The Yangtze River

Page 7




The Yangtze River originates as trickling streams from glaciers located 16,000 feet high, in western Qinghai Province, near Tibet.  From there, it gains energy quickly and becomes a pounding, dangerous river as it rushes through deep gorges that even the best river kayakers and rafters have not lived through.   After about 2,400 miles, it passes Chongqing as a mighty river, barely slow enough to navigate, at least part of the year.  1,500 miles later, the river flows past the teeming port city, Shanghai, and spills into the East China Sea.  At 3,900 miles long, the Yangtze is the third largest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon.  

Downriver from Chongqing, for 400 miles,  the river has created a deep valley amidst 6,000 to 8,000 foot mountains.  Three narrow choke points on the river are famous and known as the Three Gorges.  This journey has long been done as necessary commerce, but more recently tourist boats have made it an attraction.  

In the old days, wooden sampans floated down the river, but had to be pulled up river by hundreds of trackers against the stiff current and up rapids.  Woven bamboo ropes, several inches in diameter and a mile long, were used to pull the boats, while the owner used his rudder to keep the boat in deep water.  The trackers pulled naked, as they were continually in and out of the water.  In some areas they pulled while negotiating boulders as big as a man and while walking on rocky, uneven terrain.  Where the river sides were vertical, they pulled from narrow foot paths, blasted or chipped from the sandstone cliffs.  Often the rope would snap taut and one or more trackers would be hurled below, perhaps surviving or perhaps not.  A broken limb was tantamount to not surviving, as no time could be wasted on annoyances while moving cargo up river. 

I was a four year old boy, when we were finally permitted to leave Leshan.  We traveled down the Min and Yangtze rivers to Chongqing in a sampan rowed by six men.  I tried to row, but the big oars were too heavy.  I remember the oarsmen laughing; they put me outside of them on the oar and let me follow along as they rowed.  In Chongqing, we transferred to a motor launch and traveled 1,300 miles to Nanjing.  I still have childhood memories of looking up the vertical sides of the gorges and seeing people, living in caves, looking down at us.  It was terribly hot, so rather than trying to sleep in our steamy cabin, my father strapped my coveralls to a pipe on the curving roof of the boat, where we could look up at the cliffs and then sleep in some breeze. 

I was anxious to see the Three Gorges again to try and resurrect some old memories.  However, the river has changed.  Four hundred miles east of Chongqing, at the city of YiChiang,  the mountains end, much as the Rockies stop at Denver and the Great Plains begin.  Here, construction began in 1970, on the great Gezhouba Dam and it was not finished until 1988.  Since then, the water level has been rising in the Yangtze River valley and all its tributaries.  It will eventually rise a total of 175 meters (568 feet) and has risen so far 150 meters (487 feet).  That 400 miles of river east of Chongqing is now a lake.  The deepest, narrowest part of the gorges is gone.  However, it is still a spectacular journey between steep mountains.

When we left Leshan in 1949, we used a sampan like these

to travel to Chongqing.

Evening on the river.

Ships passing.

Coal ship.  Note the coal bins and loading chutes on the far bank. 

Coal is mined throughout these mountains.

A small village, soon to be 

under water.

175 meters marks the ultimate level behind the dam.The river has already risen 150 meters.  This may be the last farming season for this family.

This family must soon move and their island farm will be covered.   1.4 million people have been displaced by the dam.

Concrete steps rise endlessly to villages many hundreds of feet above

the river.  In the evening, small boats unload workers who 

finish their day by walking wearily up steps like these to their houses..

Modern day sampan with a diesel outboard motor.

The wealth pouring into China has visibly affected the cities.  Big Mercedes, BMWs,  and Volvos are commonplace among the towers of the various business districts.  There is a thriving professional/middle class which arrive to work in business suits and move from job to job every two years, demanding higher wages.  The labor class in the cities is better paid than years past, but many are geographically separated from their spouses and children, earning money in the city and only returning every month or so to visit family.  For them, life presents huge compromises.  

Outside the city, my observation is that the rural standard of living has not changed appreciably from what it was 100 years ago.  I was surprised at how little mechanization has reached the farms.  Most of the labor I saw was being done by hand or by water buffalo.  For those used to working hard in the fields, it may be a satisfying life style, but it clearly is not an easy one.  

Probably the biggest losers in China's modernization have been the 1.4 million displaced families along the Yangtze River.  I think that the dam is probably necessary.  Throughout history, the Yangtze River has flooded every Spring, drowning hundreds of thousands of people, ruining farm land and farms.  Modern China has a huge shortage of clean water and electrical power.  The dam will ease all three problems.  

In fairness, the government carefully charted the peoples who would be displaced and built  hundreds of new villages and towns above the high water mark.  These facilities consist almost entirely of high rise condominiums, with shop spaces located on the first floor.  Unfortunately, most of the displaced peoples are farm families.  Condominium living is ill suited to farming as there is no courtyard on which to spread out crops to dry and no storage space for implements.  Perhaps, for many, it has been a wonderful relief to leave farming and take on a city job assigned by the government.  However, without doubt, many find it a frustrating lifestyle.

On our boat tours we traveled through several of these "new cities," and I was surprised at how dead and quiet they were.  The shops had very few goods in them and I was surprised not to see a single restaurant on the main streets of town.  There was no traffic moving, not even bicycles, only the vehicles serving our tour.  I am guessing that many of the men in the village had been enlisted in the "help army," and were away working in coal mines or loading ships.  

One of many "new-cities."


Woodcutters taking a smoke break.  All timber must be immediately harvested to the high water mark.  No chain saws here, not even a proper axe, the men used oversized hatchets.

A "new-city" school.

Eating dou-wha, a delicious tofu custard, which may be served sweet or salty.

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