Cruising on the Yangtze to the Three Gorges Dam, China

The porter with our cases. (Photo credit Ann Burnett 2013)

The porter with our cases.(Photo credit Ann Burnett c 2013)

The Yangtze river was low, the ship tied up far below us at Chongqing docks and the funicular train down to it was broken. We were faced with a long flight of stairs lugging our suitcases, then across several gangplanks to our ship. What were we to do? Our guide, Susan, engaged a porter who, for 30 yuan (about $4) would carry our suitcases for us.

He was tiny and old and extremely strong. Hooking the suitcases to a pole across his shoulders, he set off at a cracking pace to the MS Yangzi Explorer.

The Three Gorges Dam Project

The Three Gorges Dam Project has a long history. Sun Yat-Sen proposed it in 1919, Mao wrote a poem about it in 1956 and in 1992, it was finally begun. Its stated aim was to improve the Yangtze’s main navigational channels and prevent flooding but it is also the world’s largest hydroelectric power project. It cost $59 billion, took 17 years and involved the relocation of 1.3 million people. It produces 22.5 gigawatts of power, enough for the needs of a country the size of Switzerland. 13 cities, 140 towns and over 1600 villages, as well as numerous factories and historical sites, were submerged by the rising waters.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • It’s a must-see if you visit China, showing the best and worst of the country.
  • It allows visitors a glimpse of how ordinary Chinese live and work.
  • Good for: those with an interest in China and its people.

It’s a busy river, full of contrasts. All day, barges laden with coal, cars, trucks and containers passed by our ship. Magnificent mountains cloaked in forests rose on either side, some topped by ancient temples. Factories along the banks belched thick black smoke while ugly new towns of concrete blocks sprawled across less hilly slopes. Stunning new bridges arched above us, providing transport links to the newly developed areas.

New bridges built to connect the new towns. (photo credit Ann Burnett 2013)

New bridges built to connect the new towns. (photo credit Ann Burnett c 2013)

Fengdu, a New Town

The ship docked that night at Fengdu, a new town built to rehouse some of the many people relocated from the submerged villages and farms. The following day, we visited a kindergarten, walked through the thriving market and were invited to visit Mrs Li in her new home. A group of us, Canadian, Scottish, English, Australian and Puerto Rican, sat round in her lounge and talked to her about her life and her home with the aid of an interpreter. They had been farmers but decided to give it up when they moved and were offered compensation. Her family had enough to build the house with a small general store on the ground floor, buy a truck and start a transport business.

Mrs Li in her new home (photo credit Ann Burnett c2013)

Mrs Li in her new home (photo credit Ann Burnett c2013)

Her home was spacious and clean and she shared it with her husband, son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren. There was a Chinese style bathroom but no heating as ‘the winters only got down to 5 degrees C.’ (40 degrees F.)

We suggested she ask us a question and she inquired if we  came from the same area as we all looked alike!

Then to a traditional style house. It had two small, dark rooms, a basic kitchen and a stall for the pigs. The lady there had refused to move to a new home with all facilities (apart from heating!) saying that the water from her well was purer than the tap water in towns. She was probably right as the Yangtze has become more polluted because of the many factories which were submerged.
We assumed that some payment had been made to them for our intrusion into their homes.

The Three Gorges Dam

Going through the locks at the dam. (Photo credit Ann Burnett c 2013)

Going through the locks at the dam. (Photo credit Ann Burnett c 2013)

We arrived at the Three Gorges Dam on the third evening. It is immense, rising 185 meters (about 600 feet) above sea level. We watched from the ship’s observation deck as the captain negotiated the first of the five locks, each lock dropping the ship 20 meters (over 60 feet).
The following morning we visited the dam itself and the visitor center. There has been a huge environmental impact with both the freshwater dolphin and the Chinese sturgeon now close to extinction.
Because the level of the water behind the dam now rises and falls regularly, landslides are frequent and some people face relocation yet again.

Despite the fact that we were standing alongside the largest hydroelectric generating station in the world, there was a blackout and the collection of stalls and small shops which had grown up around the site could not open as their tills and weighing machines would not work.

The Three Gorges Dam through morning haze (photo credit Ann Burnett c2013)

The Three Gorges Dam through morning haze (photo credit Ann Burnett c2013)

Somehow, for us, that summed up our visit!


There are many tour companies offering cruises on the Yangtze, some sailing downstream, others upstream. Accommodation varies from the rather basic with Chinese style toilets to very comfortable, with Western facilities. The ships dock at towns along the river and excursions are offered to various points of interest. Check if the tours are included in the price.

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