The new port to get to the Shibaozhai Pagoda, a popular Yangtze River excursion // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
The Yangtze River is not what it once was, but neither are the ships that sail it — that was the gist of my review of Century Cruises’ new ships, the Century Paragon and its now-released sister ship, the Century Legend. What I didn’t get to discuss in length was the other portion of the equation — the Yangtze River.
Because of the Three Gorges Dam, which is one of the largest, most powerful and most impressive hydroelectric projects in the world, water levels rose, farmland got submerged, farmers moved to become migrant workers in now even more populous cities and the Chinese government built new housing on higher lands along the river. The cruise, therefore, turned out to be a huge eye-opener in the differences between China and the U.S., as well as many other democracies.
In the U.S., a project with the types of extreme consequences (both good and bad) of the dam would have had an extremely hard, if not impossible, chance of getting passed through the various levels of state and federal government, affected by politics, private interests and their lobbyists and protestors. In China, the government dictated it happen and, after a few delays (due to cultural revolutions, wars and other distractions), it did — everything and everyone else be dammed/damned. At the ports, this is all apparent; few locals are around to greet passengers and, one after the other, buildings built for the evacuees stand empty. To some, one of the dam’s main purposes — to prevent disastrous flooding — has caused an irreversible deluge of the Yangtze River’s essence, altering the landscape and burying their way of life as well as many of their cultural and architectural artifacts. But the dam is the greatest project to be built in China after the Great Wall, and there is little denying its sophistication. No matter your beliefs on the controversial Three Gorges Dam, one thing is certain: sailing along the river is a journey into China’s psyche and the depths of its ambition.