Joye and Hank Explore China travel blog

In the Visitor Center is a scale model of the main dam...

Ships waiting to go through a lock at the Three Gorges Dam

Imposing, yes? To me, the visual says "Do not pass Go. Do...

The dam just goes on and on and on. And, as you...

And the work goes on. We're convinced that the national bird of...

The dam is basically all concrete and steel. But there are nice...

A rather unique sculpture in the park. Hard to believe there is...

Trust us-the Dam is not leaking. That's a nice, peaceful waterfall in...

Surprise,surprise. The Olympic Rings logo from the 2008 Summer Olympics held in...

The mist in the mountains is haunting and eerie.

Back onboard ship - how about learning a little Mahjong. It's all...

The basic idea is to match tiles and be the first to...

Shan shan does her best to educate us Westerners. She has a...

The Pro gets in the game to show us how it's done.

Well yesterday we explored the Three Gorges. Today we are going to hop on a coach and see the Three Gorges Dam itself. But before we get into that, let’s pick up on where we left off yesterday with a little more on locks. This time though we’ll get you current and talk about getting through the five locks on the Yangtze around the Three Gorges. We don’t mean the navigational skill to get through them, but rather the “human process.”

To do business in China, a foreign company, like Viking, must have a Chinese partner. This is a requirement, not an option. So, Viking has a Chinese cruise company, New Century, as its partner. Without Viking’s relationship with New Century, not only would our ship, the Emerald, not get through the locks, we wouldn’t even be on the Yangtze in the first place.

But, in and of itself, even having a Chinese partner doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing through the locks (ugh, pun alert!). I guess it is obvious (though I had never thought about it) that all ships have to schedule in advance to go through the locks. And, of course, timing is crucial as these ships need to get through the locks in order to meet the schedules they have. So (surprise, surprise), it is important to maintain “good relations” with those who manage and run the locks. The Three Gorges Dam is owned by the Chinese government but managed by a private Chinese company. Officially, there is no charge to go through the locks. Emphasis on the word “officially.”

There’s “officially” and then there’s reality. As our ship Program Director, Mathew, so aptly put it, “They can really screw up your schedule.” You see, the lock managers run the show. It can take three hours to get through or three days. So it has become “tradition” that on Chinese New Year, representatives of ship companies visit officials of the company managing the locks. And they come bearing gifts. Just to honor Chinese New Year, of course. In no way are they trying to ensure timely passage through the locks in the coming year. They would be shocked, shocked, I say that you would even think that! “You say “tomāto and I say tomăto.” Nothing like good ol’ dark side capitalism.

Okay, so off we go on a twenty minute coach ride to the Dam, which is located near the town of Sandouping. One thing of interest that we saw along the way was this: We went on the Xiling Bridge, which is a long four lane suspension bridge. It had what looked like large trash bags on both sides running from one end to the other. What in the world is that all about? Our local guide, Mark, explained that these bags are filled with sand to keep the bridge balanced. Uh, sounds to us like there is some kind of design or construction problem here. Maybe not, but that doesn’t instill much confidence among us Westerners. That said, all the cars and trucks, along with our coach were motoring right along over the bridge just like a routine jaunt. Still, if you have any excess sand around, you might want to send it over to Sandouping. Maybe you can somehow wrangle a tax deduction out of it. Wonder if there is a lobbying group for sand?

Well, as we got close to the Dam site, we quickly got a sense of its immense size. “Holy geez!” We hopped of our coach for a tour around the perimeter during which Mark educated us on the history and basic facts of the Dam project.

But first (We can hear you now saying “Oh no, another “but first”; that can only mean another of their diversions is on the way.” Know what? You’re right – but it is a short one.) Have you noticed that the names of our guides have tended to be Western (e.g. Mathew, Mark)? Those are not their given first names. They have Chinese names. So, what’s the deal? Well, since China started to reopen itself to the world in the 1970’s, many Chinese – especially the professionals – believed it would help their children integrate and advance in the world if they also had Western names. This is perhaps because the parents felt the Western names would help make Westerners more accepting and at ease. And it can’t be denied that the Western names are easier for us to pronounce and remember. So there.

Okay, now let’s learn about that Dam – thanks to our new found friend and local guide, Mark.

For centuries the Chinese had talked about and made fledgling efforts to better control the Yangtze. As we have said earlier (I think), the Yangtze was prone to horrendous flooding. From 1900 – 1990, over one million Chinese died as a result of flooding along the Yangtze. Just as serious, parts of the river were dangerous to navigate. On top of that, if the Chinese could harness the river, they could bring power generation to millions and millions of Chinese.

It was Dr. Sun Yat-sen who really got the ball rolling when he published a scholarly paper in 1919 devoted to harnessing the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. Sun Yat-sen is revered in China (and Taiwan) for reasons other than this. He is pretty much the founding father of Nationalist China. He led the revolt that culminated in 1911 with the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and ended the long, long history of imperial rule by emperors.

He died in 1925 but the idea of harnessing the Yangtze didn’t die with him – but did barely stumble along for a long while. It was embraced by both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. In the 1930’s and 40’s, geological surveys were conducted to select a site for building the dam. But not much else was accomplished since Chiang and Mao were rather occupied fighting each other for control of China. Then that little dustup called World War II came along and the Chinese had to deal not only with their internal division but also with the Japanese who had showed up en masse. Then in 1949 when Mao won the power struggle he kicked out the Americans who had been working with the Chinese on the project. Everything kind of ground to a halt for a couple of decades.

It got serous again in 1982 when the project was championed by President Deng Xiaoping. But even with that boost, the project wasn’t approved by the Chinese government until 1992 and construction finally got under way in 1994. To get it through, the proponents claimed that the project would provide 20% of China’s power needs. But it seems this was something we Westerners have seen many times in our part of the world – the over-hyped business plan. As of now the project provides 3% of China’s power. Hmm– a little off plan there. And now, 17 years later, a lot has been completed but it’s still not finished.

The Three Gorges Dam and hydro-electric plant is the largest construction project since the Great Wall – and that was a long ways back. Standing on top of the Dam and looking around, we were flat dumbstruck at its size. It is 1.3 miles wide and is over 600 feet high. As of now, 26 generators are in operation and 6 more will come online in the next 2 years. Also, 5 smaller dams are on the drawing board and will be located on the upper Yangtze. I mean, we were right there staring at this massive dam, hydro plant, and locks – the largest in the world. And still it was hard to get your head around it all. At least from a technological standpoint it is a true marvel.

One thing we didn’t expect was the open space beside the top of the dam. It is a peaceful area of well manicured flower gardens, trees, waterfalls, and sculptures. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with the Dam and a nice touch. Oh and then there’s this – on a hillside just a little below where we were, we could see the large imprint of the 5 Olympic rings left over from the 2008 summer Olympics. Okay no big deal – just found it interesting, I guess.

So, the result of all this construction effort has yielded true benefits to China. Here is a very brief synopsis of the major benefits:

• Flood control – The severe flooding from the Yangtze has been significantly reduced. Though much farmland in the upper Yangtze was lost due to the dam construction, more on the middle and lower portions of the river is now better protected and has better irrigation and improved water quality.

• The new hydro electric plants have brought reliable power to the 400 million Chinese who live in and around the areas along the Yangtze.

• The project has improved navigation along the Yangtze. It is now a much less dangerous journey that it used to be.

• The generation of power from the hydro electric plants has reduced coal consumption by up to fifty million tons per year – and reduced the associated carbon emissions. A long way to go, but a good start.

Wow, we didn’t mean for today’s entry to turn into a lecture, but there is only so much you can say about looking at a dam and hydro plant. Again, it’s one of those visual experiences. But we found the history of the dam to be really interesting so we thought we would share it with you.

But we can’t leave the Three Gorges Dam without talking about the downsides of the project. We have mentioned them elsewhere but they are not insignificant. Probably the biggest impact has been on the people along the Yangtze. The damming of the Yangtze raised the water level and widened the river. In some areas, where the river had been 15 feet wide, it is now 150 feet wide and 60 – 200 feet higher.

As a result, about 1.5 million people have lost their homes. And we don’t mean just their physical house; we mean their whole town is gone. Somewhere between 600 – 1000 towns and cities, and surrounding farmland, are now totally submerged under the Yangtze. (For some reason that is beyond me, Chinese officials cannot settle on one exact figure.) Most of these towns were hundreds if not thousands of years old. Not only did the residents live and work there, but so did their ancestors going back many generations. And, as you probably know, the Chinese revere their ancestors.

Now, it is certainly true that the Chinese government provided cash payments to the displaced people and either built them new homes elsewhere or subsidized the move into existing housing. And, as with New Wushan and Shibaozhai, the government totally rebuilt the town at a higher or more distant location from the Yangtze.

I think you can sum up with one word the feeling of many of the relocated Chinese and that is “ambivalent.” On the one hand they (especially the younger, more mobile generation) see the relocation as a new beginning; a chance to participate in the new China. But there is also a feeling of deep loss – loss of the “home place”, loss of a way of life.

Quite a bit of farmland was lost and also the government made the decision not to rebuild some of the factories that were submerged. As a result, farmers and laborers lost their jobs. They had to change careers. Unlike the West, there are few to no programs to retrain these people for decent paying jobs in the new China. And there is no such thing as unemployment compensation. So, some of the people are those we saw by their small souvenir stands trying to sell their wares to us tourists. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect some of those souvenir hawkers we encountered in places like Tiananmen Square, Xian, and Shibaozhai used to work the fields and in the factories that are now under the Yangtze.

As we said, the Chinese government did step up and provide economic help. But what about psychological help for all the emotions people feel with such a major change in their lives? We asked whether some type of counseling was available to help individuals and families cope with the relocation. Our guides looked at us like we were from another planet. The concept of social services has not yet reached China. Pity.

Also significant victims of the project are a large number of cultural and historical sites and ancient artifacts. Some were either moved or protective walls were built around them. But they are in the distinct minority. By far, most of these antiquities are now also submerged under the Yangtze. I don’t know whether this was poor planning or a conscious decision on the part of the Chinese government. Either way it is a significant and sad loss for China and the world.

One other thing that is just coming to light. There is increasing concern over the environmental damage the Dam project may be causing. I don’t think China has anything like a requirement for an Environmental impact Study before a project can get the okay to proceed, as we do in the States. At best the environment was an afterthought. Now the Chinese government seems to be having an “Uh-Oh” moment, realizing they are going to have to deal with the environmental impact – belatedly.

So, to sum up, the Three Gorges Dam is a massive and magnificent technological achievement. It has brought, and will continue to bring, real and significant benefits to China and its people. No doubt about that. But the issues and problems we have outlined are real and significant too. Overall the project has to be viewed as a net benefit to China. But the government must face up to and deal with the (pardon the euphemism) “collateral damage” the project has created.

Okay, time to get off the ol’ soapbox.

We got back to the ship in mid afternoon and it was time to learn something new. Anyone up for a little Mahjong? Hey alright, sounds good to us. What I know about Mahjong could be put on the back of a noodle and have room left over. (Hmm. Does a noodle have a back?..... Moving right along.) But about 30 of us crammed into the ship’s library to see what this Chinese fascination with Mahjong is all about.

There were a couple of tables set up with four chairs each. So, who are going to be the first guinea pigs? Somehow or another I got pushed to the front and into a chair. Oh great. Well, I’ve spent a lifetime making a fool of myself – so let the game begin!

My simpleton take is that Mahjong is a cross between bridge and dominos. But other than that, I can’t say I have much of a clue. Shanshan was overseeing our session and gave us the basic concept of the game. And here it ‘tis.

So the deal is you got 4 players and 144 tiles that are about the size of dominos (the tiles that is; not the players). The tiles are made up of five suits (Dot, Bamboo, Crack, Wind, and Wild). The object is to build the Great Wall. You do this by matching tiles and stacking them in such a way that you build all four sides of the Great Wall. Don’t ask me to explain in any more detail because I got lost quick. There are all sorts of strategies that accomplished players employ in order to win. And when Shanshan sat in, we saw an accomplished player in action. Wow-wee.

For me, I was just excited when I would figure out that I had a matching pair and could get going on my wall building. My play went something like this: “Okay, I got a matching pair, right? No, why not? Oh, okay I see now.” “You mean I can’t pick up from the discard pile now? But, but that Bamboo tile is one I need!” “I lost a turn? But why, how? – agh!” “What, game over – how did that happen?”

The upshot was, well, let me put it this way. If the Chinese had put me in charge of building the Great Wall, the result would have been something more aptly named The Very Mediocre Wall.

Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I still had a great time and actually did learn something about how Mahjong is played. But next time I get in a game, I might be better off by pulling up a chair and asking “Anybody for a little five card stud!”

Well, I didn’t win my two games of Mahjong, but I think I did earn the Drink of the Day:

Dark Side (White Rum, Blue Curacao, and orange juice).

Pretty decent – 3 stars.

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