We have decided that we will not let our trip be defined by last night’s little setbacks. With that thought in mind, we turned our attention to the day’s activities, the first being our optional tour to visit the Tribe of the Three Gorges.
We have learnt that the first of the Three Gorges, Xiling Gorge, is actually cut in half by the dam. Our boat is moored in Maoping, above the dam, and our tour was to visit Stone Tablet Village, a traditional village of the Tujia ethnic minority, located in the lower part of the gorge. It took around 50 minutes to reach the village, which involved some driving on narrow roads cut into the cliff side, above the river - very entertaining!
Once we reached the village, we took a 30 minute guided walk up one side of Swimming Dragon Stream, being entertained along the way with musicians, singers and live tableaux of villagers representing traditional tanks. The valley is really a steep sided gorge and is very beautiful, while the entertainment was, well, entertaining! We crossed the stream and returned down the other side as far as a house that was set up for a re-enactment of a Tujia wedding.
The show began with the bride stepping out on to the balcony. She threw her bouquet into the audience, for the men to compete in catching it and to become the “groom” - and guess who was the lucky guy? Me! I was whisked away into the house, dressed in a local robe and hat, and joined to my veiled “bride” by a ribbon. We were then paraded down in front of the audience, made a couple of bows, sang a song together (kind of!) and drank wine to seal the deal! It was a lot of fun and the Chinese in the audience thought it was hilarious for a Westerner to be chosen. We then went back into the house and two minutes later the brides “mother” stepped out onto the balcony to show off our new-born - talk about quick work! After the show, we finished our walk through the village and returned to the boat, totally lifted by a fabulous and fun morning.
The afternoon began with the included trip to visit the Three Gorges Dam site. Everything about this dam is immense. It is the biggest dam in the world in terms of size, water retained and power generation. Construction of the dam also resulted in the forced relocation of 1.4 million people, as their towns and villages were submerged - again, probably a world record.
While the power generated is enormous and has aided the modernisation of much of China, the main reason for the construction of the dam was flood control. The middle reaches of the Yangtze suffered regular, devastating floods for centuries, but the water flow is now extremely well controlled. To see this incredible feat of engineering was quite awesome. The huge dam wall, the ten massive locks (five for up traffic; five for down) and the incredible ship elevator - again, the largest in the world - just takes one’s breath away.
Another major reason for building the dam was to improve navigation conditions on the Yangtze River. While ships could always travel between Chongqing and Shanghai, rapids and hidden rocks combined with variable water depths to make many sections extremely dangerous and unpredictable. In that respect, too, the dam has been very successful.
To round out our trips for the day, we had elected to return to the Katarina via the ship elevator, rather than on the bus. This required heading downstream for a few kilometres to board a sightseeing boat, which set sail at around 5 pm. We also chose to pay a nominal amount to gain access to the upper, VIP deck, where we could enjoy unimpeded views of the Xiling Gorge and, when we reached it, the ship elevator.
It took nearly an hour to sail upstream and enter the elevator channel, at the end of which the boat carefully entered the elevator dock and tied up securely. A huge concrete gate then closed behind us and we were, essentially, contained in a massive box. The next step was brilliant - the elevator slowly lifted straight up for about 100 metres, to the level of the water upstream of the dam. The elevator can raise vessels of up to 3000 tonnes, plus passengers, the contained volume of water and the weight of the concrete box - imagine the power of the motors! From entering the elevator channel to clearing the dam at the top took about 40 minutes - incredible!
Standing at the rear of the boat, watching the lower Xiling Gorge drop away from us, was an amazing experience, especially when we reached the top and were looking down, almost as if we were in a helicopter. From leaving the elevator to tying up alongside Katerina took only another 15 minutes, meaning the entire trip had taken under two hours, less than half the time needed to travel through the more traditional lock gates. It was a really great experience.
Within minutes of our tour returning, Katarina finally set sail upstream. Meanwhile, we had dinner then gathered in the Yangtze Lounge for The Chinese Dynasties Show. This ship is too small to have professional entertainers aboard, so the show, which featured costumes, customs and dance from Chinese history, was performed entirely by the ship’s crew. Dining room staff, cleaners and ship’s officers all paraded and danced in what was a surprisingly good show, that kept us entertained all evening.
All in all, today was brilliant! We have thoroughly enjoyed every excursion and are now looking forward to the next couple of days aboard, as we sail gently up the Yangtze River.