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Cruising the New Yangtze

Three Gorges Dam Is Transforming China's Great River and Opening a Remote Region to Unprecedented Change

March 21, 2004|Drex Heikes | Drex Heikes is executive editor of the magazine.

We can't see anything. We've traveled halfway around the world, cruised the Yangtze River for two days and are about to enter into the belly of the beast, but we can't see it because the sky has gone from twilight to sable. The closest we'll get tonight to Three Gorges Dam, the brutish concrete monolith China has built across this ancient valley, is the lock system our ship is approaching to carry us around the dam.

We ease into the first lock. It's as wide as the 405 Freeway and lit up like night baseball. Joining us are six other cruise ships and a gravel barge, four vessels down each side, in pairs nearly touching. The mood is festive. Passengers crowd the open top decks, staring up at the concrete massif surrounding them and peering into the teeming ships a few feet away. Yawning doors many times the height of our 206-passenger ship, the Victoria Queen, swing shut behind us and the lock's grooved, mouse-gray walls, not yet slimy from age, seem to rise as the water falls. Repeat this four more times and we'll be below the dam, where we will tie up for the night anticipating the spectacle awaiting us tomorrow -- a tour of the largest public works project in history, a dam a generation in the building and longer than the Miracle Mile, big enough, China hopes, to help transform the nation.

I've come not only to see this beast but also the beauty of the Three Gorges region -- and more to the point, changes wrought by the wedding of the two. A five-day cruise from Chongqing in central China to Yichang, just below the dam, will carry us through the Three Gorges, whose limestone palisades and misty peaks have awed travelers for millenniums. The river's treacherous course through the mountains isolated the poor communities on its banks, sheltering them from many of the changes that buffeted China in the 20th century, even protecting them from Japanese invasion in World War II.

Then a decade ago, China began building the dam, which is now two-thirds complete. When finished in 2009, it is expected to provide one-tenth of the power to an electricity-starved nation and hold back floodwaters that have killed an estimated 330,000 people since the 1940s. Behind the dam, the world's largest reservoir is slowly filling to its eventual length of 360 miles. The new reservoir is not only forcing relocation of 1.3 million people but also is creating a leisurely waterway out of a stretch of the Yangtze once so rocky and turbulent that, for thousands of years, small boats were dragged upstream by trackers shouldering bamboo hawsers.

When water levels peak in 2009, China will have a new, 1,500-mile shipping route to carry oceangoing vessels between Shanghai on the coast to hundreds of new manufacturing plants inland as far as Chongqing. There, farmers have left the fields to become the makers of motorcycles, mobile phones and cruise ships for the fastest growing economy in the world.

Before long, this remote region will resemble other parts of contemporary China. But for now, it is a place of arresting and captivating contrasts. In a mere decade, the very old is being elbowed out by the very new in perhaps the most rapid modernization of a people in history. You can see it all from the deck of the luxurious ships that cruise the Yangtze. If you're willing to get your fingernails dirty, you can also touch, hear and smell it in villages and cities along the way.

Ccruises heading downriver on the Yangtze depart from Chongqing, a bustling city worth exploring before boarding the ship. The first thing I notice, aside from the city's faintly acrid air and forests of bamboo construction scaffolds, is the absence of the bicycles so popular in China. The reason is the terrain. Chongqing is San Francisco on caffeine and stilts. Only three kinds of people ride bicycles here, explains Jimmy Gu, a private guide hired for the day: "Postal workers, exercisers and idiots." The vertical landscape offers few level building sites, so high-rises are ubiquitous, including the apartment building where Gu and his family stay in shape involuntarily (14th floor, broken elevator).

Our car winds uphill through narrow streets and stops near the city center. We walk through a shanty-like open-air market where you can buy a duck and have it killed and plucked right there in the mud. We emerge at a new five-star Marriott Hotel, with crisply uniformed doormen, soaring ceilings and a cigar bar touting Cuban imports. Munching mahuai, a local popcorn-sized treat of twisted and fried wheat dough, we walk past volunteers restoring a Buddhist temple and spy a woman in a green tweed jacket, lime pedal pushers and spotless khaki sneakers shoveling sand into a cement mixer.

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