Viking’s Imperial Jewels of China Diary – Days 9 and 10

The Three Gorges Dam

Cruise Adviser’s Joe Mofrad is currently on a FAM trip with agents on Viking River Cruises’ Imperial Jewels of China cruise. He’ll be sharing his thoughts and experiences over the 13-day trip in this online diary. 

Follow his adventures in the Far East here and on Twitter and Facebook.

So far Joe has seen BeijingThe Great Wall, the ancient capital of Xi’an and Chongqing. Now, it’s time to take to the Yangtze…

Days 9 and 10 

It’s the morning of the ninth day on our FAM trip of Viking’s Imperial Jewels of China river cruise, and it’s our third day on the ship. Together with the agents we’re travelling with, we’ve tried out as much of the ship’s pleasures as we can fit into our days: Qigong massages, cocktail parties, live music, Chinese tea ceremonies, informative talks, and even some morning Tai Chi lessons with the onboard master. Plus manicures and pedicures if that’s your bag. But as fun and alluring as the ship is, the essence of this adventure is built around the excursions. Last night, we entered the complex lock system of China’s gargantuan Three Gorges Dam, and then docked. This morning, we’ll be disembarking to explore the construction that has tamed the mighty Yangtze River.

In Peter Hessler’s New York Times bestseller River Town – the diary of an American Peace Corps volunteer who spent two years on the Yangtze – he visits what was then the vast construction site of this very dam, and was left speechless by its enormity. As we arrive in front of the now completed project, his silence is understandable. The 600ft high and 2km wide concrete wall absolutely dominates the landscape here. Mountains have been sliced in half, farms have been drowned, a mighty river turned into what is essentially a lake – the forceful human impact on the land could not be more pronounced. A staggering 43 million cubic metres of granite was excavated from this land to build here, and non stop bombing and detonations were needed to do so. It must have looked like a war on the earth itself.

Whether or not the Three Gorges Dam is a good thing, is something that is still widely debated in China. On our journey, we’ve seen beautiful pagodas with harsh red lines stained onto them, marking where the water will now rise as a result of the dam. We’ve read about entire towns relocated into new builds, their ancient culture submerged. We’ve met merchants who were once farmers, but now sell souvenirs. And we’ve learned enough about the symmetry of feng shui to know that this concrete monolith possesses none. But, here, as we speak to our Viking recommended local tour guide – a girl in her twenties born in nearby Yichang – she presents a fresh and more optimistic view.

Seeing this colossal dam from the brilliant viewing point up on Jar Hill is definitely the most breathtaking moment of the tour

The construction of the dam brought thousands of new jobs to her area, and it has made the biggest impact in redistributing some of China’s growing wealth inland, as opposed to always being in the coastal cities. The dam itself has the power of ten nuclear power stations, and has advanced national energy innovation through partnerships with international energy companies. So, it’s hard to argue that the dam does not now power a significant and necessary wedge of growing China. Plus, the investment has spread into her home of Yichang, where tourism has become a booming business, and the government fund the building of new homes, strictly constructed in the same architectural style as classic Yichang housing.

We must admit, seeing this colossal dam from the brilliant viewing point up on Jar Hill is definitely the most breathtaking moment of the tour so far, but it’s hard to tell whether that sensation is from shock at its devastating impact on the natural landscape or admiration of the industrial achievement. Maybe the subtle attempts to make the whole thing seem a bit more earthly – like the peach trees which line our path to the viewing point – are the most poetically telling observation of the day – our tour guide tells us they notoriously taste awful.

The following day we dock in the once ancient town, now city, of Jingzhou, a place that actually offers a strong case for the dam. A local here who spoke with us dubbed the Yangtze their mother, but their mother with a bad temper, and the river used to flood this town consistently, often disastrously. When the Three Gorges Dam was finally completed between 2006 and 2008, this city and it’s 700,000 population were secured from future wash outs, and it has grown considerably since.

When Viking first started doing their cruises in China, Jingzhou became a very important stop because of it’s location as the last resting point before the final destination of Wuhan. With the possibility of decades of docking here to come, Viking decided to speak with the local government and work out a way that they could repay the city and build a relationship. The result was a Viking sponsored elementary school in the centre of town, and we were given the honour of visiting the children and teachers there today.

As soon as we walked through the school gates the kids banged and strummed their musical instruments to welcome us. Them shouting “HELLO!” to embrace us Western style, and us less confidently responding “Ni hao!” to return the favour. It was raining, but these kids seemed utterly oblivious. We were directed to a stage next to the playing field, and the children began their excited show of dancing, singing and drumming, each of them in their vibrant uniform as per their role in the performance. And it was all MC’d by one Chinese boy of around nine with better English than we probably had at that age.

China Viking

A friendly welcome at the Viking-sponsored school

Soon, we were shown to their classrooms, where they relayed to us regional songs, phrases, learnings and stories about their school, and we returned the favour by dishing out a load of sweets that we’d nicked from the Viking Emerald’s lobby. A storm of trading ensued between the kids as we realised half of the sweets were pretty elderly flavours like toffee or mint, and the others were cola and lemonade.

When you cruise up the Yangtze on tourist excursions, it’s easy to feel quite detached from what you’re seeing, like a distant observer in a different land. But Viking’s partnership with this local school felt like it made a strong connection with the community here in Jingzhou, and visiting the children and teachers felt sociable, inclusive and altogether unique.

This is our last day on the ship, until we disembark at Wuhan for our final chapter of the Viking Imperial Jewels of China expedition. Final stop: the illuminated bund of Shanghai.

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