Our tour group left Shanghai after two days and flew to Wuhan, a place unknown to me and many others in 2017 and now a place the world will never forget. I was immediately impressed by this mega-city located inland to the west of Shanghai. During the ride into town from the airport, our guide told us that Wuhan is a major east-west and north-south travel center for China and a hub for international travel. He also shared that the city is an industrial, cultural, financial, educational, and research center. With a population of more than eleven million people, Wuhan is actually composed of three municipalities: Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang; and it is situated where the Han River empties into the Yangtze. Most agree Wuhan is the ideal place to begin a westward Yangtze River voyage through the Three Gorges Dam, the Three Gorges, and the Lesser Three Gorges; and it was the place we began ours.
Wuhan’s history dates back 3500 years. I always pause in respectful amazement every time I think of histories that span thousands of years and the knowledge embedded in those histories. Our American world is so very young in the big picture which makes our short journey and our accomplishments all the more impressive and improbable.
Before going to our river boat, we toured the Hubei Provincial Museum, which houses thousands of ancient cultural relics. Among the many treasures on display was a set of sixty-five chime bells from the tomb of Marquis Yi, King of the Zheng State during the Early Warring Period. The bells, from some 2400 years ago, have a range of five octaves with a twelve tone scale. Each bell has two tones, depending on where it is struck. We saw and heard a beautiful chime bell musical performance, accompanied and enhanced by graceful dancers.
Musicians and dancers were dressed in colorful, oriental costumes; and their collective performance filled the stage with life and heavenly music. The bells used in the performance were replicas of the original set of sixty-five. In the museum`s gift shop, I bought a miniature bell which I treasure and occasionally strike when I walk by the oriental secretary where it stands. I am magically transported to another time and place—before COVID—to the Wuhan I remember—a huge, busy city with kind, polite people—the place where our Yangtze River cruise began.
As I began to think about composing this piece, I wondered how I could write about the Yangtze River, how I could not only describe the physical qualities but also give life to the spirit that resides in, above, and below its waters. Clearly, the story of this famous river is not only about what is seen at the water level and above but it is also about what is buried below and forever lost in the area of the Three Gorges Dam—the homes, communities, towns, and farms that once were a vital part of China and now are no longer part of the visible world.
Perhaps a few basic, commonly known facts about the Yangtze and the Dam project would be the starting point. The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world, after the Nile in Africa and the Amazon in South America. It is the longest river in Asia, crossing the entire width of China, with its beginning in the Tanggula Mountains of the Tibetan Plateau and its ending in the South China Sea as it flows from Shanghai.
In 1994, China began a massive Yangtze River project called the Three Gorges Dam, which was completed in 2006. This dam endeavor created the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world. A lock was built on each side of the dam, with each lock having five steps for raising and lowering ships, and, thereby, allowing large and small vessels to transit the dam. The large reservoir of water resulting from the project produced a safe, deep water navigation passage for vessels going to and from the interior city of Chongqing, once a treacherous journey filled with whirlpools, rocks, and varying water levels. The dam also has controlled deadly flooding which was an ongoing problem.
Some would ask, “But at what price?”
In the process of building the dam, large areas of the Three Gorges were submerged. Some 1.3 million people were displaced from their homesites. When possible, some moved up to higher ground. Others moved away and began anew, often with significant difficulty. More than 1500 cities, towns, and villages with all of their incumbent histories were buried forever.
The pros and cons of this massive project will be debated long into the future; and, ultimately, as with all things, history will be the judge. For now, we can say with certainty that it produced irreversible changes in that part of the world and, perhaps, beyond.
Our river barge was waiting for us, and we entered another world when we boarded the Viking Emerald in Wuhan. The five story atrium was surrounded by five decks of exquisite decor, creating an elegant, oriental ambience. One deck was a shopper’s paradise; and my roommate Gena and I spent time and money there watching artists paint snuff and perfume bottles; looking at exquisite fabrics that overnight could be made into clothes of your choice; and admiring purses, scarves, jewelry, framed paintings, and hand painted fans.
Another deck included an exercise area; a spa; and the office of a Chinese physician, trained in oriental medicine, who gave a thought provoking lecture on herbal cures, how to maintain a state of good health, and acupuncture. He also demonstrated his remarkable daily oriental exercise regime. He was lean, agile, and the picture of health. I gave some thought to an acupuncture session with him, but my American nursing background persuaded me to say, “Another time, another place.” The top deck provided an inside bar and entertainment space combined with an outdoor observation area. Our needs and wishes were met by smiling, courteous staff who were intent on providing an enjoyable and meaningful learning experience.
As evening faded into night, we saw the Wuhan skyline become a multicolored light show as the skyscrapers turned into silhouettes of many colors. My photographs provide fond reminders of those beautiful scenes as we sailed away into the dark. No one could have predicted that this vibrant city, in two and a half years, would become a place known throughout the world for its role in a pandemic called Covid.
We woke up to a gentle, steady passage in the waters of the Yangtze. The river’s clay color reminded me of home and “our” muddy Mississippi River—so far away. On that first morning, the sun shone brightly; and all seemed well with the world.
Steep mountains cliffs on both sides of the river framed our views and looked like scenes frequently captured in oriental paintings. Before beginning this trip, I had preconceived ideas that scenery on the river would be filled with tall, steep peaks shrouded in misty clouds; and it was, some of the time. But it was so much more. We also saw far distant roadways high up on the mountainsides; pedestrian walkways hugging the mountains and, in some places, providing bridges in the air for humans to use in crossing crevices; Chinese characters carved in rocky surfaces; waterfalls; and farm lands high above the water level with livestock and active homesites.
An excursion in a small junk boat took us into the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze, to see the Lesser Three Gorges and view the spectacular scenery in these smaller gorges. Mountain goats seemed to defy gravity as they grazed on grass and walked with sure-footed ease on the almost perpendicular hillsides. High up on the rocky cliffs we saw some of the places where hanging coffins once were. It seemed impossible that humans could have conquered the steep cliffs, from above or below, carrying coffins to those burial sites. The hows and whys of hanging coffins remain a mystery.
Later, our Viking boat-home stopped at the site of the Shibaozhai Temple, situated high on a hill that bordered the river. We felt the intense summer heat as we walked up a steep incline to the village where tall trees provided shade, a welcome reprieve from the sun and the heat of midday. The original old village of Shibaozhai was flooded by the Yangtze when the Three Gorges Dam project became operational.
The new town we visited was built in 1996 and had a population of approximately 10,000. The main street was lined with vendors selling works of art and clothing. We saw several older men dressed in Mao jackets; one was sweeping the street with a handmade broom and talking to no one. We passed a two-story building with clothes hanging from open windows. We were told it was the hospital. I thought of our American health care system—flawed in some ways, but still the best in the world— and I felt deep gratitude for it, for the privilege I had of being a part of it for twenty-eight years, and for the knowledge that remains with me today.
I communicated in sign language with one little lady who was squatting behind her “For Sale” vegetables displayed in baskets. I pointed to my camera and to her—hoping she would know I was asking permission to take her picture. She understood, shaking her head and, thereby, showing me an unequivocal “No.” I later learned that some people fear the camera, believing it takes away “life energy” when it creates an image. I must admit I gave pause to that thought.
Our long walk through town ended at the Shibaozhai Temple, a twelve-story red pagoda built during the Ming Dynasty. The high location of the Temple protected it from any water damage from the dam project. We walked across a long swinging bridge to reach the temple grounds for a closeup view of the magnificent structure constructed without using a single iron nail. It appeared to be built into and a part of the huge rock that framed it, but it actually was free-standing.
We disembarked in Chongqing on this westward part of our journey. It was a moment of shock and fear as I realized we were rafted to another barge. Our boat was on the outside which meant we walked through the connecting boat to get to shore. At least that is what I thought would happen. Upon exiting the second boat—with rolling carry-on, tote bag, sacks of souvenirs, and my hat—I realized both vessels were still out in the flowing Yangtze, far from shore. Getting from the second boat to the sea wall meant stepping onto a flexible surface supported by floating barrels bobbing up and down in the Yangtze and, somehow, walking to the land. There were no hand rails and nothing resembling a guard rail, but I had no free hands anyway. It would truly be a rocking, rolling, bouncing, experience. I fully expected to fall on my face or into the river. But there are angels everywhere, and God sent one to help me.
A man appeared with a shoulder pole from which two large buckets were hanging. He put some of my belongings in the buckets, took my rolling case with one hand, and gave me his other hand to hold as we bobbled across the “walkway on water,” and then we climbed the steep concrete steps to street level where our bus waited. I later learned these men are called bang bangs. They are some of the people who were displaced when the dam became operational, and the subsequent high water flooded their homes. They now make a living by hauling loads and serving as porters. I will never forget my God-given bang bang angel.
My acquaintance roommate, Gena Smith, was fast becoming my cherished travel companion. This attractive retired Delta airlines stewardess, who spent her last years with Delta in the corporate office, was smart, fun, and easygoing. We both felt that God had blessed us by having our paths cross at just the right moment during a happy hour months earlier in North Carolina.
Some might say it was coincidental that Gena, who had always wanted to make a trip to China, just happened to be standing behind me in a sea of people and overheard me say I wanted to go to China but couldn`t find a travel mate. She and I had met in Bible study but had never spent any time together. We both knew that God controls circumstances and there are no coincidences with Him. We thanked Him daily for the gift of our journey and our friendship. He blessed us mightily.
That was 2017. Before Covid.