It doesn't really look that big when you see it, but then you get closer, and better still, on top of it, you realize that it's just enormous. In addition, the panoramic view you get of the entire area from the theme park like mound where the Chinese have built a visitor's centre tells the whole story. I speak of course of the Three Gorges dam project here near Yichang, on the Yangtze river in China's heartland. As usual, this project fulfills all of the features of a typical piece of Chinese work, gigantic in every way, and simply unbelievable to look at. The dam itself is over 2 km wide, and it is built in the most unlikely of places, where there really aren't that many hills to form the side walls. Yet, the Chinese have done it, and they are creating one of the largest reservoirs on earth, and at the same time, flooding one of the largest amounts of land ever flooded. This comes complete with the dislocation of over 600,000 people and the destruction of countless buildings. Indeed, many towns have been completely re-built to accommodate this behemoth.
Today, the dam is not fully operational. As with most dams, it is being built in phases, and there are currently only 12 of the 26 turbines in operation. The water has been raised up stream a total of 33 metres in 3 steps. Each turbine will generate an enormous 700 MW of power (they are each the size of a house!), giving the entire facility over 18,000 MW of power capacity - supplying 10% of China's power needs. Can you imagine this? With the population of China at say 1.4 billion, this dam will provide the power for 140 million people, more than 4 times the power needs of Canada. Incredible.
But the whole thing is just strange. Touring the dam, you are shuttled around with the greatest of efficiency on a number of buses so that you can see the greatness of the place. All around there are commemorative plaques and statues telling the story of the "people's dam". Complete with the tour is a spectacular Fantasia like light show at the end of the day with the dam glistening in the background. There is nothing more Chinese than this. Yet, beneath this I am certain there were many deaths during the construction of the dam, and the damage upstream is painfully obvious. You can see how all the buildings have been relocated to higher ground, and you can already see the effects of water regulation all the way up to Chongqing, many miles upstream. Indeed, there are navigational problems already which the Chinese are blaming on lack of rainfall this year, but something in me suspects that rather than starve the turbines, the Chinese government is inventing a few tall tales. Am I right or am I wrong, who knows? One thing is for sure though - I am seeing parts of the river bank that I should not be seeing under normal circumstances.
While some of our group was on the dam tour, the rest stayed on the boat and passed through the 5 lock ship lift that gets boats around the dam. They were in there for over 3 hours! We rejoined them later. The dam tour is just a small part of what is our 3 day cruise journey up the Yangtze from Yichang to Chongqing in Szechuan province. On the second day, we got off the big boat and moved on to smaller units for an excursion up the three lesser gorges. These are far more spectacular than the Yangtze itself, almost more like Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, but the evidence of the dam was here as well. I could not help but wonder what these magnificent sidewalls were like when the water level was 35 metres further down - it must have been even more beautiful. Yet, in perfect Chinese form, our boat guide put a positive spin on the situation. He said "Once the final phase of the dam is completed, and the water is raised another 40 metres, we will be able to take our boats even further upstream where we were not able to go before". Surely this is a line borrowed from some government pamphlet. We are never allowed to forget this is China.
The same guide told me how his entire town of 40,000 was relocated up the hill and the entire city was re-built in less than 5 years. Everyone in town works for the government and is paid by the government, whether you are the plumber or the banker. Very strange, but this is China. Actually, there is something about the crush of humanity in this place that sort of grows on you. It's like everyone has realized that the only way they can survive personally is if the collective survives. You see this in everything they do - mass transportation, the way the meals are all served group style, the way families all live together. It's all close quarters, but yet there is an overtone of efficiency to everything. Kind of like the Borg in Star Trek, the Next Generation. That evil force from outer space that was going to assimilate everything on Earth. Might be quite analogous, and not be too far from the truth... China is the antithesis of India.
The cabins on the boat were great; much better than expected really, complete with air conditioning. Food selection was not very broad, but it was good, and the menu gave us all a few good laughs. Happily, the beer is always cheaper than any other beverage ;) There is something really funny to us about how the Chinese put things into English. For example, would you have ordered the following item off the menu? "A kind of very famous rough fish near the airport". It does sound rather appealing doesn't it, or at the very least, geographic?! Perhaps the most shocking thing though is the level or air pollution. It's just disgraceful. One of the guys on our tour was speaking with a Chinese woman, and she could not even contemplate the difference between the air she was breathing and clean air, because she had never known anything else. You would just be shocked to see some of it. Literally, the sun is blocked so much during the middle of the day that you can actually look straight at it! In the evenings, it turns into a dull orange ball hanging in the horizon, looking almost like the moon, and if you didn't look at your watch, you might mistake it as such. Other pieces of evidence include the dark water running off your body when you take your shower, and the remnants of some coal fired power plant's exhaust coming out of your nose every time you use a tissue. Imagine living here. And as we approached Chongqing, China's largest city, in only got worse and worse and worse...