The Dead River Dolphin
Most people seem to operate under the assumption that the Three Gorges was a better place to visit before the dam was built. Turns out they’re absolutely right. But I have a sort of sick curiosity. I wanted to see the destruction, the watery grave hiding a hundred towns and countless roads, KFCs, and dead river dolphins beneath its silent, glassy green sheen.
I’d taken a bus from Wuhan to Yichang, where I could hop on a three-day scenic boat ride through The Three Gorges to Chongqing. The city of Yichang is just downstream of the dam. If the dam were to burst – due to say, the fact that it was built on two major geological fault lines or because of alleged corruption-caused shoddy construction, the entire city and its population of one million would be obliterated in minutes. But for now, the dam is bringing Yichang nothing but prosperity and neon lights. Luxury condo communities are sprouting up along the riverfront, bearing strange English names like “Glory of the Land,” or “Hongqiao International Airport.”
To get to the boats, we’d driven up to the dam late at night. 600 feet up, to be exact – this is how much the dam has raised the water level along the 400 miles of reservoir behind it. We get there and all I can see is a row of bright white floodlights above a thin concrete line extending into a dark void. I get on the boat and head out to the deck to watch us set off. Its pitch dark out, and I can barely make out the metal bow silently cutting through the black water, the only sound is the airplane like hum of the boat engine. All around us are the lights of other boats: little passenger vessels like ours, and a few massive luxury cruise ships with walls of lights lit up like glowing Tetris games. As I stare across the water, seeing the vague shadows of cliffs in the distance, it hits me that this is the Yangze river – transformed to an inland ocean. I actually get dizzy, some strange sense of vertigo like we’re cruising through the middle of the sky and could fall crashing to the earth at any moment.
I go back to my room and climb into bed, realizing now why the passenger boat is so much cheaper than the tour boat. Stuffing is poking out of holes in the mattress, the pillow has a brown ring of dirt on it, the door to the bathroom doesn’t lock and keeps swinging open and banging shut. The boat is old. It has strange carpets, and even stranger carpet stains. The general effect is certainly not taking away at all from the Avatar meets The Shining feel of this strange ocean floating in the sky.
“You want some seeds?” My bunkmate thrusts a paper bag towards me. He’s hunched over a briefcase on his lap, crunching through sunflower seeds while watching static on the fuzzy TV perched in the two-foot gap between our beds. “You should be careful,” he adds, after asking incredulously if I was traveling alone. “There are a lot of bad people on boats like this.” Bad people? I wonder. What, like pirates? I fall asleep and have a dream that I had jumped off the boat and had gotten attacked by an injured shark. I’d just used my superhuman powers to rip the shark’s jaw off when I woke up with a start. I lay there, thinking about the dream – me using superhuman strength to destroy one of nature’s most powerful creations. I hadn’t wanted to kill the shark – but when it came down to it – just like the people who had built this dam – I had chosen team human. I could hear my bunkmate below me, furiously eating seeds in the dark, chewing noisily and throwing the shells on the floor. I rolled over and went back to sleep.
That morning I discovered my food bag had been pillaged. Almost an entire tea egg, half a mantou, almost all my sunflower seeds, an inquisitive gnaw at my raw sugar cane stick. Either my bunkmate is a real jerk, or we weren’t alone last night. We’d been joined by a rat, a carefree, swashbuckling Yangze River Rat named Peevus, who runs from room to room each night wearing a felt pirate’s hat, a cutlass swinging easily from his hip. Or at least this is how I’ve pictured him to try and make myself less murderously angry at having been left snackless. You might think that an egg, a bread roll, and a half kilo of sunflower seeds is a large meal for a rat, but not Peevus. He is the size of a beaver. I hopped off the boat at 7am in Wushan for the tour of the Small Three Gorges, an hour-long side trip Yuyan had said was the only part of the river still worth seeing. “They’re incredibly beautiful,” my bunkmate tells me as we pull into shore. “But they’re underwater now, you can’t see them anymore.” He pauses for a moment, and then asks hesitantly, “Didn’t you know they were underwater?”
Truth is, I had no idea just how underwater the gorges were. They really filled these suckers straight to the brim. Everyone else on the little tour boat is oooing and aahing, not so much at the gorges, but at the reservoir. Our boat floats past the tips of once imposing cliffs and a few houses marooned on tiny islands in a giant reservoir. I hadn’t realized what a hippie I am, and how much it would hurt my little hippie heart to see this. Or how isolated it would make me feel to watch people celebrate it. It’s not like we’re different, me and the other people on this boat. It’s just that we’ve been told different truths. What I’ve been told is what the foreign media has said about the dam, things that are not known by most of the public in China.
That the stagnant reservoir is turning into a giant septic tank causing widespread outbreaks of waterborne illnesses. That the water flooded into the loose riverside soil is causing massive landslides in the area. That many of the 1.2 million relocated people are still trying to rebuild their lives, and some were given as little as $7 a month compensation for having to move. That building a dam on two major fault lines could result in devastating earthquakes in the area, and that there is speculation that the Sichuan earthquake was actually caused by a nearby dam much smaller than this one. That there is no efficient way to distribute 16 nuclear power plants’ worth of energy over an area spanning from Chongqing to Shanghai. That the Yangze’s water flow has been depleted by 50%, causing widespread drought and water shortages downstream of the dam. That huge damage is being done to the ecosystem here, including the extinction of the Yangze fresh water river dolphin. That the dam cost $24 billion dollars, and $3.2 billion is being spent to clean up the toxic water in the reservoir, and another $1.6 billion to fortify landslide prone areas.
In China, except for the landslides, these are secrets. There is one important fact that all the other people on this boat do know: that the Yangze River’s floods are notoriously deadly, and have taken over 1 million lives in the last hundred years. Now, the river will never flood again. Never mind that a series of several dams built at different places on the river would have been a much safer, albeit less dramatic, solution to this problem. This fact is not broadcast. I’d had a conversation with Yuyan about the dam, since she had just visited it before she got to Wuhan. She’d heard nothing outwardly critical of the dam before – she’d known about the landslides, but had never heard of the dam receiving international criticism of any sort. One of the things I mentioned to her was that people were accusing the Chinese government of building the dam for the bragging rights to the biggest construction project in China since the Great Wall, and the biggest “clean energy” project in the world. Shed told me later she had put up a post on a microblog site about our conversation, saying that her foreign friend had said China had built the dam to give itself face. When she checked back hours later, her post was gone.
When Chinese people look at the dam, at the hidden gorges, they see accomplishment, new ground, a sign of china’s formidable power to conquer anything. I see a China that ruins everything. I decide to wait for the cleaner, bigger slow boat for the rest of the way up to Chongqing, because lets face it: My name is Mary, and if I want to roll on a river with pride, I better do it in style or just piss on my entire collection of Creedence albums right there. When my boat arrives, I’m thrilled. 4 levels, clean floors, a semblance of sanitation. I head to the outdoor top deck, which is covered in plastic lawn chairs and tourists playing cards and sipping tea. The entire deck is covered in a solid carpet of sunflower and peanut shells, like a floating Peevus playground.
I slide into a lawn chair, kick my legs onto the railing and feel the smooth, green water slide beneath me. Not too shabby. It’s a tour boat though, which of course means a woman with a megaphone is standing on deck pointing and yelling – “HEY THAT ROCK LOOKS LIKE PIGSY FROM JOURNEY TO THE WEST HEY THAT ROCK IS SUPER SPECIAL TOO CHECK IT OUT AND HEY WE ARE NOW ENTERING QUTANG GORGE, THE MOST IMPOSING OF THE THREE, THIS IS A WONDERFUL PLACE TO FIGHT LIKE SEAGULLS FOR A PHOTO POSITION IN FRONT OF THE FLAG” -, I look around, but don’t really see much in the way of gorges. The cliffs look like giant seals curiously peeking their heads above the water.
I wake up the next morning to the sound of soft elevator jazz filtering in through the sound system. It’s still dark out. The music grows louder and louder, until at 7am, it’s blaring in my ear, and the PA comes on: “Attention guests,” a voice declares. “It’s breakfast time. Breakfast is being served in the dining hall on the second floor.” The voice says this 12 times in a row, then lets us hear another elevator song, then gives us the announcement 12 more times. Until 8am. It’s like they installed wheelchair ramps for people with no short-term memory.
By this time I’m up on the upper deck, dejectedly substituting powdered chocolate milk tea for coffee, watching the grey green landscape pass by as the boat plows on through the stagnant water. We pull into port at around 8.30. We’re at some tourist sight and poof, the boat is empty. We sit docked with the engine running, gas fumes swirling the upper deck. For 3 hours. The gas fumes begin to detract heavily from my lazy scenic voyage.
At 11 the boat pulls out again. The scenery begins to change from rolling wooded hills to terraced rice fields melting into the water. It really is nice, in a nature perilously enslaved by humanity kind of way. At two o’clock the boat pulls into port again. “How long this time?” “Another 3 hours,” Says a woman sweeping nutshells in black stilettos. Ok. I’m done. This is not my Mark Train straw hat barefoot a whittlin’ a fishin’ rod riverboat fantasy. Instead it is my Chinese tourist trap hell. She tells me I can catch a ferry across the river, where I can get a 3 hour bus to Chongqing. So I disemboat, or whatever it’s called, throwing a leftover mantou into the engine room for Peevus on my way out.