Saturday, January 23, 2010

A flood of change

On a return cruise to the Yangtze's Three Gorges, Leisa Tyler charts the rise of prosperity and the fall of a natural wonder.

The massive Three Gorges Dam in Yichang

Steeped in history and folklore, for centuries the Yangtze River's Three Gorges were celebrated by bards and artists. Famous for its beauty, infamous for its ferocity, this stretch of river squeezing through Hubei province's mountainous terrain was as spellbinding as it was terrifying.

Tumbling off the Tibetan Plateau, then rushing through the lush Three Parallel Rivers and spinning almost 250 degrees after hitting the Great Bend in Yunnan province, the Yangtze faced a tumultuous journey before even reaching its greatest hurdle, the Three Gorges.
Brimming with whirlpools and rapids, the Three Gorges inspired terror in all who passed. In his 1956 novel, A Single Pebble, journalist John Hersey recounts the experiences of an American engineer surveying the gorges for a dam site: "The primeval landscape seemed to have been arranged by some force of fury ... supernatural and malevolent. [Whirlpools stretching] 30 feet across, [their] centres depressed nearly a foot below the rim, as if the waters of the Great River were running off through some huge partially clogged drainpipe down to the cesspools of Hell ..."
In those days, "trackers", barefoot men - sometimes naked - would scramble along the sides of the river, hauling junks upstream by ropes tied to their waists.
In 2003, I took a farewell cruise through the gorges before China's ambitious Three Gorges Dam began to fill. The three- or four-night trip between Chongqing and Yichang (the upstream journey takes a day longer) had become a popular tourist attraction, with scores of cruise ships plying the route. Read more.

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