Sunday, October 25, 2009

Some nameless town on route 223 heading north from Yichang

[10/25/09. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: For the second time in these travels I was the lone Westerner among battalions of Chinese tourists at one of the country's prized national shrines. This time it was at the Three Gorges Dam, the largest in the world, completed just three years ago.

It is more than a mile-and-a-quarter long and over 600 feet high, blocking the Yangzi, the world's third largest river, nearly 4,000 miles long.  Only the Nile and the Amazon exceed it, though it ranks only behind the Amazon for volume of water it transports. It starts on the Tibetan plateau and concludes in Shanghai.  It effectively divides China in half, north from south.  Few bridges span the river.

It was a strenuous 25-mile ride to the dam from Yichang, a city of four million, up over a 2,000 foot canyon wall and through a series of unlit tunnels. The latter half of the ride was along the river and its continual stream of barges, carrying some 70% of China's shipping. The quantity and variety of vessels was almost unimaginable.  It was an incomparable, otherworldly experience--the natural beauty of the setting with the river framed by cliff walls along this stretch contrasting with the great bustle of cargo carrying vessels. Though there were gorges all along the way, the dam's Three Gorges namesake are upriver from the dam, getting slightly filled with water.
The highway along the Yangzi came to a dead end at the dam, something I did not expect. The entrance to the dam was guarded by several soldiers who informed me that entry was only allowed by tour bus. Two passed while we talked. The guards halted both hoping to find an English speaking guide who could better explain the situation than they could. The second had a guide who spoke enough English to let me know I had to backtrack a kilometer, then turn down a road to find the tour bus depot.  The turn I was looking for wasn't marked, so I missed it again. But I came upon a convention center with displays of the dam where I received better directions.

The bus tours were a huge operation, with a bus departing every five minutes. There was a room to deposit bags that was large enough to accommodate my bike. What we brought with had to pass through a metal detector. Neither my Swiss Army knife or tire irons raised the concerns of the guards.

A guide chattered away in Chinese the ten minutes to the dam. At least the signs and plaques at the dam sites were in English along with Chinese. There were three different stops on the two-hour tour. The first was a high overlook peering down at the dam on one side and the series of five locks on another. It takes 45 minutes for a ship to clear the locks, dropping 500 feet. Various sculptures and monuments and a pool full of carp and gold fish dotted the overlook park. A large souvenir shop contained a replica of the dam. Another guide at the location gave a lecture, banding about a pointer, every half hour.

We could linger as long as we wished, taking any subsequent tour bus.  The second stop was right at the dam.  It was the only stop with souvenir sales people, some highly aggressive. The final stop was at the River Closure Memorial Park on the other side of the river, looking up at the dam. We crossed one of the few bridges that span the Yangzi. It had guards at either side and a "No bicycles" sign, bad news for me, as that was to be my route.

A plaque at the entry to the sprawling park said the dam was "envisaged by Mao Zedong" and "demonstrated the capability, wisdom and resolution of the Chinese people to harness rivers." It went on to say that the park represented "the jubilance, courageous and painstaking endeavors of the river closure." It said it achieved three purposes--flood control, power generation and navigation improvement. No mention of or monument to the sacrifice of the million people who had been displaced nor the roads swallowed up that I could have followed along the 300 mile lake that has been formed behind the dam.

Despite the swarms of photo-snapping tourists I had no difficulty gazing upon the dam from our three different vantages, as I stand a head taller than the majority of the Chinese. Most are as slight as I am. Bulging waist lines are a rare site and obesity virtually nonexistent. It is a refreshing site. Anyone taking the tour had to be of some affluence as a ticket cost 105 yuan, about $15, or a week and a half pay for those semi-indentured factory workers who earn $500 for a year's labor. Since a meal can be had for three yuan and my daily expenses rarely exceed twenty yuan, it was a hefty ticket, more than a half week's expenses.

As I biked to the dam, not realizing how demanding of a ride it would be, not only steep, but on some rough unpaved stretches, I knew in the back of my mind that there was a possibility I would have to double back on it. I consulted with a police officer hoping there might be some road that my map didn't show. There wasn't. I could have tried for a ride across the bridge, but then I'd have the difficulty of recrossing the Yangzi later, plus the officer did not recommend the road beyond the bridge.

As I biked the 25 miles back over the rough road I had hoped to never see again, I felt further dread, knowing how difficult it would most likely be finding the unnumbered secondary road north out of the sprawling city Yichang that I struggled to navigate through getting to the dam.  I knew though that it could be no worse than my first day's nightmare in China trying to change money and finding my way out of Shenzhen.  I'd survived quite a few mini-nightmares since, so this one could not unravel me.  If I had known how demanding the road to the dam was going to be and that I'd have to ride it twice, I might have opted for a bus to the dam from Yichang or a boat, though I no doubt would have regretted giving up my independence and freedom and felt guilty for becoming just another tourist.

Of the dozen or so people I presented my map to when I returned to Yichang hunting for the road north out of the city, all could provide help except for one whose eyesight wasn't good enough to read the small print of my map, not the first time that has happened. One of those I consulted was a young man who spoke English very well. He asked for advice from several other people nearby. One said that a bridge was out on the route I wished to go, though I could still head north on the road I was looking for, I just couldn't turn west as soon as I wished. I was lucky to learn that.

I asked the young man if there was a place to buy one of the two national English newspapers nearby. I have looked for it in every large city I've been in, but hadn't been able to find a copy. He said I could find one at the university a couple miles back. I'd done enough backtracking for the day to care to do that, especially with nightfall less than an hour away.  He said they were very cheap and volunteered to send me a copy to an address where I might be in China in the days to come, more of that amazing Chinese generosity.

I still had to ask seven or eight more people the way when I came to tricky intersections before I was assured I was on the road I wanted and could continue straight. I ended up camping in thick brush well out of the city right at dark, a site that wouldn't have worked any earlier.  The dark provided more of my cover than the vegetation, so I needed to escape at first light.

Now I am in the mountains, limiting my daily average speed to less than ten miles per hour. It is eighty miles of mountainous terrain to Baokang and route 318, a better road. The one I'm on is being repaved, also slowing my progress. I had been hoping to reach Julie-Ann and Xian by next Sunday, about 550 miles away, but I don't know. At least I shouldn't have to worry about asking for directions now that I can stick to the road I'm on for awhile.

Later, George

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