I was impressed by the locks at the Three Gorges Dam on the Shanghai River, though I hadn’t expected to be. After all, I’ve seen the Soo locks, haven’t I? Plus innumerable canal locks in England, and the Welland Canal that stair-steps ocean ships past Niagara Falls. But like so much in China, there’s a difference in the sheer scale: The gigantic problems of controlling floods and seeking gigantic amounts of electricity have brought forth a gigantic solution.
At this point in the tour we were on a river cruise ship for four days. After our ship glided in and was moored to the sliding bollards at the side of the lock, there was quite a bit of room left over. Then a giant, bumbling barge came along. First it hit the side of the lock , then straightened itself out and, with a liberal deployment of old tires for fenders, scootched in next to us (while I imagined the captain of the shiny new cruise ship was having kittens). From the stern of the cruise ship I could touch the wall of the lock on one side, then walk across and touch the rail of the barge.
- After that a dredger and a scow with a huge mound of sand came in behind us. Just as I was wondering idly if a smallish aircraft carrier was going to show up, the gates closed and up we went, through five linked locks, over 300 feet to the reservoir.
There was a lot of controversy when the dam was built, because it was going to drown a lot of archaeological sites and displace over a million people, and also because the Three Gorges area was such a beauty spot. However, as China and the rest of the world become more aware of air pollution, we have to admit that a dam causes a lot less pollution than coal-fired plants. And I didn’t see the Yangtze before the dam was built, so I can’t assess the loss of the scenic wonders. But wonders are still there.
The Yangtze was always notorious for floods. Traditional houses were built on stilts, but thousands of people still died. In 1954, flooding killed over 30,000 people. I’m all for archaeological treasures, but I don’t have the heart to dismiss the deaths of that many people for the sake of the past.
Some traditional housing remains in the “Three Gorges Tribal Scenic Area.” This is up a beautiful side stream below the dam, so it wasn’t flooded by the rising dam waters. And because the dam controls the amount of water that’s released, there’s much less danger of seasonal flooding downstream.
The people who live there belong to one of China’s tribal minorities, the Tujia. Their work has always been as farmers and fishermen, but because this side gorge is now a Protected Area and has a 5A tourist classification, a lot of the villagers now work as historical re-enactors.
A shore trip takes you to their settlement, where people sing, pose in picturesque spots, and as a highlight at the end, stage a tribal wedding.
I asked one of the guides if she minded dressing up and repeating the same thing to group after group of sightseers. I expected a guarded response, along the lines of, “Tell the foreigner what the foreigner wants to hear.” To my surprise she was very enthusiastic. She’s glad they can preserve their culture, and proud that visitors appreciate it.
About a million and a quarter people were displaced by the dam. The government built housing, provided better access to schools, and promised jobs for all. However, there have been widespread reports of mismanagement, “disappearing” funds and discrimination against tribal people who move elsewhere. One woman did tell me she has a better job now and her life is easier. However, tourists don’t get taken to any of the new villages, so I didn’t hear what any of the people there had to say!
As you’d expect, a lot of people were heartbroken and angry over the move at the time. It’s hard to find out what happened to them because the government generally doesn’t report on what displaced people are doing nowadays. Presumably a fair number had to move to industrial areas where they now produce Christmas lights for us. Oh, lucky them.
The guide on our little tourist boat pointed out a few houses, set on hillsides, where people refused to move into government quarters. I can sympathize with them. There are people in America who have chosen a beautiful environment over roads, schools and electricity, even though the average American (me included) wants to be able to flip that ol’ light switch!