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Asia » China » Hubei » Three Gorges Dam
April 8th 2013
Published: April 23rd 2013
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After a final message for us over the tannoy system in the morning from Dennis 'Peace out man!' we left the Oriental Emperor and bid farewell to the crew who had looked after us so well for our amazing Yangtze River Cruise.

A tour of the Three Gorges Dam now beckoned and we boarded coaches to take us towards the early morning awakenings of Sandouping where the dam is sited. In terms of capacity our guide is proud to tell us that The Three Gorges Dam is the world's largest although she admits the Aswan dam is five times higher size wise. The site was chosen due to the granite rock and the width of the river bed at this point. Then followed many statistics that just became, blah blah blah to me. I much prefer the more human side of any story and the following snippets were more interesting to me.

The National People's Congress voted on the building of the dam in 1992 and the project got the go ahead, albeit with a significant proportion of 'against' and 'forfeited' votes. This is according to Dennis was an unusually low percentage of votes for the Chinese governmental system. So work began on the project in 1994 and the dam first started producing hydroelectricity in 2003. The dam project involved the relocation of almost 2 million people who's homes and farms now lie beneath the flood waters. Not only were homes and farmland lost, many cultural and historical buildings that could not be moved were destroyed, including for example many of the hanging coffins we'd learnt about and actually seen in Shennong Stream.

So many contract workers were engaged to build the dam, for example there were 37,000 workers employed on site during 1997! Ok so I did listen to some of the statistics 😉

As we approached the dam in our coach we were met by a soldier guarding the security check point. The Three Gorges Dam is extremely politicallly sensitive and the project is viewed as a potential terrorist attack site, therefore only official tour groups are allowed in to visit the dam. We had to put our bags through the security x-ray machine and then went up escalators - open to the elements - which looked very odd - to our first viewing area.

The views of the dam were filtered through a veil of mist/smog covering the water and the hillsides. I turned on my gps and wasn't surprised to find there was a virtual geocache nearby. With all this security an actual hidden geocache box was unlikely! To claim my virtual cache log I had to climb to the top of another viewing tower and find the numbers and letters on a kind of trig-point column at the top. This done I made my way over to the locks area to see how the ships make their way from one side of the dam to the other. They are absolutely huge and apparently it takes 4 whole hours to transfer ships through the locks. To assist smaller boats in getting from A to B more quickly a massive engineering project is currently taking place to build a 'ship elevator'. When finished this will cut down the lock negotiating time to only 35 minutes for smaller boats. Big cruiser boats and cargo barges will still have to go through the main lock system. When it's finished, whole ships, floating in water, will be raised up in the elevator. Amazing feats of engineering and very impressive despite the upheaval to people's lives this whole project has made. The environmental and cultural damage suffered as a result of the dam project has also been immense, so it remains to be seen whether the project's success at generating electricity for China is ultimately worth all the sacrifices made.

Aside: As I wend my way back towards our coach along the banks of the river, I stop for a toilet break and come across the weirdest method of waste extraction I've seen so far in my travels round the world. I am presented with the usual squat style toilet for China. This time though, the bowl of the toilet is lined with green plastic which when you press the foot pedal, instead of water flushing the waste away, the plastic is sucked tube like into the hole taking any doings away with it! Very strange and gets me chuckling. I've also found it amusing to see any western style toilets - few and far between - labelled disabled toilets!

I see the charming young girl from our boat again, the one who sang so beautifully and who was so pleased to hear we liked her translations for the crew's show. We have a few last photos together and swap email addresses. It will be nice to stay in touch and find out how she gets on in her studies in the US.

Our dam tour over it was off to the city to sit out the day wandering around the shopping malls before our next sleeper train to Chengdu was ready to depart later that afternoon. Me and Renee wound up in a smoothie bar sat in pink floral armchairs - it was either a choice between this or a restaurant with life size teddy bears. The chintz won through this time. We thought such girly decor would automatically cut their potential clientelle in half, but no, it seemed we were wrong as a guy sat himself down in the pink flowery chair with his smoothie to do some work on his laptop!

Eventually it was time to catch our minibus to the train station for yet another session of being the objects of curiosity in the packed waiting area. Our train was delayed so we amused ourselves with a bit of people watching. The endless fashion parade was fascinating. All of the Chinese love to dress up and virtually all the women are in killer heels the whole time. Their slightly slutty looking version of western clothing sadly means that, to us, many of the young girls end up looking like hookers - obviously they weren't, it was the killer heels, short skirt or very tight trousers and hanging constantly on their mobiles combo that made them look the part! In contrast we must have looked like such scruffy tramps to them!

When we finally get to board our train we see the famous bullet train waiting to depart and then whoooosh it's off. We settle into our cabin and then get stuck into playing the 'beat up the landlord' card game that had become an addictive favourite for the trip. We got so into the card game that we forgot the time and rolled up at the dining car just after they had finished serving food. Fortunately Dennis managed to persuade the cook to rustle up a little something for us to go with our 'pee joes'.

When we got back to our cabin we got chatting with a couple of young soldiers who were sharing our carriage who it turned out had been dying to come over and talk to us earlier but didn't know any English. Really they were most interested in Aaron, who to them was HUGE and impressively muscly. So then followed lots of banter about who was the strongest culminating in Aaron challenging the strongest of them to an arm wrestle. They go and fetch their somewhat chunkier 'major' but there is still a 20kg weight difference so despite putting up a good fight Aaron is victorious. The main soldier we talk to is a young guy who looks about 16 but who it turns out is actually 23. When we say how surprised at his age we are he smiles and jokes that his appearance is good for going under cover. He had done his 2 years conscription as a 'private' and then voluteered to stay in the army and was now a sergeant. Dennis explained that soldiers are highly regarded by Chinese people and they garner respect because of their protection role. They are not allowed to have girlfriends until the age of 27 while they are in the army as it's considered too much of a distraction. We also find there are not many women who volunteer after their 2 years conscription, so it's a very male dominated environment.

Dennis also tells us a little more about the Hukou, or registration system, that controlled many aspects of Chinese life starting in 1949 and still partially enforced today. Basically each citizen had a red book called a Hakou and was registered through this to a specific area of China outside which they were never able to move. The book entitled the barer to receive coupons they could use to buy food from specified shops (a bit like ration books in the UK just after world war two) and acted as a means to prove a person's entitlement to live in a certain area. It restricted movement around the country and what school your child could attend. The restriction on movements became very divisive and created an underclass of rural workers unable to benefit from the economic and social advantages urban workers received. During the great famine years between 1958 and 1962 strict control of the Hukou by the government meant that as many as 30 million Chinese starved to death due to restrictions of movement, control of food supply and suppression of information - to avoid protest against the government's ideology. The Hukou and the district you'd been assigned to through this system could mean either life or death for your family. As the Hukou restrictions were relaxed during the 1990s people were, for example, able to choose a different school for their child (if they paid a supplement) or could put in a request to move districts (allowed if both districts signed the Hukou to say they agreed to the move). It was also recognised that the Hukou system was an impediment to commercial and economic success due to lack of skilled workers in certain areas and this is another reason the system has been less strictly enforced in more recent years.

After all this information it was time to get some sleep, secure in the knowledge that we were being protected by China's finest soldiers - even if they couldn't win in an arm wrestle against our Australian.


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