By a Dam Site

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Yichang to the Three Gorges Dam

Oct. 18

After visiting Dongyue Temple, we flew from Beijing to the Yangzi River town of Yichang, descending in thick haze (one cannot call it fog) in the late afternoon. A bus took us directly to the quay where the Victoria Queen—our home for the next four nights—was docked at the foot of a steep embankment. Well, almost directly. Several travelers, anticipating high prices for drinks aboard the ship, requested a liquor stop on the way into town. Imagine the shopkeeper’s delight when our bus of pulls up and 20 or so thirsty Americans with hundreds of yuan (about 7.5 to the dollar) in their pockets charge in to stock up on beer, wine, and spirits.

The Victoria Queen was built for the Yangzi. She is 4,587 gross tons, nearly 90 meters long, with four passenger decks and an observation deck—and a draft of less than three meters. She is one of dozens of cruise ships plying the upper river since the Three Gorges Dam at Sandouping (about 30 km above Yichang) eased navigation through the once-treacherous valleys and rapids of China’s longest river.

Falling from Tibet to the East China Sea, the 4,000-mile Yangzi is the third longest river in the world, after the Nile and the Amazon. Not only does it drain much of Central China, it has provided both irrigation and transportation for centuries. Historically, the spectacular Three Gorges (going upstream, they are the Xiling, the Wu, and the Qutang) have not only provided Chinese storytellers, poets, and artists with some of their best subject matter, they have also been a barrier to invasion—most recently to the Japanese in the 1940s. After the bloody conquest of their capital Nanjing, the Chinese Nationalist government moved to Chongqing, where Chiang Kai-Shek conserved his forces, waiting out the war until the Japanese were defeated by the United States. Only then could he resume fighting his real enemy, the Red Army. (I must re-read Barbara Tuchman’s 1971 book, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, which tells the entire story of General Joseph Stilwell, the Burma Road, the Flying Tigers, and American support of the Chinese war effort. More on Stilwell when we get to Chongqing.)

Our river trip began early on the morning of Oct. 19. I felt the rumble of the ship’s diesels and leapt out of bed before sunrise wanting to see us leave Yichang and make our way through the lock at the Gezhou Dam just above the city. Gezhou was the first dam on the Yangzi (completed 1989), built primarily for electrical power generation. But it also raised the water level in the lower Xiling Gorge and made navigation safer there. A shore visit to thmuch larger Three Gorges project is scheduled for after breakfast.

We approached Gezhou about 5:30 in the morning. The haze had not dissipated and the yawning gates of the lock were brightly lit in the gloom. I found Hannah on the forward observation deck, clutching a cup of coffee and her guidebook to the river (Three Gorges of the Yangtze River by Raynor Shaw, Odyssey, 2007), which is a great source of lore and information for the visitor and the facts for this post.


Approaching the Gezhou Dam shiplock before dawn. It is one of five locks we will pass through today.


The gates are open as we enter. The Victoria Queen was the only ship in the upstream lock.

We transited the lock in about 30 minutes. Like many early human inventions, locks are so simple as to cause a sense of delight. You drive in, shut the door, and let the water in from above. The boat bobs up like a cork on the rising flood, you open the upstream door, and drive out. It’s the bobbing-up part that seems simply amazing.

The day brightened in the east as we entered the lower part of the Xiling Gorge, the longest (76 km) and historically most dangerous of the Three Gorges—full of rapids and submerged rocks. But the Gezhou Dam raised the water level by 20 meters (to 62 meters above sea level), making navigation easy. We slid about 25 km through calm water to a landing on the south bank of the river at the shabby looking Huangling Temple, where we disembarked to see the big dam in person.


Looking astern in the lower Xiling Gorge as the sun rises.


According to “Gary” and “Campbell,” the ship’s river guides (with the exception of the ship’s officers, all of the Chinese crew members had adopted English names), it is almost always hazy on the river—a fact that explains a lot of traditional Chinese paintings of the area.


As we began our shore excursion, I saw this graphic for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Cute figures like these are often seen in ads that represent particular projects or enterprises, such as the Beijing Olympics.

The point of this excursion—at least from the Chinese point of view—was to impress us. It succeeded admirably. I could recite a lot of statistics about the project, but suffice it to say that it surpasses every other such project in size, cost, power generated, water impounded, etc. From its base in the granite bedrock to its final height of 185 meters, the dam is as tall as a 60-storey building. It was designed to generate about 15 percent of the country’s electricity, although this percentage has been revised downward as demand for electricity has rapidly increased. The relocation costs alone are estimated at USD 40 billion. And they’re not done yet. Currently, the high-water level of the Yangzi behind it is at 145 meters above sea level (more than 80 meters higher than the Gezhou reservoir on the downstream side of the dam); the target is 175 meters, to be achieved in 2009.

After running yet another gauntlet of street vendors and souvenir stalls, we boarded yet another bus and met yet another local guide. These guides are essential not only for full employment, but because the “national guide” who was accompanying us on behalf of the tour operator, could never be expected to have enough local knowledge—or to know the official message about each thing we were to see.


We crossed the river on this new suspension bridge below the dam—part of a construction project, which, at its peak, employed 27,000 laborers working 24 hours a day. On the north bank of the river, an entire town was built to house the workers.


Seen from the upstream side, the dam stretches off into the haze; it is 2,300 meters (1.4 miles) long. The water level behind the dam will rise another 30 meters by 2009.


A park and observation area has been built to accommodate the huge volume of visitors to the project. Everyone must get off their bus and go through military security before being allowed within a mile of the dam.

Our guide at the dam was thoroughly knowledgeable about the project, which we saw up close from two different vantage points, and willing to answer our questions about the impact of the dam. But she tended to lowball the number of people who lost their homes, villages, businesses, and and historic sites when the waters began to rise. The official number, which she quoted is 1.2 million. Shaw says that it’s “close to 1.9 million,” including two cities, 11 county towns, and 116 townships or villages. Other estimates put it as high as 4 million. Millions of acres of riverside and hillside farmland have also been inundated.

One third of China’s population lives in the Yangzi Basin, most of them below Three Gorges. For millennia, regular flooding of the Yangzi valley has replaced soil and replenished farmland—but three or four times each century, major floods have caused widespread destruction and loss of life. The worst flood in the last century occurred in 1931, killing 140,000 people. Flood control is said to be the primary benefit of the dam, which is designed to flush silt through its spillways in order to avoid siltation of the giant reservoir being created behind it. The final water level of the upstream basin will fluctuate between 145 and 175 meters on a seasonal basis to control flooding. Other benefits include improvement of navigation; the industrial city of Chongqing, 1,700 miles from the ocean, has essentially become a seaport.


From what we could see, the majority of visitors to the dam were Chinese, come to see this massive symbol of their nation’s might. This red-hatted group was taking advantage of “Senior Citizens Day,” a holiday like Mother’s Day, to tour the site. Note the stylish clothes of their guide (back to camera, holding the red flag).


Three men look at the dam from atop the platform.


What they saw.


Looking down on the shiplocks—one set for upstream traffic and the other down. There are ten locks at the big dam, eight in use now, with the last two to come on line in 2009, when the highest water level is reached. It appears that there are six ships in this lock, which is 900 feet long and 112 feet wide.

We were back on the ship before lunch and got underway seconds after the last passenger was back aboard. (We were issued re-boarding cards whenever we went ashore, and these were counted as we returned.) Passing through four giant locks took about three hours, and by mid-afternoon we were plowing through placid waters in the upper Xiling Gorge.

Here are some additional photos from that first day on the river.


After returning to the Victoria Queen, we entered the first lock, sharing it with four other ships.


Just a few feet separated our hull from the ship next to us.


The 900-ton doors closed and the water began to rise, lifting us quickly to the next level. Through four locks, the ship was lifted about 85 meters.


Soon, we were sailing in the upper Xiling Gorge. There are hundreds of feet of water beneath the keel of our ship—and, on the bottom, the former homes of over a million people. On the shores of the “new” Yangzi, brand new towns such as this one have been constructed.


The mountains on either side of the river were formed by steeply up-thrust sedimentary rock.


Many residents stayed in the valley and were given stipends to build new homes such as these, but others moved to cities such as Chongqing, Wushan, and Shanghai. On what were once the high slopes of the valley, erosion and landslide control are important priorities, and a reforestation plan has been implemented to reduce the amount of soil that enters the river.


The afternoon haze in the mountains was like a traditional Chinese painting.


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