The Three Gorges Dam (Sanxia Ba)

The dream of constructing an enormous dam to harness and utilize the power of the Chang Jiang (Yangzi River) originally belonged to Sun Yat-sen in the early 1920s, but every Chinese leader since -- including Mao and Deng Xiaoping -- has shared it. The appeal of this massive project to premiers and presidents may have more to do with classical Chinese flood myths than engineering logic. The most enduring is the story of Yu, who was born out of the belly of his father's corpse. Through superhuman feats of repositioning mountains and changing the courses of rivers, Yu quelled the great flood of the world and restored natural order. Selfless and moral, his efforts left his body half-withered, yet he went on to found the (semimythical) Xia dynasty (ca. 21st-16th c. B.C.). There are also historical models of men who tamed rivers: Shu governor Li Bing supervised ancient China's largest irrigation project (256 B.C.) and is still admired for it; and the Sui Yangdi emperor (reigned 604-617) completed the building of the Grand Canal linking the north and south. Latest to see himself in the role of a new Yu out to suppress floods is the former premier Li Peng (best remembered for suppressing the student democracy movement), who pushed approval of the dam through the National People's Congress in 1992, and with whom the dam is most identified, though he no longer holds office.

The massive project was finished in 2009, but whether it ensures Li's fame or infamy is yet to be seen. It broke so many records in terms of size, manpower utilized in its construction, volume of building materials (including 10 million lb. of cement), and projected energy output (equal to "10 nuclear power stations"), that there is no real precedent by which to assess the short-term, let alone long-term, effects. But that hasn't stopped pundits (and nonpundits) from trying.

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The chief aims of the dam are flood control, power generation, safer navigation, and increased river shipping, but critics of the project cite more than a few concerns, such as the resettlement of one million to two million people; the destruction of wildlife habitats, archaeological sites, and historical relics; and the environmental threat of trapped sewage and industrial waste.

Dam Effects along the Three Gorges Route

Following are some of the immediate effects the 135m (443-ft.) water level is expected to have on sites along the Three Gorges route:

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  • The residents of Fengdu have already been moved to the new city built across the river on higher ground. The mountain and kitsch, ghoulish temple complex with its sculptures of bug-eyed demons and "scenes of hell" remains, but the mountain will be a semi-island.
  • A tall weir has been built surrounding the town of Shibao Zhai. The intriguing old town and temples inside are preserved.
  • Zhangfei Temple has been moved to higher ground across the river. The temple commemorates the upright Shu warrior who was beheaded by two dastardly commanders in his own army. The bulk of the temple and its collection were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. What stands is the restored building.
  • Baidi Cheng (White Emperor City) is half submerged. Trackers' paths carved into the cliffs of Qutang Gorge are submerged.
  • Three-quarters of Wan Xian is inundated. The last quarter, renovated and developed, has become the new downtown.
  • Fuling (site of ancient royal tombs of the Ba Kingdom and the port town of 150,000 people that is the setting of River Town, Peter Hessler's fine personal account) is inundated. Excavation of the tombs has completed.
  • The building of the underwater viewing chamber for the ancient stone carvings at White Crane Ridge has been completed but only open to public sporadically. The official opening of museum had yet to be announced as of this writing.
  • The Daning and Shennong gorges are slightly diminished, but naturally not enough to stop tours. Boats are able to venture farther into these narrow gorges and provide a closer look at the ancient hanging coffins -- among them a cluster of 24.
  • The western part of Xiling Gorge is submerged.
  • The population of Badong has been moved upstream to the opposite side of the river. Landslide-prevention projects veil the nearby slopes.

To Cruise or Not to Cruise

Debate rages around the question of whether the Three Gorges cruise is the thrill of a lifetime or an overrated, overpriced yawn. Members of tour groups invariably rave about their luxury trip. The boats are plusher than they expected; the cabins roomier; the food better. If the scenery comes as a bit of a letdown -- well, they weren't expecting A Single Pebble. And if the excursions aren't all they're cracked up to be, at least they're short. Perhaps one reason tour members find their Three Gorges cruise so delightful is that it puts a halt to the mania of touring for a few days.

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While it's true that other parts of China have better scenery, prettiness isn't everything. The best part of these cruises is watching life on the river as it is today -- in flux. A new city springs up on high, and a few hundred yards below it, the old city sits like a sloughed-off shell.

If you'd like to take the excursion but can't afford the steep cruise prices, cheaper tourist ferries and dirt-cheap passenger boats also make the trip. There are boats that sail all the way to Shanghai, but unless you're fanatical about river travel, limit your journey to the stretch between Chongqing and Yichang/Wuhan. From there eastward, the river widens and the scenery becomes decidedly prosaic, and train, bus, or plane is preferable.

The best times to go are September and October. In terms of weather, May, early June, and early November are risky, but they can be lovely. Summer is the rainy season, and winter is usually dry but quite cold. Fewer ships sail off season, and schedules are less reliable.

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Cruising Industry Be Dammed?

No one, including cruise directors and travel agents, is entirely sure how the flooding of the Three Gorges all the way upstream to Chongqing will affect the Yangzi cruising industry -- although, the fact that cruise lines such as Viking are adding the Three Gorges to their cruise roster suggests a certain optimism for the time being. June 2003 marked the end of Phase Two in construction and witnessed a rise in water level by 40m (85 ft.); at the end of the third and final phase in 2009, the water level had risen an additional 50m (106 ft.). As a result, the peaks towering above the river are not as high, nor is the bottom of the ravine as narrow. The ghost towns that now dot the banks of the Yangzi, evacuated in anticipation of the rising water level, make for a novel if unintended tourist curiosity, but the majesty of the Gorges themselves has definitely been compromised. In the meantime the Gorges is worth a visit, but whether 2009 would have marked the end of the love affair is still an open question.

The Cruise Lines

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The following liners have the best English-speaking guides and the best ships. And after years of experience with foreign passengers, most have removed from their itineraries excursions that require a thorough familiarity with characters and events of the Three Kingdoms in order to enjoy them. Take advantage of off-season rates, book and buy in China, compare prices, bargain, and ask what the excursions are. The prices quoted are rack rates, but 50% discounts are standard even during high season.

The Top Excursions

One of the best excursions is to Shi Bao Zhai (Stone Treasure Fortress). Admission is ¥80. This square-edged red pagoda built in the 18th century hugs the cliff and is an elegant vision from the river. The climb up its 12 narrow staircases is only difficult when other tour groups are pressing from behind or blocking the way in front. Since the descent is down a back staircase, just let them all go ahead. Inside, look for the two "magic" holes. The first is the Hole of the Greedy Monk. As the story goes, when monks lived in the tower, the hole spouted just enough rice for their daily rations. One monk, thinking he'd like rations to sell in the market, tried to make the hole bigger. His avarice shut the source for good. Of the second hole, it is said that if you drop a duck down it (Duck Tossing Hole), within seconds you'll see the duck floating far below on the river.

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Close to the top of the pagoda, if you peek under the arched bridge (which is meant to be crossed in three steps or less), you'll get a good look at a wawa yu -- the giant Chinese salamander that supposedly cries like a baby. This one has been here for years -- how it survives is a mystery.

For impressive scenery, the half-day trip up the small gorges of Daning River (near Wushan) is the best of the excursions. Cruise passengers board a ferry passing through the Longmen Gorge, Bawu Gorge, and Dicui Gorge and then takes you to Madu River, which is named the Xiao Xiao Sanxia. From there, you get off to climb into "peapod" boats that are rowed and pulled upstream by trackers. Each boat has a guide whose English isn't always up to the task, but he/she makes up for it by singing a Tujia minority song for the group during the return trip. If the trackers are in the mood, one or two will join in. The scenery on this narrow stream is probably closer to what most travelers expect of the Three Gorges. Towering cliffs rise on either bank, and the water is crystal clear. On rare occasions, passengers catch sight of monkeys along the cliffs. The trackers used to go only far enough to glimpse the first hanging coffin, but now that the water level has risen, they may continue farther (though time is a factor, too).

Whether or not you have any interest in engineering or construction, the sheer immensity of the Three Gorges Dam Site (¥105) at San Dou Ping makes this worth a visit. Not only is it a unique photo opportunity, its monumental size lends it the visual (if not yet the historical) power of the Great Wall or Xi'an's Terra-Cotta Warriors. The luxury cruise ships usually include it on their itineraries, while local tourist ferries don't. Before booking, make sure it's included. Its absence from the itinerary is reason enough to look elsewhere.

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Lower-Cost Cruise Alternatives: Local Passenger Boats & Tourist Ferries

Yangzi River supercheap passenger boats depart from Wuhan (for upriver trips) and from Chongqing (for downriver trips) year-round, but their facilities are foul, and so is the food. Their raison d'être is transport, not tourism, so they make no effort to go through the gorges in the light of day, and naturally there are no tourist excursions.

Numerous Chinese tourist ferries operate on the Yangzi, some of them with quite comfortable cabins and facilities. Management and staff are not used to foreign travelers and they rarely speak English, but the price, even for first class, is considerably less than the price on a luxury ship. These boats will invariably only take you as far as Yichang. The remaining leg on to Wuhan is best accomplished on the air-conditioned buses that travel the recently completed freeway that connects the two cities; in fact, the option to sail to Wuhan is becoming less available. Fourth-class passage from Chongqing to Yichang starts at ¥249 and isn't much better than ferry accommodations -- a bunk in an eight-person dorm with a filthy toilet down the hall. Prices for first-class passage (two-bed cabin with private shower/toilet), excluding meals and excursions, start at ¥1,042 per person. Since you can pay on board or at the site for excursions, make sure they're not included in your ticket price, giving you more flexibility. Typically, excursions are to Fengdu, Shi Bao Zhai, and the Little Three Gorges, but these ships do not stop at the Three Gorges Dam construction site. Tickets can be booked in Chongqing inside the Navigation Office Building at Chaotian Men near the Chaotian Men Hotel, but you probably won't find an English-speaker. Beware of so-called "government-run tour agencies" along the wharf; they are likely to charge much higher fees than the actual ticket cost. And be sure to ask which pier your boat will depart from.

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In this instance, the better way to book is through China International Travel Service (CITS) in Wuhan, Taibei Yi Lu 26, seventh floor, Xiao Nan Hu Building (tel. 027-8578-4100; fax 027-8578-4089; citswuh@public.wh.hb.cn). In Chongqing, CITS is at Zaozi Lanya Zheng Jie 120 (tel. 023-6385-0693; fax 023-6385-0196; citscq@cta.cq.cn). The booking fee of ¥50 is worth every cent. The agents in the international division of both these offices are unusually well-informed and helpful, and speak excellent English.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.