Visiting China's Endangered Vistas

A huge dam project on the Yangtze River prompts tours of the region before it vanishes

EVERY year, thousands of foreign and Chinese tourists cruise the Yangtze River in boats with swimming pools, karaoke bars, souvenir shops, and deluxe cabins.

But not us.

Our vessel for that freezing winter day's voyage up a stretch of the Yangtze River was the rusted, chugging launch of the Yichang Hydrological Station on which the only warmth came from thermoses of hot tea.

It had been difficult finding a boat in Yichang, considered the gateway to the upper reaches of the Yangtze. Not surprisingly, few Chinese helmsmen were interested in taking a couple of foreigners upstream in the cutting winter wind that bears down with the fast-flowing Yangtze.

But when we arrived at the boat, photographer Bob Harbison and I found it crowded with half-a-dozen Yichang hydrological workers, and even a girlfriend or two. They seemed determined to go where their boat went - and get a free lunch in the process.

These days, cruising the Yangtze (in warmer weather) is a popular pastime in China. Demand for leisurely cruises up and down the great river that cuts through the midriff of China is driven by fears that the huge Three Gorges Dam, under construction about 20 miles upstream from Yichang, will flood and destroy the scenery.

That scenery, rocky pinnacles and sheer precipices above China's mightiest waterway, is one of the country's most famous tourist sites. To Chinese, the famous Three Gorges were formed by a goddess named Yao Ji who slew 12 dragons oppressing the peasants, only to find the dragons had become mountains blocking the river. When the deity discovered a heavenly way to cut through the mountains, the great Yangtze River gorges were formed.

Vital economic link

The mystical aside, today the Yangtze channel is a crucial economic lifeline for inland China and home to more than one-third of the mainland's 1.2 billion Chinese. Its murky waters mirror the ugly industrial hulks and urban warrens lining its banks, decades of pollution that have filled its waters with garbage and efflu-ents, and hillsides picked clean of almost every tree.

Chugging against the Yangtze's rapid current, we were reminded of the changes that the dam will bring to the river. Periodically, explosions boomed in the distance, tearing gravel and rock from the riverbanks to use in dam construction.

Before the Gezhouba Dam, a sister structure to the Three Gorges Dam, was built in the 1980s, screeching monkeys used to call out from the gorge walls, our government-appointed guide told us. But the rock blasts eventually drove them away to neighboring localities where they made nuisances of themselves and forced officials to drive them back to the riverbanks.

Many costs, benefits

Officials insist that the planned Three Gorges, which will be the world's largest hydroelectrical project, will bring only benefits to the people living along the river. Never mind that 1 million river folk will have to be moved to higher ground, fishing and shipping will be disrupted, a huge reservoir will pose the risk of geological instability, and the gorges celebrated by all Chinese will be filled.

``The Three Gorges will be even more wonderful than before,'' promises a Communist Party propaganda official in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan. ``The dam itself will become a tourist site.''

On board the Yichang Hydrological Station launch, the crew chattered in the boat's small cabin and sipped tea to stay warm, oblivious to the towering walls of the Xiling Gorge passing by.

Despite government claims of support for the dam project, Hu Qiulin says many residents living near the dam site remain opposed to the project because they ``are prosperous farmers and have a lot to lose.''

Mile-high cliffs

One hardly feels dwarfed by mile-high cliffs while traveling through the Three Gorges. Further upriver from Xiling are the Wu Gorge, dominated by the river's tallest peaks, and the smallest and shortest chasm known as Qutang Gorge.

But the scenery is stunning, even in the winter when the wind frequently drove us down below for relief.

Further upriver at the Huaping Temple, archaeologist Yang Lianang pondered the future of the waterway after the Three Gorges dam. Unlike many other temples in the Yangtze valley that will either be moved or inundated by the dammed waters, Huaping Buddhist temple will remain intact.

Chinese experts are scrambling to save as much as possible of the vast archaeological treasures of the waterway, dating back 6,000 years, before the dam is completed after the turn of the century. But Ms. Yang says that even so, much will be lost.

``We will try to protect them,'' she says. ``I just wish we had more time.''

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