8/12/2010 9:49:08 PM EST
Not Entirely Legal - Part 26
Travel; Yangtze river; Wuhan; flooding; Sichuan River; Long River; shopping; return in thunderstorm
Posted by Malcolm Merry

Nor any a drop to drink

"Can we still go?" is our anxious question of the travel agent. The news from the mainland is of persistent rain and widespread flooding, houses washed away, dozens drowned, the Yangtze river at record levels, the Three Gorges Dam facing its biggest test yet. No problem, that area not affected, is the gist of the reply. And so in the evening we fly off to cruise along the great river and through the gorges, in the process taking in the dam and a little of the cities of Wuhan and Chongqing.

We see nothing of Wuhan except its airport, the usual new glass and steel thing, but with an elderly appendage which I take to be the original terminal and which seems to be the only part operating. Lightning illuminates the dark, flat landscape as the bus speeds along the four-lane tollway: water everywhere.

After four hours we are jerked awake as the driver pays the toll. Then we plunge along dark, narrow, twisting roads. Suddenly a steep downward slope and a glimpse of moon reflecting off wide water; through some gates; a bustle of activity, porters roused. There on the riverside is our five-storey floating hotel. It is one o’clock in the morning. Everything is damp.

Gorgeous Damming

We awake to throbbing engines and brown water pushing briskly past the balcony outside the cabin. At breakfast there is an air of excitement, for the boat will shortly reach the Three Gorges Dam.

I have it all wrong about the dam, imagining a strikingly tall, thin construction at the mouth of a narrow gorge. Instead it is low and long, nearly one-and-a- half miles across a wide bend in the river, and some distance downstream from the start (or end) of the gorges. The water is nowhere near the top. The dam has passed the test by simply letting the excess water through its spillway. The only evidence of flood is the immense amount of rubbish which has accumulated in the shallows at the side of the wall and which a small boat is busily sweeping up.

The guides bombard us with statistics about the project. More memorable are its purposes: to reduce flooding downstream, to improve navigation upstream and to provide hydro-electric power to all of China. It is the largest HEP project in the world, 28 turbines. Australia provided the advice and Germany the equipment. I must tell my sister, who is an alternative energy consultant.

Locked up and flooded out

Whatever the dam has done for navigation further up, it has of course impeded passage nearby. Shipping now has to go through one of two parallel lines of five locks, each large enough to take four big boats, carved like giant steps at the side of dam and traversing the bend in the river. This takes a good three hours.

Eventually we are released into the broad, deep waters that have accumulated behind the dam wall. Before long, the sides of the river close in and grow steep. Gauges on the cliff walls indicate the water surface to be about 159 metres above sea level, some way off the winter high of 175 metres at which the sluices will be opened. Below, we are assured, lie drowned villages, their former inhabitants now living in handsome new houses well above 175 metres or, consoled by generous compensation, in nearby cities.

On shore exclusion we pass close to a set of these new houses. They look well built but the upper floors appear empty. The explanation given is that farmers and fisherfolk prefer to live at ground level and anyway the compensation did not cover furniture. I wonder whether there was a right of appeal to a judicial tribunal.

Long river, many names

During the next few days we learn much about the gorges and the Yangtze. The river, third longest in the world, has many names. “Yangtze” properly applies only to the final stretch, from Nanking past Shanghai to the sea. The upper reaches (the gorges, despite being more than halfway down are regarded as in the upper reaches) are often called the Sichuan River. But most people just refer to it as the Long River, Chiang Jiang or (to the Cantonese) Cheung Kong.

In my school atlas long ago, the river was labelled something like Yangsikiang. That was the name my father insisted on, even after Chairman Mao took a well-publicised dip in it and we discovered that ‘kiang’ meant ‘river’. So it became the Yangtze but we still prononuced the last syllabal ‘see’. If you’re one of those who likes to ape the local pronunciation (I’m not), you should instead say something between ‘suh’ and ‘sir’.

Once through the gorges we look forward to arriving in what I still call Chungking, now challengingly Chongqing. It’s the former capital, more populous than any other Chinese metropolis. It’s known as the hilly city because it clings to the hills that embrace the river. It is also known as one of the four furnaces of China. Those hills form a basin that traps the heat.

But at Fungdu we are told the cruise can go no further. Heavy rain is forecast. The river is in flood above Chungking and will crest at just about our scheduled time of arrival. As a precaution, the authorities have forbidden all shipping.

So instead of chugging into Chungking we decamp at 7am to buses for a three-hour journey and a more prosaic arrival by road.

Mid-China morning

This turns out to be an unexpectedly delightful ride, at least for the first two hours before we reach the expressway. The bus takes a narrow, slow road that generally follows the line of the river, high above its banks. Mist hangs over the water, the still gentle sun illuminating all below. Occasionally we pass through a small town.

The result is a succession of snatches of everyday life in rural China on a high summer morning. A family at breakfast in their shophouse; a tethered dog panting in another shop; children at play; a woman perched on a stool in an alleyway, taking the air; farmers tilling their fields; ears of corn drying in yards and on rooftops.

Eventually we hit an expressway and the buildings become denser. We dive down to join jammed traffic crossing the swollen river. Above and around us is smog. We edge uphill to an enormous, ornate building: Chungking’s Hall of the People. When we get off we discover why they call the city a furnace. We stagger across the great paved square between the hall and the museum. A sign atop one of the buildings declares the temperature to be 39 degrees. It is 10.30 am.

After an hour in the air-conditioning looking at the display about the gorges and the wartime photos, we emerge to find the sign saying 42. The guide says it’s only an average, so as not to scare the tourists. I will never complain about Hong Kong summers again.

The bus takes us to a park to see a former residence of Chang Kai Shek. Actually it seems to be more of a pavilion at which he received dignitaries, including Mao, during the war. Chang had two other houses but, the guide explains, the people’s army exacted revenge upon them. Deng Shao Ping, later the boss in Chungking, insisted on preserving the house and garden. Inside it’s now a museum with antiques for sale; outside it’s a shady park for tai chi and newspaper reading.

The trouble is, the house is on a hillside and you have to walk up quite a way. Declining to be shown more antiques, we retreat to a park bench and wonder how people can live here and why it is not raining.

Market and weather report

In the afternoon we are taken to the old open-air market. You would find it quite charming if you did not have sweat pouring off your neck and down your back. An air-conditioned café is rumoured to be at the end of the main market passage. We find that end inundated by a branch of the river and have to turn back. I indulge in an ice cream. It melts before I can finish it.

Next stop is more shopping, at an indoor market. We can take no more and claim heat exhaustion as an excuse to take a taxi to the hotel. The tour guide says she will accompany us, leaving the group to the local guide. She says she wants to make sure we are safe but I suspect she too has had enough. The main threat to our safety turns out to be the driving of the taxi driver on the steep streets.

The hotel is a haven of calm and cold. To taitai’s delight there is a dinner buffet. To my delight it includes free Hilly City Lager. After dinner there is a sudden and violent storm. Is this the start of persistent heavy rain? Will it affect our return flight?

Slow return

Next day the clouds have been replaced by the familiar hot, hazy pall. We get to the airport early and wait in the cool. They allow us onto the plane but we sit on the tarmac for the best part of an hour. The runways at Hong Kong have been closed because of a black rainstorm and there is a backlog of aircraft.

We approach Chek Lap Kok amid flashes of lightning. Taitai is scared; I reassure her that a moving aircraft is one of the safest places in a thunderstorm. Well, I know a moving car is and reckon an aeroplane is similar.

We land without being struck and stop on the apron. Another long wait, this time for an available gate. Apparently we are number 16 in the queue. When we get a gate there is a delay before the doors are opened: the groundstaff had not expected us to be given a gate so quickly and were not ready. Ah, the pleasures of modern travel.

A few minutes later an aircraft that had just taken off is hit by lightning.


Malcolm Merry is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong and a Hong Kong barrister. He is the author of Hong Kong Tenancy Law (5th ed, LexisNexis 2010) and co-author (with Paul Kent) of Building Management in Hong Kong (2nd ed, LexisNexis 2008).

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