Three Gorges: A River Runs Through It, for Better or Worse

The East King can hold 192 passengers in cabins with large windows, comfortable beds and decent-size bathrooms.
The East King can hold 192 passengers in cabins with large windows, comfortable beds and decent-size bathrooms. (Photos By Mary Beth Sheridan -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

China has done its best to ruin the scenery on the Yangtze River.

Smog blots the sun. Factories dot the shores. And the construction of a giant dam has flooded the Three Gorges, the famed river passage through towering limestone and sandstone cliffs.

And yet, one afternoon this past spring, a friend and I were staring in quiet wonder from a cruise ship sailing up the Yangtze. We were in a world of green, gliding past cliffs covered in rain-slicked trees and bamboo bushes. Slender waterfalls churned into the jade-colored river.

"It is really beautiful. I can only imagine what it would be like on a clear, blue-sky day," said my friend, Maria Ines. "But even like this, it's magical."

Tour operators urged people to cruise the Yangtze before 2003, when the massive Three Gorges Dam plugged China's largest river. That created a reservoir expected to gradually fill over six years, driving up river levels more than 350 feet. Many people feared the ruin of one of China's iconic landscapes.

By the time we arrived at the Yangtze this past May, about three-quarters of the flooding had occurred. More than 1,000 towns and hamlets had been submerged.

And yet, the Three Gorges were still stunning.

"Of course it's disappointing" that so many villages are gone, said Raynor Shaw, a geologist and author of "Three Gorges of the Yangtze River." But, he noted, with the mountains soaring over 3,000 feet, the rise in water isn't enough to destroy the natural grandeur.

"In terms of the scenery, it's still a gorgeous place," he said.

The Yangtze is no typical cruise experience. The river offers a panorama of beauty and ugliness, old China and new. We'd float through bucolic terraced farmlands, only to round a bend and confront 30-story office towers wrapped in gauzy haze.

Even choosing a cruise line was an adventure. Wary of the creaky, rat-infested tubs that some tourists have encountered in past years, we selected the Orient Royal line. The Chinese-run line was a little pricey, at nearly $800 per person for the four-night cruise from Yichang to Chongqing. But the firm boasted of a roster of rich American clients.

"Why not choose what Bill Gates chose," its Web site proclaimed.

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