Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Boat Ride Down the Yangzi River

As a little girl, I was enchanted by the story of Ping, a mischievous little duck who lived on "a wise-eyed boat on the Yangzi River in China", so I was very excited as I got ready to travel down that very river myself. The Yangzi, at over 6000 km in length, is the third largest river in the world. Our journey begins in Chongqing, a steep, hilly city that reminds me of San Francisco (only much, much larger). The bus ride to the dock goes through narrow, winding streets, surrounded on all sides by brand new tall buildings. Chongqing is growing very fast because many of the families displaced by the Three Gorges Dam Project have been relocated here (more about that later). Around sunset, we take a funicular railway car down a steep slope to the dock to board the ship. As soon as I get settled in my cozy cabin, I go upstairs to the top deck to look at the view. The bright and colorful lights of Chongqing reflected in the river at night make for a beautiful scene. Later that night we set sail, and I fall asleep quickly, rocked to sleep by one of the world's great rivers. The next day after breakfast I go up on deck to look at the scenery, which is beautiful. Red earth, terraced green farmland and mysterious caves. There is a lot of boat traffic on the river. We pass large container ships that look like the ones we see passing through the Golden Gate, barges carrying gravel and coal, and small traditional fishing boats trailing their nets. Many pleasure boats go by too, full of tourists from China and all over the world. The boat is rocking me to sleep again, it's time to go to bed...
The next day, after breakfast, we get ready to pass through the famous Three Gorges of the Yangzi River. I scurry up to the top deck to look at the view and it really is lovely. Arching gray limestone cliffs, tall evergreen trees, and the river water is a mossy green. Here there are no other boats, and we seem to have the river all to ourselves. It is peaceful, quite and still, and I pass the day just watching the land go by.
The following day, we get off the boat for a sampan ride down Shennong Stream. We are helped onto the boat by three boatmen who paddle and pole the boats with long wooden sticks. When the water gets shallow, they go ashore and tow us with ropes. It is very hard work! But later I found out that these men bought their boats together and formed a cooperative business, so they get to keep all the money they make. I like that idea. The stream is clean and fresh, and runs through the beautiful limestone cliffs that are all around the river. While they paddle, the men sing us traditional boating songs and point out sights on the way, like the ancient burial sites of the Ba people, who laid their dead to rest in wooden caskets in the limestone caves high up in the mountains. If I look carefully, I can see some of them. How did they get those coffins way up there? Nobody knows. We also see the ruins of an ancient temple to one of the local gods. Out of the corner of my eye I see something moving on the rocks...monkeys! Troops of Rhesus monkeys live in these hills too. We say goodbye to the boatmen and get back on our larger boat. Tonight we pass the Three Gorges Dam.

Three Gorges Dam
This dam is one of the largest engineering projects in the history of the world, and also one of the most controversial. The Chinese government built the dam for two reasons: to control flooding and to provide electricity for China's growing population. With 1.3 billion people, China is the most populous country in the world. That means one billion TV's, hair dryers, and computers, and they all need electricity to run. The force of the water running down the dam runs turbines to produce the electricity that the Chinese people need. Additionally, the Yangzi is known for severe floods that can ruin crops and wash houses away, and building the dam will help alleviate this problem. However, damming a large river like the Yangzi has a downside, too. About 1 million people have had to leave their homes because after the dam is completed next year their homes will be underwater. Although the Chinese government will provide new housing for them, many are unhappy to have to leave their homes, especially farmers whose families have lived on the same land for generations. Most people are being located to cities like Chongqing, and it can be hard to adjust to city living if you have lived on a farm all your life. The ecosystem is a concern too. Some environmentalists say that stopping the flow of the river will cause sewage and garbage to accumulate behind the dam, and fish will die because they cannot cross over the dam to spawn and lay eggs. The government has relocated the fish, but like humans, fish sometimes have trouble adjusting to a new environment. Many people in China say this dam is necessary, but others say it will do more harm than good. What do you think?

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