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China's Paradise Lost

As the Victoria II works its way upstream on the Yangtze River and we enter the strangely beautiful Wu Gorge ("Witch Gorge"), I stare at the swiftly moving brown water. The dead body of a man floats by, his arms raised up to the sky. Our river guide remarks, "That happens a lot here."

Somewhere upriver, a family waits for the fisherman who will not be coming home. The turbulent, silt-filled water, besides being treacherous, has prevented ocean-going cargo ships from getting upriver to major industrial centers. The need for more and cheaper power and control of frequently devastating flooding have led to the building of a dam, the most ambitious such project ever undertaken. At 1.5 miles across, the Three Gorges Dam will be four times larger than the Hoover Dam. Water will cover 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,325 villages, 657 factories, and 75,000 acres of rich farmland. In all, over 1.3 million people must be relocated.

Life is hard on the Yangtze. Along the bank, we see fishermen standing waist deep in the water, struggling to stay upright while they catch fish with hand nets. At least one of them didn't make it.

Residents along the river have two choices: move to a high-rise apartment in a new town or be relocated to farmland in a less-crowded province, perhaps as far away as Tibet. Those wishing to be relocated can move as communities to keep their friends and working relationships intact. But the land and the crops where they move may be different. It's not an easy decision. For the older people, leaving ancestral homes to move to an apartment in a crowded city far from their roots is frightening.

Besides homes, factories, and farmland, some 100 sites of great historical and cultural significance, along with over 200 archeological digs, will also be forever lost.

The misty and magical Lesser Three Gorges should be seen before mid-2003, when the Yangtze River will be closed to ship traffic while the reservoir is filled to the 135-meter level mark. The Three Gorges dam will always be worth seeing. What will be lost is the special beauty of the terraced farms and archeological wonders of the Three Gorges and the Lesser Three Gorges.

For More Info

We spent a month in China, Tibet, and Vietnam with Overseas Adventure Travel, a Grand Circle company specializing in discovery travel and small groups (800-955-1925, www.oattravel.com).

If you are in China on your own, you can contact Victoria Cruise Lines directly to book passage on one of their five ships (800-348-8084, www.victoriacruises.com). The Yangtze cruises go out of Wuhan and dock in Chongqing. Daily flights go to Wuhan from Beijing, Hong Kong, and Xian.

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