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01.21.2003

Three Gorges

For all my recent posts about China, I never actually wrote about the Three Gorges. Regular readers will remember that the Chinese government has built a gargantuan dam on the Chang Jiang river, which means that the spectacular gorges behind it will soon be mostly underwater. You're still not out of luck if you fancy a river cruise - it will take a good ten years to raise the water level by nearly 400 feet. Still, the reservoir is filling.

The gorges are spectacular. I had wanted to wait until I had some photos to post, since it seems a little reckless to rely on just my breathless prose style. But the pictures have been slow in coming, and time is passing. Thank goodness for the Internet: there are other people's photographs of the Three Gorges to look at, and I can vouch for their verisimilitude.

Part of the allure of going to see the Gorges is the roundabout trip itself. Most people do like we did, and float down the river from Chongqing. It's like going to see the Grand Canyon from Denver - it takes two days to reach the first gorge.

The Chang Jiang is a silty and dark river, a huge dark snake of water from the Himalayas, and the passage through Chongqing doesn't make it any clearer. Even this far inland the river is prone to tremendous floods, so the houses and towns along its steep banks are built high above the water. This makes the place seem remote and gives you a weird impression of impending doom, as if the locals knew something you didn't about getting too close to the river.

Throughout our journey there was a persistent haze or mist on the water - some combination of November fog and industrial smoke - and it lent a dreamlike mood to the journey. You could look down at the water breaking against the prow of the boat and really know that it had come from the remote uplands of Sichuan and Tibet. Though the river is far along in its course, there is still wildness left in it at Chongqing. For now.

The people on the boat were wonderful. Apart from a Dutch couple in third class, we were the only foreigners on the boat — all the other passengers were Chinese, on vacation. There were probably a hundred people on the cruise with us. We had a second class cabin, with four bunks and a tiny bathroom that featured (against all hope, against all expectations) a Western-style toilet. The fourth bunk was occupied by a mysterious figure who arrived late at night and left before dawn - he later turned out to be an exquisitely considerate member of a larger group of travellers, leaving us to our own American ways except to sleep.

In addition to a sit-down toilet, our miniature bathroom also featured a shower, or rather a showerhead, mounted directly in the ceiling. I had to admire the economy of it - it seemed like something you would find in a microscopic European apartment, the kind of place with a refrigerator that doubles as a hot plate. To take a shower, you had to walk into the bathroom naked, close the door, and turn on the tap. Water would rush from the ceiling, cleaning you and the bathroom at the same time. When you were done, the water would seep out of a hole in the bottom of the floor, down into the third-class cabins below.

I wish I had had the courage to try the shower out, but I didn't. For one, it was November, and the boat was cold and drafty. For another, I had a sneaking suspicion about where the shower water came from (the water from the sink tap had a certain Chang Jiangness to it), and I didn't particularly want to test my theory. I also didn't want to lock myself in to a Chinese bathroom naked, while water poured from the ceiling. In short, I was chicken. [...]

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