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By A Dam Site

ISSUE:  Winter 2002

China! China here! China there!

China held 24 of our sailors. China is persecuting some off-beat religious groups. Chinese big shots are swanning around south of the Rio Grande (hey—our turf!). American scholars are being tucked away in the slammer. As for our reconnaissance plane, China played hard to give back.

Then there’s this: they are committing a tremendous environmental crime.

NOT true, says China.

While we are considering the de-construction of dams, the Chinese are constructing a monster barrier across the Yangtze that will have a reservoir about the size of Lake Superior and will force more than a million persons to up stakes and get out.

Then there’s this: the dam will produce a huge surge of electric power for a burgeoning Chinese economy, and save the annual downstream flood death of thousands.

IS true, says China.

The people who built The Great Wall are now building The Great Dam—the world’s greatest. The reservoir will flood an area 370 miles long. Disappearing under water will be 890 square miles of farmland. Totally or partially, 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages, and 657 factories will be submerged. China’s scientists are already at work with pick, brush, and camera on archaeological sites that will simply be lost forever. The Yangtze River’s Three Gorges will cease to be the world famous scenic fairyland it is today. If you want to see the real life version of the misty, craggy scenes on Chinese scrolls, do more than make plans to go. Go. Now.

After the dam is built, 10,000-ton, ocean-going freighters will unload at Chonquing, deep into the center of China. Recently designated as one of a few of the great cities which answers only to the central government, the famous “Chungking” of World War II, is bursting with 33 million citizens. The freighters will come up the tamed Yangtze through a series of locks; smaller vessels can sail right into a lock which then will be lifted—both the ship and the water it’s floating in—by a gigantic elevator.

Located just upstream from the first of the fabled Gorges, work on the monster hydro-electric, navigational, flood-control behemoth goes on 24 hours a day.

To see this “Project,” as they call it—because it’s much more than a dam—and see, as well, the Three Gorges before they disappear, we took a Washington, D.C.-San Francisco-Shanghai flight (how many times can you be subjected to the same movie?). An hour’s further jump brought us down for an afternoon’s look-see at Wuhan. From this mid-China city, we boarded the U.S.-managed three deck Victoria I (not unlike a Delta Queen on the Mississippi), and headed upstream to an early morning visit at Yueyang.

A climb up more than 120 steps, each 14 inches high, in 90 degree heat, brought us into the center of a present day, sound-drenched city to wonder at a classic, out-of-a-picture-book Chinese tower. This drive, to say nothing of our recent experience pressing through crowds in Shanghai and Wuhan, began to crush in on us and make us aware of the denseness—that seems to be the best word—of China’s population. Washington D.C.’s traffic noise, human noise, action, and Wild-West driving seemed quadrupled.

Then, pushing up what author Simon Winchester called The River at The Center of The World, we came to Yichang, 27 miles downstream from the narrows where The Great Dam is being built. We churned up a great canyon. The walls grew steeper and closer. Frolicking along one hillside were wild monkeys. Untended, on tiny ledges nearby, nimble goats foraged. They’ll be rounded up at the end of the season.

Through breaks in canyon walls we saw an occasional farmer. One was grubbing with a primitive mattock. The rows of his crop ran up and down, and the water from the hillside above drains down each row. If the rows are parallel, water from above stops at the top row; the lower get none. But it’s hard to convince many old farmers that good topsoil trickles down into the Yangtze through their up-and-down rows.

Not too far from us, as we leaned over the ship’s railing, fishermen dropped nets off the bows of their sampans into water of a mud color deeper than that of our Missouri. The fishermen waited for what seemed to us like a mere handful of fish to swim into their big circular nets. Slowly passing the fishers, other river men walked stem to stern, time and time again, along the narrow decks of their sampans, as they polled against the current.

It was as important in ancient times as it is today to get cargo from Shanghai to Chongquing, but there were none of today’s motorized sampans to butt through the rapids. We saw the traces of the way it was done in ancient days as we sailed farther up the canyon. Before us on the canyon shores and walls we could see proof of the use of teams of men called “trackers.” From the shore they simply pulled the boats up through the rapids. I recalled pictures in our family’s Book of Knowledge that showed naked, sweaty men on the river bank, straps around one shoulder. Each tracker’s harness went down his back to a rope (the way they hitch sled dogs in Alaska), which was itself fastened to the loaded sampan. In some very narrow areas, chains were fastened to the wall of the canyon so that the tracker on the narrow ledge along the river bank could hold on to them and not be jerked into the water.

The trackers’ chief would sing out a rhythmic “A-yah! . . . . A-yah!” All together, they would dig their toes into the “track” They leaned forward until almost parallel to the ground and, to the chant, pushed into the harness. Often the “tracks” were rocky, foot-and-a-half wide pathways. At some places we saw that where there would have been no natural ledge to use as a track, a pathway had been chipped into the wall of the canyon. Using it, the trackers, albeit even more sharply stanted forward than usual, could continue to pull. Foot by foot, the laden sampan would be dragged upstream. If a tracker slipped and fell, we learned, it was his tough luck. No one went to help him because you couldn’t break the rhythm of pulling a sampan upstream simply because a man might have slipped into the Yangtze flood below. . . .

In some areas, grooved rocks stuck up a couple of feet above the track. The grooves had been worn into the stone by the harness ropes, stretching from the shoulders of the tracker crews. Decade after decade, as the trackers pulled the sampans below, their harness ropes bit into the rock.

“When was it the last trackers worked?” I asked a ship’s officer. To my astonishment that this primitive method was used so recently, he replied, “Oh, about 1950 or so.” That’s only 50 years ago. “But we have a few trackers left for the tourists,” he added. I think what he meant to convey was “so we can make picture postcards for tourists.” Postcards we saw; trackers we didn’t.

As the walls of the canyon pinched in on us, a downstream sampan swept by past us atop the crest of the frothing current, or a hydrofoil “commuter” boat boomed past, going upstream, we spotted another historic aspect of the Three Gorges: the military one. In an early dynasty—our docents often spoke in terms of dynasties—the Han, the Tang, the Ming, and the Qing—military formations had to get through the mountains and the gorges. Up on the canyon walls that squeezed ever more tightly in upon us, were six-inch square holes, five feet apart, chiseled two feet deep into the cliff side. Into them had been inserted posts that extended some three feet or so over the churning currents. For 180 miles, and with no protective railing, planks were laid on the wooden posts. On them, above the gushing Yangtze, cavalry troops took their horses. Incredible, but the proof was there: at one point along the precipitous riverside, today’s conservationists had rebuilt some of the cavalry walkways.

Pushing up one Gorge, we neared an official launch. Our own First Officer leaned out from the bridge wing, reached over to a man on the launch and handed him some papers. An unexpected twist: we were being charged simply to go up a branch of the river. I cooled down when I remembered the five dollars I’d handed a National Park Service Ranger at Yellowstone three weeks before. This spectacular and historic tributary was the equivalent of a national park.

As we were thinking about what going on just up river, here, where we were, we saw the mark of the “Ba” people. These tribals are thought to have originated from an advanced Neolithic culture. That means from the area where we were, up to today’s dam—a mere 27 miles—we were on the territory of people who had sprung from a culture dating from about 5,000 to 3,200 B.C.

High up on the canyon walls were their coffins. Oblong, wooden, sealed off at one end, they hung on the side of the cliff, or were inserted into natural or man-made crevasses. The idea was this: the higher up the mountain side you placed the coffin of an ancestor, the closer to heaven that person would be.

In a small museum we saw a coffin that had been carefully brought down from the mountain. It held an adult body of someone who had died a natural death. With him was the usual accompanying smaller body, apparently a sacrifice, to be a companion of the main occupant.

It was sailing up this canyon that we had our epiphany about paintings on Chinese scrolls. What I’d seen on them I’d always thought was an inspired vision of the artist. Sailing in the Three Gorges, I came to think, no; it is, rather, a depiction of the Real World, Yangtze River Division. The Gorge views continued, and somewhere along the route was a distant peak topped by a statue of a great goddess; it was our luck to have a less than misty day and see her glistening in the sun on a distant hilltop.

She pointed to our debarkation at Sandouping village; and if we ever were by a dam site, this was it, “big time” to use a vice-presidential phrase. Our entire crew lined up on both sides of a series of heaving gangplanks. Their job was to see that none of us fell into the Yangtze. For old sailors the only thing missing was a bo’s’n’s pipe. It was the ultimate “Now hear this! Sideboys lay down to the gangway!” When we made it ashore, before us again was a miserable, steep, 128-step stone stairway. At the top, a hint of the modernity to come just down the road: excellent air-conditioned busses. Swiftly they zig-zagged us on a white-knuckle drive to the six-acre administrative heart of the “Project,” marked by two tall buildings.

One, more than than 15 stories high, was headquarters of “The China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Corporation (CTGPC), Owner of the Three Gorges Project—Website as their multicolored, slick-paper, English language booklet puts it. The top three stories of the headquarters building, our guides said, were for foreign advisors (not an American in the place, of course). A 25-story hotel and recreation center stood nearby, close to a Training Center. Farther up, high on the distant hillside, connected to The Great Dam by a new concrete highway, was a series of white, Bauhaus-like apartment buildings. Not small ones, but big, long ones. They were the dormitories for 20,000 to 100,000 workmen who were or would be employed during the 17-year construction period.

In a spacious, glass-walled “TGP Exhibition” hall, we were immersed in a public relations performance of Madison Avenue magnitude. In well-lighted rooms, one leading into another, maps, 25-foot-by-25-foot models, and explanations of the project and its purpose and virtues were described in clear, almost perfect English. Bending over the Project model a young woman moved her white pointer from dam, to headquarters building, to dormitories, to locks, to whatever needed explanation. We were told that the concrete gravity dam, about a mile and a quarter wide, and 607 feet high, would prevent the disastrous killer floods that swept through cities downstream. Its electric generating capacity would be 18.4 million kilowatts. Its 26 generators would have an annual electrical output of 84 billion kilowatt hours. The electricity would go to a huge section of southeast China. One of our ship’s crew told me later, “Yes, we’ll all have to pay a little more for our electricity right now, but the money will go into building the dam, so we don’t really mind.”

We left the exhibition hall to go outside to see it all live, in three-D and color. From high above the project, we looked down into a gargantuan pit blasted out of gray bedrock. In it will sit the locks and turbines. Peering down, what seemed to be tiny insects moving around the acres blasted out of the rock turned out to be, when we used field glasses, workmen. They move about in the midst of tiny Tinker Toy dredges, bulldozers, and scrapers. No. Through the glasses you found out quickly: they were huge—super size. They crawl through a forest of cranes and are surrounded by furlongs of electric wire and water pipes.

As I looked down into what was now an immense nothing, trying to sense the cubic volume involved, I thought of other gigantic constructions. Never mind how many feet this way and that way, but from where I looked down into this leviathan pit I thought I could fit the pyramids into it. Even now, as I scroll back in my memory, I confirm to myself that surely they would be dwarfed inside the big cavity, the fundament of the gargantuan “Project.” The frantic building going on in such places as the reborn German capital, Berlin, is small potatoes compared to The Great Dam.

In addition to the tiny figures moving around in the great cavity, we saw the basic new light gray concrete housings for some of the turbines, and the sites of locks that will carry those ocean-going freighters up to Chongquing. Dotted around the site were concrete “batching” plants. Endlessly moving conveyer belts brought mushy concrete to wherever it is to be poured at the moment. There were none of the trucks with revolving tanks carrying wet concrete, with which we are familiar, on the floor of this man-made Fourth Gorge.

This look inside the Project was from a primary viewing level. By walking up more (steep!) stairs we reached a second visitors’ plaza. From this higher elevation and, luckily, totally revealed in bright sunshine, was a deeper glimpse into the pit; now we wanted more—the No.1 lookout spot. That meant going up an inevitably steep, and this time curving, staircase hung on the outside of what looked like a three-story high tennis ball. It was an inexplicably spherical (The Mysterious East) structure. At the top, we reached the Ultimate Viewing Location, a deck on the flattened top of the ball.

From this eminence, it was our Yangtze River “Delta Queen” that looked like a Tinker Toy. Returning to it, and getting underway, our further progression was highlighted by up-lifting messages to the populace, written in huge ideographs on the walls of the gorges. More frequent were large, white squares carrying, in bold red figures, “175 m.”. These figures remind every person, every hour of every day that when the Three Gorges Dam reservoir fills up, the top of the water will be at that mark, which is about 575 feet above sea level. That’s 25 feet more than the height of the Washington Monument. After the Great Dam is finished, the Chinese, historically gifted as canal-builders, will engineer one Yangtze tributary, the “Fragrant Stream,” to take water up to the fast-drying Yellow river.

The idea of The Great Dam goes back to 1919, when it was suggested by Dr. Sun Yat Sen. It’s been fought over for decades. In 1953, Mao Zedung ordered a feasibility study. In 1992, the Communist People’s Congress voted to build it, although one third of its members opposed it. In contemporary times, the opposition continues. Dai Qing, who was born into an elite intellectual family, and later adopted by a senior Chinese military officer, and trained as a missile engineer at the Harbin Military Engineering Institute, is a prominent opponent.

She became an investigative journalist, and was imprisoned after Tienanmen Square. She spent six of a 10 month jail sentence in solitary confinement in the notorious Quincheng jail near Beijing because of her Yangtze, Yangtze, a collection of engineering papers and anti-dam articles. She also published The River Dragon Has Come, a further 18 anti-dam essays. She was named a Harvard Nieman Fellow in 1992, and is only one of a list of those who had asserted that the dam will be an environmental disaster.

Opponents say the dam will silt up to become a huge mud puddle, and forecast that in 80 years the reservoir will no longer be capable of handling shipping. Today, the river carries an annual 523 tons of sediment, and siltage is already going on. Such a blockade as the dam will slow down the flow of the river, thereby increasing the collection of silt. Additionally, they argue, it will increase pollution; industrial waste discharged into the river will not become diluted as fast as predicted. Cost is another complaint of the naysayers. They say those who set the cost of the dam at 10 billion U.S. dollars have not taken into account cost overruns and the inflation problems which have faced other dams.

But the Beijing government is going ahead. We saw them at it. Some young displaced persons, staffers of our ship said, have started moving into the apartment buildings which have been erected, row upon row, above the future water level. The old folks like neither that nor the government’s complicated relocation system, they added. A ship’s staff member went on to tell us that the government will decide if you, presently living in the future reservoir area, can join relatives in the city. Chinese staff members of the ship’s complement said the government fears that all who must move will head for the already jammed big cities. One example went like this: If you have to leave and you have an uncle or an aunt in a big city, perhaps one member of the family can go to join that relative, but not everybody. Other members of that same family being evacuated from the reservoir area could be sent out to the far west of China to populate that barren part of the nation. They wouldn’t have much to say about it. What was arresting about this, in addition to the bare fact itself, was the manner in which this information was casually mentioned to foreigners. Its telling was not a “good heavens, look what they are doing to us!” sort of explanation. It was told to us in a conversational tone as simply of reporting that “of course we will go where we are told to go.”

Despite rampaging students at various times and in various places, in the shipboard presentation of this aspect of The Great Dam to us, we got no feeling that the resettlement orders would be contested, or that contesting was a thing that people did. This astonishing attitude of compliance was dealt with in an almost British, “Gentlemen in this regiment don’t do that” fashion. It seemed the ultimate “orders are orders” was the truly accepted form of conduct.

After a positive talk to us about the dam and its promised advantages—that everyone will get new quarters, and a job, for instance—we asked the Chinese staffer who gave the talk what he thought about the dam. “I’m from Chonquing,” he said. “I’m against the dam. I want our Three Gorges left as they are.”

But he was just a youngster from back in the hinterlands. Do you think he has a chance of stopping the rise of the waters in his Three Gorges, the disappearance of his historic temples, and the construction of an environmental miscalculation of world magnitude?

Not by a damn sight.


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