River of mists and sunken cities

A three-day cruise on China’s mighty Yangtze

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

THE river twists mist­ily through a great cleft in the moun­tains. Be­side it, blue sil­hou­ettes of forested slopes smudge into the haze and it seems that a land­scape scroll paint­ing has come dream­ily to life in front of me.

Stand­ing on steep steps lead­ing to the White Em­peror’s hill­top palace, I am en­joy­ing the ma­jes­tic sight of the open­ing of the Yangtze River’s Qu­tang Gorge and jostling for space among a group of Chi­nese tourists.

Many of my fel­low on­look­ers are bran­dish­ing ban­knotes and I won­der if this is in or­der to se­cure a good po­si­tion. But my guide, Bing, laughs at what is ev­i­dently a pre­pos­ter­ous sug­ges­tion and ex­plains this is such a revered beauty spot that it fea­tures on the back of that de­nom­i­na­tion bill. She pulls one out of her purse so our small group can com­pare and con­trast.

You can’t re­ally con­vey misty drama on a ban­knote — even photographs don’t quite cap­ture the ethe­real mood of that view of the Qu­tang Gorge. It is be­cause of the trails of white fog here, swirling aus­pi­ciously in the shape of dragons, that a war­lord in about AD25 es­tab­lished a base on this north bank of the Yangtze.

That he was sub­se­quently known as the White Em­peror was no re­flec­tion on his com­plex­ion but be­cause of the mist, says Bing. (That isn’t re­ally what she is called but like many Chi­nese guides she’s adopted a name pro­nounce­able by Western tourists.)

We climb up past plaques of poetry and through an or­nate arch­way to the palace, tem­ples and gar­dens at the top of the hill. It is al­most im­pos­si­ble to move with­out step­ping into a pho­to­graph be­ing taken by the cheer­ful throng of Chi­nese visi­tors. This is hal­lowed ground, Bing tells us, be­cause it is the set­ting of a fa­mous story in Chi­nese his­tory. In about AD220 the wounded heroem­peror Liu Bei lay dy­ing here. With his last breath he en­trusted his king­dom and his young sons to his loyal min­is­ter Zhuge Liang. The re­gent was a re­mark­able states­man and took such care in nur­tur­ing the royal boys that he wrote down in­struc­tions on how to be a good ruler.

Th­ese are carved into a great white stone we passed on the way up. Bing knows the words by heart, hav­ing learned them at school, as most chil­dren across the na­tion still do. I re­turn to myriver ship in awe of the Chi­nese ca­pac­ity for learn­ing, and feel­ing priv­i­leged to have been among peo­ple so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally hon­our­ing the ideals of a long-ago past.

The present seems al­to­gether more tan­gled, codes of con­duct far more equiv­o­cal, par­tic­u­larly con­cern­ing de­vel­op­ments on the Yangtze. I am on a three-day river cruise from the city of Chongqing to the Three Gorges Dam. The world’s largest and most con­tentious hy­dropower project was com­pleted in July last year. Dur­ing the 17 years of its con­struc­tion, 13 cities, more than 140 towns and about 1350 vil­lages were sub­merged, com­plete with fac­to­ries, mines and waste sites. Large conur­ba­tions had to be rapidly con­structed to re­place the ma­jor sites now un­der wa­ter.

Open ob­jec­tion was voiced, largely from out­side China. Mean­while, sup­port­ers of the project point out this has been a bril­liant feat of engineering, cre­at­ing an amaz­ing wa­ter-con­trol sys­tem. The dam is ca­pa­ble of gen­er­at­ing as much en­ergy as 15 nu­clear power sta­tions (some say 18); it has tamed a no­to­ri­ously dan­ger­ous stretch of river (this part of the Yangtze used to cause dev­as­ta­tion by flood­ing ar­eas down­river); and it has re­sulted in the de­vel­op­ment of a huge reser­voir about 640km long.

That reser­voir runs pretty much from Chongqing to the dam. Along it are three gorges of leg­endary beauty that were pre­vi­ously nav­i­ga­ble only by small boats. Now big ships, from cargo boats to cruise ves­sels car­ry­ing as many as 400 pas­sen­gers, can purr through. With many land­mark sites of China’s his­tory dot­ted along the banks, a trip through this reser­voir of­fers an ex­tra­or­di­nary insight into past glo­ries and 21st-cen­tury in­no­va­tion.

Bing in­forms me that tourism here has been boom­ing since the dam neared com­ple­tion. Of course, she says, among lo­cal peo­ple the project has had very mixed re­ac­tions. Many of the older gen­er­a­tion found it heart­break­ing to have to leave their homes and re­lo­cate; but younger peo­ple tend to see the change as of­fer­ing great ben­e­fits. ‘‘Ev­ery­one has to ac­cept that the dam is there now,’’ she adds prag­mat­i­cally.

I am sail­ing on Vic­to­ria Anna, one of seven Yangtze ships op­er­ated by the US com­pany Vic­to­ria Cruises. The 190 pas­sen­gers are a mixed as­sort­ment of Amer­i­cans, Aus­tralians, Scan­di­na­vians, other Euro­peans and also Chi­nese, who make up about a quar­ter of the to­tal. Meals are a choice of ori­en­tal dishes given an Amer­i­can twist here and there. Fa­cil­i­ties in­clude a small spa that I never

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