Sailing Across the Yangtze

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Solomon Elusoji who joined a team of reporters to visit China’s Hubei Province recently, writes about the most powerful river in the world

The sun sparkles in its full glory as we leave the airport and travel across long bridges by bus, swishing past multitudes of lakes and rivers. Hubei has been described as a ‘Province of Lakes’ and its capital, Wuhan, as the ‘City of Rivers’. If there was any doubt about the veracity of these ‘aquatic tags’, it soon disappeared as we reach the Yangtze River, Asia’s longest and most powerful river. Today, the Yangtze is quiet, even tranquil; yet, as it ferries boats, large and small, it radiates an authority, a confidence that belongs to things that bristle with so much history, things that have seen so much change and yet survive. 

“More than any other river in the world – more even than the Nile, which also cradles an entire country and nurtures a civilisation – the Yangtze is a mother-river,” the travel writer, Simon Winchester, has written. “It is the symbolic heart of China.” 

This part of the Yangtze River on which we are is where it meets its largest tributary, the Han River and divides Wuhan into three towns: Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang. We are leaving Hankou and crossing into Wuchang, which is the provincial government’s seat. Wuchang, with its many skyscrapers and western-themed stores (McDonalds, Walmart, Pizza Hut, etc), is a city under perpetual construction, a notion brought alive by the ubiquity of cranes. Also, like Beijing, where I have lived for much of the past three months, there are rows of bicycles along the sidewalks and the road signs are written in white font, on blue background. 

“My first impression is that this is a nice city, nicer than Beijing,” my Egyptian colleague, Hazem Samir, says. “And that’s because it is not crowded like Beijing and feels much more organised.” Hassan is right. Although Wuhan is the most populous city in Central China, housing over 10 million lives, the ratio of its area size to population is much better than China’s combustible capital. Here, too, the air appears to be cleaner, even if just by a fraction.

We check into the hotel – a Renaissance – and leave for lunch. Later in the day, we are driven to the Yellow Crane Tower. “If you come to Wuhan, you have to come here,” our guide, a bright Chinese lady in a white shirt and dark slacks, tells us. The Yellow Crane Tower is what it is – a tower with five levels and roofs that jut out and point to the heavens like some kind of worship. It is the history of the tower, however, that pulls crowds to it. The tower is situated on ‘Snake Hill’ from where, legend has it, an immortal, Wang Zi’an, rode away on a yellow crane. Since it was built sometime in the second century, the tower has been destroyed more than 12 times. The current structure was completed in 1985.

At the fifth level, we stand at the balcony and watch Wuhan spread before us like butter on bread: a city made of blocks of apartment buildings, skyscrapers and, of course, the Yangtze. From here, the river takes a new shape as it crawls away, downstream, to Shanghai. In a certain way, it appears that the city was made for it.

The sun begins to set and we return to the hotel, where we are met by provincial officials who tell us about the strategic importance of Hubei in modern China, one which is built upon its unique location. And with shiny new ports, expansive and smooth highways, extraordinary ambitious airport and railway facilities, Hubei is doing a good job of connecting commerce within China and beyond.

The next morning, we set out for Wuhan East Lake High-Tech Development Zone (EDZ). The EDZ is one of the high technology development zones approved by China’s State Council and has brought Wuhan global fame, especially in the area of optic electronics and communication technology. At an exhibition centre in the zone, we are led into a cinema-esque space where we watch, from an elevated balcony, a 3D documentary of EDZ’s story. Then we get a tour of the space, which is populated with cutting-edge technologies such as agricultural drones, biological cameras and innovative optic fibre products.

While China has largely built its prosperity on the back of specialised mass manufacturing and services usually involving technology imported from the West, Wuhan’s EDZ is a potent sign of its ambition to become a much more sophisticated economy driven by the wheels of science and frenetic innovation.

We spend the next morning travelling to nearby Huanggang, where we visit a Poverty Alleviation project in Lijiawan Village. These sort of projects dot the Chinese landscape as the government accelerates its vision of eliminating poverty among its people. In Lijiawan, a village with 844 people and 234 households, the poverty alleviation project has resulted in a collectively built solar panel which generates power that is sold to the national grid. According to the village’s Party Secretary, Zheng Xin, revenue generated from the solar panel’s electricity each year go as high as 60,000 RMB.

Soon, we leave Wuhan via a highspeed rail for Yichang, the second largest city in Hubei, after the capital. Although Yichang, like all cities in China, also has its skyscrapers and large shopping centres, it is a much more sleepy town. The city is however popular with tourists, majorly because it is home to the world’s largest dam: the Three Gorges, a project that seeks to tame and harness the power of the Yangtze.

One bright, sunny morning, we set out on a bus to the dam. The roads, on each side, are flanked by mountainous forests covered with mist. Then there is the Yangtze, snaking through the terrain, tamed by the engineering marvel of man. We are driven to the tourist section of the facility, a kind of vantage point from where we watch the dam and the river it seeks to control. It is a gargantuan sight, something out of a Transformers playbook. And tourists, Chinese and foreigners, mill around, taking pictures with the dam as a background.

The Chinese ambition to tame the Yangtze River started sometime in 1919, but the country’s many political and social issues did not provide enough stability for practical steps to be taken until the early 1990s. The two major reasons for damming the Yangtze, according to Chinese officials, was the need to fight flooding in the Yangtze basin and generate electricity. Critics however argued that such a project was bound to despoil the environment and displace millions of Chinese.

Sure, the project, after it went into operation in the 2000s, did displace a lot of people, but the government said it provided relocation facilities and funds for those affected. In 2017, flood control authorities in China also noted that the Three Gorges had played a big role in relieving flood pressure downstream. Also, the Three Gorges, which cost almost $28 billion to build, is the largest hydroelectric gravity dam in the world, with an installed capacity of 22,500MW.

Well past noon into the visit to the Three Gorges, I found myself watching the river from across a rail as men, at the banks below, threw hooks into the water, looking for a catch. The river’s surface had a light-brownish hue as it danced nonchalantly away, unamused. I wondered about the depth and might of the stories it bore, from Tibet to Shanghai. But my thoughts did not get very far. I had read a couple of books about the river, but I did not know it. Its tale was transmitted in a language alien to my ears.

The last dinner in Yichang was eaten with local officials. There, I started a conversation with a local foreign ministry official who had grown up in the city. “Yichang was a much more quiet city,” he told me. Then the Three Gorges came and brought with it a lot of development. “It is still a quiet city,” the official said. “It is not a busy place like Shanghai or Beijing. It is the sort of place where you come to after retirement and enjoy life.” He did not say as much, but I saw that he was proud of what his city had become. Last April, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, had visited Yichang, to inspect some environmental restoration work along the Yangtze. It was the first time, in many years, a sitting President had showed up. “That was a very proud moment for us,” the man said.