Monday, November 20, 2006

Jet Set Jeff & the Three Gorges

I haven't posted in a fair amount of time - that doesn't at all reflect a waning commitment to writing this blog. Truth be told, I hope to turn this blog into something approaching journalism. It's mostly just a matter of being spectacularly occupied with travels, and with catching up with works, and with turning my Chinese studies up to an 11.

Among other things, my parents visited, and we together saw some famous parts of China. The first place we traveled was the Three Gorges, taking a three-day boat cruise down the Yangtze river. Actually I was pretty excited about starting out with a half-day in the city of Chongqing, because I know a few people from there, and I know a lot of people from nearby Sichuanese cities.

But in all honesty, I didn't have the time to give the city more than the quickest of glances - a shame, it's not the sort of city you make a special trip for, but I'd have liked to seen more. As a very quick impression, it seemed extremely poor, but with an impressive downtown. Most spectacular was that the streets were incredibly steep, and looked over a huge river gorge. Even three days upriver from the Three Gorges, the water level had risen some, and was still set to rise. Later, my Chongqing friend told me the city has been greatly improved from what is was five or ten years ago.

From there it was on down the Yangtze river, a boat ride that took two days and three nights, mostly through farmland. It was foggy pretty much the entire way (as I had been forewarned) - a certain eeriness was added by the knowledge that the current waterline was far up in the sky, compared to where it was only several years previous. You saw half submerged trees, and the occasional sign measuring where the water would come up to, once the dam gets completed. Below the line you saw foundations, but you didn't see many houses. In the picture below, the "156" marks the current meters above sea level, and the "175" measures the final height - meaning, another 60 feet to go.

I took pictures of the river traffic because it looked kind of cool, but to be honest there wasn't very much, either large-scale or small scale. You did see some other large tour boats. One of the hopes of the Three Gorges dam is that Chongqing will become a major port, despite being far into the middle of China.

The trip itself was low-key, but entirely beautiful. Maybe it's a little similar to driving on Highway 1, along California's coastline: a sustained but repetitive beauty. You felt somewhere stuck somewhere between a constant awe, and the view becoming mundane and monotonous. But as a backdrop to being able to spend time with my parents, it was about perfect. Here are a few snapshots:

A highlight was a side-trip: right before the Third Gorge we were taken to a side-river, the Bellows Gorge, where there was strictly-for-the-tourists recreation of how coolies used to tug smaller boats by hand, to minimize the dangers of travelling through the dangerous Three Gorges.

That was fun, but really the trip there was much more impressive. The tributary cuts it way through dramatic cliffs. At times you felt trapped between walls of rock, it was difficult to believe that the gorge had been hundreds of feet lower until only recently.

And you could also catch small glimpses of the locals going about their lives. They're of the Daxi ethnic minority. I don't know anything about them and won't pretend differently. However, you did see a lot of small boats for fishing, and small hillside farms:

The quality isn't quite what I'd like, and singing minorities are an ugly cliche in China, but here's a short clip of one of the coolies singing a traditional Daxi song. It's about a guy who loves a girl, but can't marry her.

I don't use this blog to editorialize, but it's more-or-less objectively true that the dam is a disaster waiting to happen, that's already done a lot of damage to China. I'd invite anyone with an interest to look through the unprofessional but interesting Wikipedia entry on the subject. For those keeping track, Wikipedia is now blocked from the Chinese Internet, after a brief period of working fine. Additionally, blogspot (which hosts this blog) is again blocked, after several months of being freely available. Anonymouse remains an easy way to access these pages from inside China. 11/24/6 - The day after posting this, blogspot became unblocked, but wikipedia remains blocked, huh.