Racing Rafts at the Three Gorges Dam – part 1/3

Posted by Kristen McDonald on Fri, 06/18/2010 - 05:01

Three Gorges Dance, Kara DiFrancescoThree Gorges Dance, Kara DiFrancescoA couple weeks ago in Kunming I received an invitation to attend a raft race at Jiuwanxi (Nine Bend Brook), a small tributary to the Yangtze about 20 km from the Three Gorges Dam site. In 2006 I had attended one other international raft race upstream on the Yangtze, at the industrial city of Panzhihua. That one involved paddling heavy military rafts down 70km of flatwater with pool-toy type paddles. This one sounded more interesting – a 7 km long, narrow, fast moving stream in a two-person raft. With my new study on rafting resources in eastern China taking off, it seemed like a great opportunity to see one of our potential case study locations and start making some connections. 

Three of us could attend – two paddlers and a manager. My co-researcher on the study, Duan Lian, wanted to paddle so he found a friend to make up a men’s team. Though novices, they were placed in the expert competition which also included professional paddlers from Australia, Norway, Hungary, and New Zealand. I was happy to be the “manager.” I figured I might still be able to try out the run in a more leisurely fashion, or I would have more time for chatting with folks on shore.

We arrived the day before the race via train, and were surprised to find the organizers were putting us up in the Three Gorges Project Hotel – a four star tower along a new strip of engineering buildings and military compounds, on the north bank downstream of the dam. It turns out the company that had owned the Jiuwanxi rafting operation sold it in 2004 to the Three Gorges Tourism Company. In addition to the rafting concession, the company takes people on big-bus tours to viewing areas near the dam, and a newly opened site: the former home of Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese poet remembered every year during Duanwujie, the Dragon Boat festival. The tour company was involved in relocating the residence from the reservoir inundation.

On our first day here I went for a run along the river and noticed immediately how calm and peaceful everything seemed, not like the noisy, dusty, in-progress dam sites upstream on the Jinsha that we see boating the Great Bend. The whole area is immaculately landscaped, there’s no trash around, and no people. The only people I saw were little specks on barges heading up the massive series of locks on the North bank of the river. I found myself wondering what this area had been before the dam – was I running on top of the demolished remains of farms and farm homes? Were there schools and shops, and lively streets along the river ten years ago?

I went back to relax in my comfortable room at the hotel, enjoyed a buffet dinner, and in the evening attended a brilliant propaganda dance performance. My favorite number involved scores of young men dressed as engineers – in hard hats and coveralls – performing acrobatic moves involving all sizes of metal rings on a stage set to look like a dam construction site – with gears, cranes, and rock cliffs. I also liked the “flood” scene, which portrayed despondent locals awash in a pre-dam Yangtze torrent, with flowing fabrics and a giant movie screen of rushing water. The final number had a flashy laser light show, young men in glow in the dark costumes, and young women in gauzy river goddess gear.

My co-researcher asked me after the show, “If you weren’t such an environmentalist, what would you think of the performance?” I said that even as a lover of nature, I was impressed with the show. The company obviously has the funds to manage its communications well, and had hired a talented artist to direct an effective, dramatic portrayal of the glory of the Three Gorges. The only part of the show I really had to criticize was the line, “See the river sturgeon’s glorious return!” That just seemed over the top wrong to me.

Yesterday, we checked out the scale model of the site the dam site and snapped pictures in the hazy heat from the tourist viewing areas. Someone pointed out a school of good-sized fish at the base of the dam, 185 meters below us. At first I thought the fish might be planted. They weren’t moving much. And we had just seen a vendor nearby selling realistic-looking muskrat toys that swirled about in a water bucket on battery power. But the fish were real, milling about in a kind of slow, tired, and depressed circle. They’d come so far and followed the dam outflow current to where, logically, there might have been a fish ladder. But instead, they had found a 2 kilometer long, 115 meter thick concrete wall.

I found myself thinking, hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent on the barge locks and a ship lift which will be done in 5 years. Whose idea was it to completely neglect the fish?