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The Three Gorges

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The Yangtze1River is the largest and longest in China. Indeed, at 6,400km it is the third longest river in the world2. It is known, perhaps unsurprisingly, as Chang Jiang (Long River) in Chinese, and flows from the highlands of Tibet in the west right through the heart of the country, eventually draining into the East China Sea at Shanghai in the east. Its 700 tributaries pass through some of the most fertile territory in the world, and it has for millennia been a major trade route.

As the river passes from Fengjie in Chongqing Province to Yichang in Hubei Province, it has carved three magnificent valleys, universally referred to as the Three Gorges, in the Daba Mountains. In 1982, the Three Gorges were included among the first list of National Scenic Spots by the Chinese government, and three years later were officially declared to be among the country's top ten Scenic Spots.

Geologically, the gorges are formed by erosion, giving a type of landscape known as karst. They run through the limestone Sichuan and Bamian Mountain folded zones. The underlying metamorphic rocks are thought to be 3.2 billion years old, making them among the oldest in the world, and the stratigraphic layers above are unusually complete in places. The area is now a geological park.

The climate is subtropical moist monsoon3, and local fauna include rare species such as golden monkeys and tigers.

Nowadays, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam Project has raised the water level significantly through most of the Three Gorges area. Commercial river traffic remains very dense, with covered wood-and-tarpaulin fishing boats sharing the waterway with cruise liners, rickety hydrofoil shuttles and immense transporters carrying lorries or coal.

The First Gorge, Qutang ('Koo-tang')

The gorges are numbered starting with the furthest upstream. Qutang, the first gorge, is widely regarded as the most spectacular and is also the shortest at around eight kilometres long. The approach on the way downstream is by far the most impressive, as the river disappears through a cleft in a vertical cliff face4.

Baidicheng5 marks the entrance to the gorge. This temple complex once stood on a hill, but is now an island due to the rise in water levels from the dam project. The view from atop the hill of the sheer walls of the first gorge is so impressive that it features on the reverse of the ten yuan banknote.

Qutang has suffered particularly from the rise in water level. Several examples of cliff face calligraphy6 such as Baihe Ridge have been totally submerged, as has much of the ancient plank road carved into the cliffside along the length of the gorge.

Several hanging coffins can still be seen in this gorge. These were ancient internments: wooden boxes wedged into inaccessible crevices high above the river.

The Second Gorge, Wuxia ('Woo-hia')

At 45km long, the second gorge is noted for its rock formations, including the 12 peaks7. Some of these formations are given poetic names according to the shapes seen in them by imaginative locals, such as 'Rhino looking at the Moon'. Wuxia is traditionally regarded as the most aesthetically pleasing of the gorges.

The Third Gorge, Xiling ('She-ling')

The last and longest gorge, Xiling is 66km long and often divided into four sub-gorges: Precious Sword, Horse Lung and Ox Liver, Soundless Bell, and Shadow Play Gorges. The lower half is beyond the dam project and therefore much as it was historically8. Prior to the construction of the dam, Xiling was noted for its rocky rapids. These are now submerged, making the river more easily navigable.

The 'Little Three Gorges'

One of the tributaries of the Yangtze, the Daning River9, also flows through some picturesque canyons (called Longmen, Bawu and Dicui), and is often included as a side-trip by cruises. Trackers known as the Tujia live here. Their primary claim to fame is their ability to haul flat-bottomed boats over the rocky river-bed against the flow of the rapids. Until the mid 20th Century, due to the chafing caused by waterlogged natural fibres, they performed this in the nude. They still drag boats by hand, but now wear clothes and transport only tourists on short loops up and down the river.

The Three Gorges Dam Project

The idea of damming the Yangtze dates back at least as far as Sun Yatsen10 in 1919. In 1992, the Chinese government announced the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam project across the Yellow Cat Gorge, part of the third gorge. The statistics and figures underline just what a massive undertaking this was, and how successful it has been from a technological point of view.

The Impressive Engineering

This ambitious project was to cost 70 billion US dollars and produce 10% of the country's total electricity requirement. It would form a lake over 600km long and more than of 600km2 in area, with an overall volume of some 40 billion cubic metres; water levels would typically rise by between 75 and 100m, though this figure is hard to measure due to changes in the water level caused by the seasons. 1.3 million residents would be displaced. To re-house them, 13 cities would be built higher up the river-banks, along with literally thousands of smaller towns and villages.

The dam itself is 186 metres tall, over two kilometres wide, and will contain 26 generators when complete, producing an estimated 18.2 GW of electricity. It incorporates a five-step lock, and at the time of writing an elevator for smaller vessels is under construction. Overall, it is among the largest man-made structures ever built, dwarfing the Great Pyramid in terms of volume and producing nearly double the power of the next-largest dam, Itaipu in South America. The Three Gorges Dam was completed in 2006, two years ahead of schedule and a billion dollars under budget. Only the express boat lift remains incomplete at the date of writing; this is behind schedule after it was discovered that the original design was unfit for purpose.

In addition to the non-polluting power generated, the dam will also prevent the Yangtze from flooding. During the 20th Century, nearly a million people lost their lives in flooding in the Yangtze Valley.

During the construction of the dam, the Yangtze River was closed for the first time in history.

The Depressing Consequences

There was controversy as soon as the project was announced; environmental groups claimed that irreversible damage would be caused by erosion of the landscape and by the blocking of migratory routes along the Yangtze. Even below the dam, the reduction in water level has led to an increase in landslides. Many of the official government statistics are disputed, with some claiming that as many as four million people may have been relocated, and that costs were significantly higher than officially given.

Many of the dire environmental predictions have been fulfilled. The government of China has recently declared erosion to be a major problem, and the generators are producing a lower percentage of the country's electricity supply than originally hoped (though this may be due to increased demand nationwide, rather than lower than expected production). Pollution is also a serious issue, with factory waste and animal corpses both being submerged by a river used for drinking water.

The reduced flow-rate of the river has led to increased silting in upstream ports and a reduction of deposition in the delta. The dam has also had an impact on populations of Chinese sturgeon, which was already in catastrophic decline due to habitat loss and pollution. It has interfered with the sturgeon's traditional migration routes and, despite the Chinese Government's efforts in providing artificial breeding grounds below it, the dam may spell the end for this 140 million year-old species.

As anticipated, the flooding of the gorges has caused the submerging of several features of archaeological note. The region remains on the shortlist to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but has not to date been awarded that status.

1Or Yangzi.2Or the fourth longest, if the Mississippi/Missouri system is counted as a single river.3Meaning it's usually misty.4Formed by Chijia and Baiyan Mountains, one either side of the river.5'White Emperor City'.6A sort of artistically acceptable graffiti.7These are the 12 mountains along this section of the Yangtze that are over 1,000 metres tall. Many legends surround them - most famously that Goddess Peak is the petrified remains of an actual deity who guards river travellers to this day.8Although there is another, smaller dam further downstream at Gezhouba which has raised water levels slightly even here.9Or Xiao Sanxia.10Often regarded as the founder of modern China.

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