There is the sound of a releasing, water rushing in, and the ship begins to rise. It feels as if we are on an enormous elevator. Despite the early hour, the bridge above us is crowded with onlookers—the usual assortment of crumpled workers and lackluster soldiers, along with lithe elderly people who continue with their morning stretches as the array of boats rises to meet them. They wave and exchange greetings with the passengers. There are already a few vendors milling about, trying to sell postcards and jade trinkets, dried eel snacks and steamed buns. Bells ring, lights flash, and another set of massive doors opens. In the space of five minutes we have risen seventy feet.
Layers of green hills rise out of the water. Through the thin mist I can make out small houses huddled up to the water, and, behind them, steep terraced hills.
What looms before us now looks like some cold-war era industrial nightmare. The hillsides, shattered with explosives, are craggy banks of eroding soil dotted with tumble-down workers’ shacks and piles of dirt and granite. Graham lends me his binoculars, and through them I can make out small human figures dangling precariously from bamboo scaffolding that climbs one of the vertical walls of the new lock.
“That used to be a mountain,” Graham says. “They sliced it in half to build the locks. A 10,000-ton whip will be able to steer into the pair of locks, ascend from river to reservoir, and emerge on the other side in a lake as placid as your bathtub.”
The drilling is ceaseless. An explosion echoes through the valley, but it is impossible to tell where it came from. The air is gray and grainy. Simply to breathe is a challenge. My eyes water, my throat burns. I gaze out in astonishment. “How can the people let this happen? Don’t they see the damage that’s being done?”
The Red Victoria presses on toward the narrow pass. The river seems too much for us. Here, it is deep and very fast. I see the cranes, the concrete, the mounds of blasted granite.
“What do you expect them to do?” Bai says. “Paint signs? Stage a sit-in? Organize a petition?”
“Why not? Somebody has to.”
“It’s not that simple,” Bai says. “In 1992, 180 men and women from the Democratic Youth Party in Kaixian County did oppose the dam. They were arrested and charged with sabotage and counterrevolutionary activity.”
“Whatever happened to them?”
“No one’s seen them since they were arrested.”
A small band of passengers is crowded around Elvis Paris, who is extolling the virtues of the dam. He points to a mass of rock and gravel and concrete littered with cranes and drilling rigs. “This used to be Zhongbao Island,” Elvis says. “Thanks to modern engineering, useless island is now foundation for world’s greatest dam.”
The Red Victoria presses on toward the narrow pass. The river seems too much for us. Here, it is deep and very fast. I see the cranes, the concrete, the mounds of blasted granite. I hear the din of drills and chisels. But these bare facts are not enough to convince me. I cannot believe that this fast and powerful river will simply stop, paralyzed behind a manmade wall. I know nothing of physics, mathematics, the intricate workings of engineering. But I can see and feel the power of this ancient and magnificent river. Instinct tells me that she will not be so easily tamed.
Soon we are approaching Xiling Gorge. Graham translates a series of huge Chinese characters painted in white on the sheer side of a cliff: Serve the People. Develop the Three Gorges. Layers of green hills rise out of the water. Through the thin mist I can make out small houses huddled up to the water, and, behind them, steep terraced hills. Solitary figures stand atop bamboo rafts, using long poles to navigate the swirling rafts at the edge of the river. Flat-bottomed boats pass us, headed downstream with their loads of golden hay. Goats wander the hillsides, foraging. The ship rocks as the water whirls around us. The air is chilly, just the vaguest shadow of the sun visible through the fog.
The Voice calls out the names of attractions along the way: Sanyou Cave, Three Knives, Shadow of Lamp. Next we come to Ox Temple. Behind the temple a mountain rises. “Look close at the mountain and you will see strong young man leading ox,” The Voice says. Then there is Kongling Shoal, also known as the Gate of Hell, because many boats have been wrecked here. The Gate of Hell is dotted with dangerous reefs, the most deceptive of which is called Come to Me Stone. After that we pass, Horse-lung, Ox-liver, and Book of War Art and Sword Gorge.
The cliffs rise up sheer, like great walls. In some places the bases of the mountains are so close together that I am certain we will not be able to pass, but each time it seems that we are headed for disaster, the ship turns at just the right moment, to just the right degree, and we continue smoothly upstream
The cliffs rise up sheer, like great walls. In some places the bases of the mountains are so close together that I am certain we will not be able to pass, but each time it seems that we are headed for disaster, the ship turns at just the right moment, to just the right degree, and we continue smoothly upstream. Graham and Bai are standing on either side of me. Neither Dave nor Stacy is anywhere to be seen. I feel enclosed in some strange dream—the green mountains, the pale mist, the heavy tin covered with photos of Amanda Ruth, the weight of my longing for a man I met only days ago, the unsettling patience of his knowing wife. We have been standing here for some time when I realize that they have moved closer to me, that both of them have one arm wrapped around my back.
Excerpted from DREAM OF THE BLUE ROOM, a novel of the Yangtze River and the Three Gorges Dam, by Michelle Richmond
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