River of mists and sunken cities
A three-day cruise on China’s mighty Yangtze
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