Sailing the Mountain Tops

Our trip up the Yangtze River has been a bit surreal.  As we view the hillsides with their villages and occasionally entire cities, we have to keep reminding ourselves that these hills are in fact, the tops of some fairly high mountains that line the shore of what used to be a swiftly flowing river. That river is now gone,  having been replaced by the world’s largest reservoir that is stacked behind the Three Gorges Dam, the point at which we set out on this journey. Beneath the surface of the water lie farms, villages, towns, memories, and history…all drowned as the water rose.

To make way for the water the government moved more than 1 million people to higher ground. To see entirely new cities piled up on top of these hills is the only possible way to understand the scale of such an undertaking; and even then it is hard to comprehend. And it was all done in the span of a decade and a half.

I made a trip down this river with friends in 1985.  It was a wild and remote river then, with only an occasional small town or small city. I remember looking up at some of the remote villages perched on the hillside and wondering if people there had even heard that Mao had died (he had, 9 years previously). Given the remoteness, it seemed plausible.

The Yangtze River is no longer remote.  As we sailed up the river, we were never out of cell phone range. We went under dozens of bridges (there were 1 or 2 in the 1980’s). Huge vessels carried everything from coal to semi-trucks.  And every so often we rounded a bend to find a city that looked like Hong Kong with its towering apartment blocks and office buildings.

As we pulled into the city of Fuling (late at night), I stood out on the front deck and raised a toast to Peter Hessler, the author of Rivertown, one of the best books about China out there and the one book that every English teacher here wishes they had written.

The Yangtze River is also no longer the main artery connecting Sichuan to the outside world or connecting the cities and towns in the region with each other.  Now there are high speed trains and expressways.  As a result, it seems, the ferries are now just used by peasants and the occasional silly foreigners who decided they need an “old China” experience. (stay tuned for a post about the ferry)

As we travel this river, I am reading the book “A Wayfarer in China: Impressions of a Trip Across West China and Mongolia”, by Elizabeth Kimball, an American woman who travelled down this river in 1911, after first travelling overland to Sichuan from Vietnam. Sichuan back then was the wild west (and still was when Esther Nelson arrived in 1924) —almost entirely cut off from the outside world except by way of the treacherous Yangtze River.  Her comments upon leaving Sichuan (from Chongqing, where I am writing this blog in a Starbucks) for her trip down river were prescient:

“And the next step is assured; before many years have passed, a railway will connect the western capital with Wan Hsien (Wanxian) and Hankow (Wuhan), the deserted gorges will no longer re-echo the cries of the trackers, and the upward trip that now takes six weeks will be a matter of two or three days.  It will be a different Szechuan then, with it resources exploited, with mines and factories, good roads and fine hotels, a power in the world’s market, the goal of the tourist, and – I am glad I saw Szechuan before the railway came.” (loc 2002, kindle edition)

The Szechuan that she describes is the Sichuan we are entering. We will travel from Chongqing to Chengdu today by a bullet train.

She was glad to have seen Sichuan before the railway came.  I am glad I saw the Yangtze River before the dam was built, when it was still a river.