dam. Despite considerable debate about whether or not there is money to build it (costs are currently estimated at twenty billion dollars), a graceful suspension bridge, about two-thirds of a mile long, has been built across the river to connect the two construction sites, cliffs have been stripped and blasted, spurs of rock blown away and the rubble used to create the foundations for what will be a 600-foot-high dam wall, one and a quarter miles long. Bridges have been thrown across subsidiary inlets and new roads have been dug into the mountainside to cope with the lorry traffic. Cement silos tower into the air, conveyor belts run down to barges, whole townships have been built on the banks to house the eighteen thousand workers. The current stage of this operation, which involves a temporary diversion of the course of the Yangtze, is gigantic enough.
Up river from the construction site we enter the most unspoilt pastoral landscape I’ve yet seen in China. A panorama of traditional cultivation patterns – terraced valleys winding back into the mountains, contours picked out by stone walls and winding paths. Hamlets of whitewashed stone cottages with wide-hipped roofs are tucked away amongst the trees, or dotted along sandy bays. Quite soon all this will have vanished beneath the waters of the reservoir. The occupants of those whitewashed farmhouses will be among the one and a half million who will be sent elsewhere, their homes and livelihoods sacrificed to the industrialization of the Yangtze Basin.
Meanwhile the river narrows. Whirlpools, eddies and races force the Oriental Star into long, time-consuming zig-zags as it labours against the current. One of the arguments in favour of the Three Gorges Dam is that it will calm the flow of the water and make navigation easier. It will also, its supporters claim, help prevent the recurrent and murderous Yangtze floods and provide thousands of megawatts of cheap electricity. At 4.15 we make our first stop at Badong, on the southern bank. It is built on steep slopes with a commanding view of the river, and an impressive edifice that resembles the Potala palace in Lhasa dominates one end of town. The reality is less glamorous. The Potala Palace turns out to be a power station and the banks below it are coal tips. Any coal not used at the power station is sent slithering down the mountain in long open chutes, and flung out into waiting barges in a series of sooty ejaculations. Badong does not look healthy. Dust from uncovered coal tips has blown across the town and the apartment blocks that stride so confidently up the mountain are stained and grubby. Much higher up however are brand new apartments. Fresh, clean and gleaming. They, of course, will be above the flood.
Through the Wu-Xia, the Witches Gorge, 25 miles long and flanked by twelve towering peaks. Kites cruise the cliff-sides. The river has lost all tones of green and is now a fiercely flowing mud-brown. The captain watches it carefully. He is the personification of riverine experience – an elderly man with close-cropped grey hair, shrewd eyes and compact, formidably serious features that transform like a clown’s mask whenever he smiles.
As the light begins to fade, the walls of the gorge grow taller and more dizzily vertical – looming stacks of rock, black at their base, peaks tinged orange by the setting sun.
The Witches Gorge is the gateway to Sichuan, the largest and most populous of China’s twenty-one provinces. With a hundred million inhabitants and an area slightly greater than that of France it consists of a prosperous eastern plain encircled by mountains. For centuries the Yangtze gorges have been its only communication with the outiside world. The easternmost city in Sichuan is Wushan, which we reach at eight in the evening.
Porters on the landing stage fight over the heaviest pieces of baggage, and enormous loads are tied to individual shoulder poles and carried off up a steep flight of stone steps separating the river from the road. We are then transported through narrow, winding, darkened streets in the hotel coach, horn blaring and everything in our way – cars, cycles, motor tricycles, men, women and children – cast to one side.
Wushan is small town China. Foreign tourists doing the gorges spend the night on their cruise ships, and the hotel, off a scruffy courtyard on the main street, is not sophisticated. We decide the rooms might be more beautiful after a beer or two and the man who is hiring us boats for tomorrow offers to find us somewhere. He will not hear of us exploring on our own.
‘I will come with you. Wushan is a dangerous town.’
The tree-lined main street looks about as dangerous as Disney World but he walks ahead of us like a Chinese Robert Mitchum, jacket hung loose across his shoulders, chewing on a matchstick. It’s clear, after passing one or two attractive street-side establishments, that his idea of ‘having a beer’ means more than merely having a beer. We leave the main street and walk a little way up a side road where he conducts some business with a middle-aged woman who casts repeated and unimpressed looks in our direction before finally indicating a doorway. We climb three floors past dimly-lit rooms. We are shown into a glum reception area with leather sofas and are given a plate of biscuits. But it is not until the ladies actually appear that we finally catch on. Hasty exits all round. Honestly.
Unlike most small provincial towns, Wushan actually grows noisier as the night goes on. At midnight I set my Martin Amis to one side and pull the duvet over my head. The dissonant chorus of karaoke, bus engines, firecrackers, drunken arguments, riverboat sirens and the sharp, ugly ‘eek!’ of tricycle-taxi horns make rather a mockery of the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign I’ve hung on the door. (Only in the morning do I find that it actually reads ‘Do Not Disturd’.)