Friday, August 15, 2008

China Part 4: Gorgeous Gorges

One thing that becomes clear while in China is that the Chinese government loves exhibiting its power and determination through projects of enormous scale. The Beijing Olympics is a great example: think of the Bird's Nest, or the spectacular opening ceremony. What seems impossible (or at least very improbable) becomes possible at the hands of 1.3 billion people and a determined national government. Sometimes it seems like even nature can't stand in China's way.

Perhaps no other project makes this more apparent than the Three Gorges Dam. When I was in Brazil visiting the Itaipu Dam (currently the largest hydroelectric plant in operation), I was given a handout that compared Itaipu's size to other hydroelectric plants. The comparison was almost comical--the sheer size and output of Itaipu unquestionably justified its status as one of the greatest feats of modern engineering. But there was one other hydroelectric plant mentioned in the handout that outdid Itaipu on almost every statistic: Three Gorges.

The Three Gorges Dam on China's Yangtze River ( will be the largest hydroelectric plant in the world upon its completion in 2011. At almost 1.5 miles long, the Three Gorges Dam will have 34 generators, and is expected to produce 3% of China's electrical consumption.

Being in the area and having already seen the colossal Itaipu Dam, I knew I had to see the Three Gorges Dam in person. Fortunately, Fang had already made the necessary contacts and reservations by the time we began traveling together, so that there were two spots reserved for us on a boat that traveled down the Yangtze River, all the way to the Three Gorges Dam. The trip took three nights and two days, from Chongqing to Yichang. I've marked the route between the two cities on this map in red (we traveled the section from Yichang to Wuhan by bus):

Our boat departed from Chongqing, a city of about 4 million that became industrialized during World War II. Today the city seems incredibly modern, its citizens sometimes comparing it to Shanghai. At night, Chongqing is literally glowing with neon--highways are lined with neon lights that transform from one color to another, while skyscrapers exhibit profiles of more famous buildings from around the world (such as the Eiffel Tower) on their facades.

Fang and me in front of the Great Hall of the People:

Of course, there was always time for me to enjoy my favorite drink, milk tea:

And time to enjoy the sometimes bizarre designer clothing advertisements, like this one for "Prich: Pride and Rich":

Fang had arranged for the aunt and uncle of a friend to show us around Chongqing. It turns out that the uncle is also a police officer in the city. They took it upon themselves to show us their city, introduce us to the best restaurants, and supply us with food for our trip. They even insisted on buying our boat tickets. They gave new meaning to what it means to be hospitable.

Our host took us to Chongqing's "old city," where he bargained for seafood snacks that we could take on our journey:

In the old city, this man was selling sculptures made of some sort of molasses:

Much of the old city consists of tiny shops and restaurants lining busy pedestrian walkways:

An undeniable highlight of Chongqing is hotpot. Chongqing shares the reputation for having spicy, tasty food that its provincial neighbor, Sichuan, bears. Hotpot consists of a large bowl of boiling water and spices, into which you dip vegetables and pieces of raw meat until they are cooked. Unlike the burning sensation one feels while eating, say, a jalapeƱo, I found that the peppers used in Sichuan hotpot made my mouth entirely numb. Weird sensation, delicious food.

Fang eyeing hotpot:

After boarding our boat, Fang and I decided to spend most of our time on the patio, where we could enjoy views of the passing towns, construction projects, and, of course, the gorges. Occasionally we passed markers that read "175m," denoting the 175 meter point at which the water will rise upon the dam's completion in 2011:

While Fang and I took the more leisurely boat, there are also futuristic-looking hydrofoils that cut the trip down from three days to a mere eleven hours:

Our boat actually got to the Three Gorges toward the end of the trip. Each gorge has a slightly different look and feel due to the height of surrounding cliffs and the length of the gorge itself. Fang and me among the gorges:

One of the gorges:

Other travelers enjoying the dramatic views:

We had a chance to do a short side-trip to an area called "Little Three Gorges." Part of the trip took place in a little motor boat, with this animated guy as our guide:

In the United States, the Three Gorges Dam finds its way into the news not only due to its sheer size, but also due to the controversy surrounding it. 1.4 million residents have been relocated as the river's waters rise to the 175 meter mark, contributing to the vast migration of Chinese citizens from the countryside to the cities. This process of migration has been dramatized, and is now performed on stage at one of the towns on the river's edge. This photo is of one scene in the drama, in which an elderly man, with the assistance of government officials, leaves the home he has known for many years:

On the final day of our boat trip, we arrived at the Three Gorges Dam. This model represents the dam:

Not understanding the tour guide's explanation at the model, I decided to start flipping through some books in the bookstore. I found this characteristic enthusiasm for the dam in the foreword of one of the books:

Of course, with so much construction going on this can be a very dangerous area, so there is no crowdingin allowed:

A view of the Three Gorges Dam with a monument dedicated to it:

Some views of the dam:

Coming up next: the solo journey begins again, speaking Chinese becomes a necessity, and I move in with a family.

Monday, August 11, 2008

China Part 3: Daggers, May Day, and Women on Logs

After spending time wandering around the "Dragon's Backbone" rice terraces around Longsheng and Ping An, Fang and I traveled by bus through several ethnic minority villages, including Zhaoxing, Basha, and Xijiang. We ended this leg of our trip in the city of Guiyang. I've charted our route from Longsheng to Guiyang on this map:

At the bus station, on the way to the small village of Zhaoxing, I discovered hundreds of ducklings waiting to be transported, and a girl entertaining herself with them:

Resting among hills, Zhaoxing is a collection of wooden buildings that serve as homes and small shops and restaurants. Like Ping An, Zhaoxing is home to one of China's many ethnic minorities.

Zhaoxing during the day:

Locals doing their laundry in the stream that runs through the village:

Also like Ping An, the hills surrounding Zhaoxing have been used for generations for rice cultivation. While Ping An's terraces seemed to be similar in color, Zhaoxing's ranged from deep red to orange, brown, and green.

Zhaoxing takes on a different feel at night, when orange and red lights illuminate the village:

Following Zhaoxing, Fang and I traveled to the tiny village of Basha. While Basha is known as being home to yet another of China's ethnic minorities, it stands apart from other villages. This fact is immediately apparent in the way locals dress: males, for example, carry daggers strapped to their backs, and keep their hair in top knots. Basha's clothing is usually characterized by a deep, shiny indigo color, shiny because it is covered in eggs whites that are believed to serve as a mosquito repellent. Many of the traditions in Basha have persisted for centuries, strangely unaffected by globalization or tourism.

Local girls having popsicles:

A boy and his dad:

Working on a gun:

For the May Day festivities, Fang and I traveled to Xijiang, another ethnic minority village. The place was completely alive with activities, from dancing and singing to constructing new buildings and slaughtering pigs.

Construction workers on May Day:

Female dancers preparing for their performance:

Dresses for sale in the town center:

The local specialty: stewed fish. The man in this picture found out that I was interested in trying the fish, which was only served in enormous family portions. As a result, he invited Fang and me to share lunch with him and his family. The fish definitely deserves its reputation--it was great.

A common view in Xijiang: hanging corn

May Day performances:

Sometimes I became a bigger spectacle than the performance itself:

After hopping among ethnic minority villages, it was time for Fang and me to begin making our way to our boat that would take us on a cruise of the Three Gorges. En route to our boat, we stopped by the city of Guiyang, where we stayed with a wonderful host named Shirley, and her boyfriend, Charles. Shirley and Charles immediately invited us to join them and their family at a lakeside resort, where we flew remote control planes and helicopters, went swimming and kayaking, and did some skeet shooting. People had told me before I arrived in China, but now I know firsthand just how incredible Chinese hospitality is.

Charles with his RC helicopter:

Fang, Shirley, and helicopter:

Our little group posing with the RC plane:

The whole family and friends:

My first time shooting:

Going to dinner in Guiyang's night market was way more entertaining than we were expecting, thanks to the government-mandated English menus:

Fortunately, we found a great place that served paper thin tortilla-like objects that you stuffed and tried to eat in one bite:

One morning, while walking to breakfast, Fang, Shirley, and I ran into a large crowd of spectators on a bridge. We soon found the object of interest: a large woman performing aerobic exercises on a log floating on the river:

She noticed me and my camera, and began posing (not that she wasn't photogenic before):

Guiyang's Super Wal-Mart, entirely underground:

A large group of locals selling and trading carrier pigeons:

Next time: floating down the Yangtze, to the world's largest dam.