River of the dammed

ANTHONY DENNIS
Last updated 05:00 11/06/2013
Cruise-Landscape
Anthony Dennis

ON BOARD ACTIVITIES: Tai chi on the MV Victoria Sophia.

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Anthony Dennis
CHINESE PASSENGERS: The Three Gorges remain a central attraction of any Yangtze cruise

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A steely-grey dusk has enveloped the Yangtze as the MV Victoria Sophia threads its way through Xiling Gorge, the third and final of China's famed Three Gorges.

Ahead of us are towering peaks, with sheer drops to the calm waters below. The mountains recede in various shades of blue like raggedly cut sheets of rice paper carefully placed atop each other.

As the aroma of tangerine blossom pervades the chill mid-spring air all the way to the ship's decks, smoke from the first early-evening fires accentuates the murk and the street-lights of the new city, with its rows of identical concrete apartment blocks teetering on hillsides, begin to twinkle.

It's a beautiful and impressive sight (save, perhaps, for those prosaic, tomb-like Chinese flats) as I stand on the open deck above the ship's bow.

Admittedly, it's hard to escape the nagging sense of having been denied the complete impact of this natural wonder through which we have passed.

A large proportion of this landscape before me, after all, was drowned by the Three Gorges Dam project (or the "Three Gorges Damn" as my American travel guidebook inadvertently, though tellingly, refers to it).

Indeed, the waters surrounding this particular section of the Three Gorges have been raised from a depth of between just 20 metres and 30 metres to 120 metres or more.

More than a dozen cities and counties were submerged by the project, with nearly half-a-million farmers relocated (or was it dislocated?) along with millions of other river people.

Yet, while the Three Gorges remain a central attraction of any Yangtze cruise these days, they're not the only absorbing feature along the river.

It's now five years or so since the Three Gorges Dam was officially opened. Then, China's extraordinary, unprecedented economic boom was really just beginning to accelerate.

The dam, designed to spare this part of China its history of devastating floods and to provide reliable power supplies to the nation's ever-expanding major cities, remains one of the most criticised engineering projects in history.

Now, with the structure a reality, it seems a suitable time to test the waters, as it were, of China's rapid development with the Yangtze as good a barometer as any to do so, what with its concentration of engineering, industry and tourism.

At a remarkable 6300 kilometres in length, it is the world's third-longest river but you could argue that it's become the world's most important, if only by virtue of its passage through what has emerged as arguably now the most important nation.

The Chinese, with their propensity to liken anything and everything to creatures, legendary or otherwise, refer to the Yangtze as the dragon river with its tale beginning in its source in the mountains of Tibet and its mouth extending all of the way to Shanghai. On the map, the river resembles an incision straight across the waistline of China.

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In the days before Australians could afford those cushier trips on the Rhine and the Danube and in the era before the advent of mass tourism in China, a cruise-boat journey along the river was a rite of passage of sorts for more intrepid travellers.

But, for many, the Yangtze's allure seemed to dissolve as soon as it was announced the waters of the Three Gorges would be raised. It was an act by the Chinese that was received as warmly, in tourism terms, as the French announcing they would lop off part of the Eiffel Tower.

I've been to China on a number of occasions, but this is my first time on the Yangtze. My cruise, full of middle-class British, Germans, Australians and Chinese, begins at the emerging mega-city of Chongqing and concludes at the commercial capital of Shanghai.

The MV Victoria Sophia, though perfectly comfortable and recently refurbished, is not the most luxurious of the passenger ships plying the Yangtze, but it's the only cruise vessel nimble enough to navigate the river all the way to Shanghai, rendering this trip a genuine journey rather than a sightseeing exercise.

Some of the new Chinese-built river cruise ships, fitted with swimming pools and helicopter landing pads, are targeted almost entirely at the affluent Chinese market. But while the damming of the Three Gorges may have diminished the Yangtze from a tourism perspective, its importance as a maritime thoroughfare has only increased.

The flow of tourists is unabated, with Chinese now able to share the cruise ships with Westerners where once they could only view them wistfully from riverbanks or in brochures.

Today, many Chinese seniors are funding their travels through the proceeds of generous pension funds and property investments.

On board, early mornings are devoted to tai chi classes on the dance floor of the main bar on the upper deck, while by night there is delicious Chinese food, toned down for the delicate taste buds of Western passengers, with chopsticks available only on request.

When the going gets boring on the Yangtze the passengers again get going to the bar, where the ancient and obscure art of snuff-bottle painting is demonstrated.

By the time we've passed through Xiling Gorge, nearly 70 kilometres in length, night is falling and mountains have been rendered jet black, their jagged outline silhouetted against the last gasps of illuminated sky.

Through one particularly narrow section of the river around here, the captain directs the powerful beam of the ship's spotlights onto the gorge walls to ensure the MV Victoria Sophia maintains a safe distance from them.

We're steaming towards a late-night appointment with a massive ship lock that will ensure our safe passage through the dam. After dinner, many of the passengers settle into armchairs in the main bar and out on the deck to observe the procedure.

There's a shore excursion planned in the morning to the Three Gorges Dam, which itself receives nearly 2 million visitors in its own right each year and 10 million since it opened, the majority of them proud Chinese on a kind of pilgrimage to their nation's hydrological equivalent of the Great Wall.

Beyond the Three Gorges Dam, the Yangtze really gets down to business: the river's channels are clogged with a procession of barge and ferry traffic.

The guidebooks dismiss this section of the Yangtze as the least inspiring along the river, dominated as it is by heavy industry and its associated grey industrial cities. Sure, it's not pretty, but I am impressed by the volume of traffic that passes by the balcony of my berth: barge after barge laden with coal along with the occasional ancient-looking hydrofoil.

Ships are stretched single file in designated channels on the river and I learn that it's cheaper to load lorries fully laden with goods onto ferries, the drivers travelling as passengers, than for them to travel across the country.

One night I naively leave the balcony door of my berth open for some fresh air - a rather elusive commodity in China these days - and wake feeling a little oddly light-headed, due, I assume, to the diesel from the passing vessels.

Then I discover the MV Victoria Sophia is running behind schedule because of the sheer number of vessels navigating this watery super-highway. In my neighbouring stateroom I can hear a fellow passenger, seated on his balcony, counting the ships on the river within view to his good humoured wife. "... 16, 17, 18 ...".

Until the mid-1950s there were no bridges across the Yangtze. Now there are about 120, not including the countless number being built under which we pass. Around every bend of the river, in the characteristically monochrome distance of overcast, smoggy Chinese days, sizeable cities indistinguishable from the last one emerge.

They are wonders of rapid development that didn't exist before the dam.

It's at this point of my voyage that the Yangtze, and all the fuss over the fate of the Three Gorges, prompts a question: does one travel to experience beauty alone or to understand a society for all its blemishes?

One night, over another chopsticks-on-demand dinner, there's a consensus among my fellow travellers - aside from a drunk (again) Englishwoman who just wants to get off the ship in Shanghai to shop - that the Three Gorges has represented just one aspect of the cruise, with the opportunity to witness the rise of China at such a seminal moment in its history surpassing even the scenery.

By the time we reach Nanjing, a former ancient capital of China, having travelled about 2000 kilometres from Chongqing, fierce winds have slowed traffic on the river.

I ask to be excused from the scheduled shore excursion the next day to the tomb of San Yat-sen so I can instead head to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, deemed too confronting for the passengers to be included on the itinerary.

The Chinese have never forgiven the Japanese for their World War II slaughter of 300,000 citizens of the occupied city in what became known as the Rape of Nanjing.

When I return to the ship, gusts from earlier in the day have not abated and there are white caps up and down the muddy brown river, a contrast to the appealingly jade-coloured Yangtze as it makes its way through the Three Gorges. Eventually the river authorities decide to temporarily halt all shipping for reasons of safety. The MV Victoria Sophia remains tethered to the wharf, close to the first Chinese-built bridge to span the great river.

We are, it's announced, to be transported by bus the rest of the way to Shanghai, a four-hour-or-so drive, the next day. I pause to reflect that while Chinese may, to a considerable extent, have tamed the mighty Yangtze, the river still has the ability to angrily assert itself.

Anthony Dennis is national travel editor. He journeyed along the Yangtze as a guest of Wendy Wu Tours and Singapore Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Fly to Singapore then to Chongqing (4hr 20min with SilkAir), where most passengers board Yangtze River cruises. See singaporeair.com.

Cruising there Wendy Wu Tours offers a range of fully inclusive group tours in China that include Yangtze River cruise components, as well as a selection of cruise itineraries for independent travellers.

Four-to eight-night Yangtze Splendour Deluxe itineraries start from $6482 a person, twin share, departing Sydney and Melbourne.

There also is a 15-day tour, including return economy airfares, two nights' five-star accommodation in Shanghai, three nights' five-star accommodation in Beijing, eight nights' cruise accommodation on board the MV Victoria Sophia, most meals, all transportation in China, private touring with a local English-speaking guide, and entrance fees and Chinese visa. Tipping and fuel surcharges, subject to change, are also included.

This itinerary departs on September 11 and 25 and October 9.

More information Wendy Wu Tours, phone 1300 727 998, see wendywutours.com.au.

BEYOND THE THREE GORGES: FIVE MORE YANGTZE SIGHTS

Chongqing This oft-overlooked megalopolis is technically China's largest city. It is certainly worth a few days or more of one's time, especially its atmospheric, soon-to-be levelled 18 Steps neighbourhood and amazing hot food.

Fengdu High above the riverbanks at Fengdu, which translates as "city of devils", are tourist-tempting temples and statues depicting demons, with the top of the mountain reached by staircases or cable car.

Lesser Three Gorges These gorges (Dragon Gate Gorge, Misty Gorge and Emerald Gorge) are more intimate than their namesakes and are reached by a detour off the Yangtze via Wu Gorge and then a transfer to small traditional boats.

Three Gorges Dam Yangtze cruises include visits to the dam project itself, where you can view ships passing through the massive lock system and the dam wall. The tourist-friendly site even features open-air escalators.

Nanjing This pleasant city, ringed by a largely intact ancient wall, is where the infamous Nanjing Massacre happened, and the graphic museum is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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