Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Three Gorges - Day 2

Frankly Madam, I Don't Give a Damn if this Dam is Damn Massive
semi-overcast 31 °C
I was woke up by the voice of a German speaking lady in das schiff! After that, she repeated everything in English. Everything is then repeated in Chinese by a fella. I struggled to lift my heavy eyelids, found myself lying in a bed of ship's cabin, and when looking outside the window, I didn't see landscape of the world renown The Three Gorges (TTG), I saw a grey wall. For a brief moment before I regained my full senses, I thought this is a false awakening.

No. I was very much awake. It's a wall of a lock at the Geshouba Dam - the 1st dam that was built on the Yangtze - and we're queueing up beside a sand barge to go through it as I looked over my cabin's balcony.

As usual on a cruise ship, the organiser tries to map out every minute of your day and filled it with activities. For people who prefer a leisurely pace - standing still - you don't have to do anything. For the active, the ship's full schedule will keep you too busy to complain about the lack of goings-on.
The German frau informed us on the PA that there is Tai-Chi practise on the Sun Deck before breakfast. Of course, I prefer to do it my head in my bed. Give me a good mental workout to work up an appetite.

The breakfast at 7:30 on the Main Deck let us meet all the passengers on this ship for the first time. There was an almost exact 50/50 ethnic divide between the passengers of the East and West in the dining room. Westerners occupied tables on the starboard bow, and the Chinese (looking) passengers on the port bow with buffet tables in the middle. You know which side the ship is tilted towards.

Walked past the reception counter after breakfast, a standard currency exchange rates board showing names of a dozen of countries, but only three currencies have rates indicated: USD, GBP & Euro. It makes sense that most of the (Westerner) passengers would be Yanks because Victoria Cruises is an US management company. Going by the lady in the PA, I guess the passengers from Deutschland would be the ones swapping the Euros for RMBs. Well, didn't have to organise a séance session to summon Agatha Christie from beyond to figure this one out. Another way was simply to eavesdrop them as you walk past the dining tables to pick up the accents - that would be cheating (and slightly creepy; won't be if you do it with a touch of finesse).

Going by the accents of the Chinese looking tourists (ok, I cheat, didn't know how to ask them to show me their passports), they are motley bunch of locals, Taiwanese, and HK citizens (whom I'm with). There you have it, not enough to form an UN assembly, but far from a monolingual horde.
I'm no spring chicken, but the ship of geriatrics does make me feel overwhelmingly like fresh meat. The occidental group averaged, say, circa 55 years old; the oriental gang is younger, especially some Chinese teeny bopper (original marketers usage of the term) skewed the average in our favour. Their parents probably decided to ground them on a ship - best ground ever even if it was unstable.
Ok, back from the rigamarole. After the passing through the lock, we entered the 1st of the 3 Gorges - the Xiling Gorge (西陵峡) - the easternmost of the 3 big gorges as we traversed the Yangtze from east to west. Around 9AM, we disembarked at Sandouping (三斗坪) to visit The DAM - The Three Gorges Dam. It was a misty day, and the visibility was low, the far side of the dam wall was swallowed by the mist, which I supposed would amplify its enormity. When I saw the Aswan Dam in Egypt, which was the biggest dam then, now superseded by this one.

Speaking of Egypt, dam and Agatha Christie, it's only natural to compare this trip with the Egyptian trip I took a few years back - there're more similarities than I can poke a stick at. Both trips are taken on a river cruise ship (the only two I have been to) on a river that is the longest in their own countries (the Nile is the world's longest, and Yangtze the world's third, and Asia's longest), and both famous rivers were crucial to the development of the two great ancient civilisations and it just so happened that they have the world largest dams erected in them (at the time they were built) to overcome the same problem: flooding. Oh yeah, both of these trips are relatively expensive, either comparing to ocean cruises or land travels.

There was one major difference between the two river cruises, though. With the cruise down the Nile, once the ship sailed beyond the cities, there weren't even so much as a palm tree to gawk at outside the cabin windows. The ship was just the best way to get to the many destinations that dotted the Nile. The reverse is true with this trip. Onshore excursions are few, and the destinations come to you. Just crane your neck out of the cabin window. You can watch it from the comfort of your bed or cocktail lounge over a cigar with your feet up and your hair down (or comb-over down like Donald Trump). Perfect for a couple of couch potatoes like us. And perfect after the Guilin trip. This ship is better than the Egyptian one in every way, from its spaciousness, condition, entertainment to food, and last but not least, prices. Well, it's Chinese prices.

The Hutchens Brothers (Peter & Jeff) are right in saying that when the Chinese built this dam, it's as if they sat down and work out how many records they can break with this project, from being the tallest, largest amount of concrete poured to the largest hydroelectricity station, etc. Record breaking infrastructures are common in China these days. If you look up the Guinness Book of Records for the largest trans-oceanic bridge (Hangzhou Bay Bridge), longest arch bridge (Lupu Bridge[1], Shanghai), biggest dam and hydroelectric station (The Three Gorges Dam), fastest trains (Guangzhou to Wuhan averaging 312.5 km/hr on the 922km track), largest cargo port (Shanghai port), largest man-made deep water port (Tianjin), largest Metro System (Shanghai Metro with 420km of tracks and counting), longest high-speed rail (HSR) network with about 6,552km to date, longest river railroad bridge (Beipanjiang, Guizhou), etc, etc, etc - a list that used to take up mostly by the West. The maglev train, developed by Siemens and Thyssenkrupp, operated (and more importantly showcasing) only in Shanghai. This is the kinda infrastructure statement that China is making. The Germans have to come to Shanghai to experience the ride. Not too shabby for a developing economy. Size matters. Absolute size matters absolutely.

This isn't the first time Chinese worked on vast infrastructure project. The US Transcontinental Railroad in USA, considered by some as the 8th Wonder of the World in the 19th Century, was worked on by many Chinese workers that head-hunted from California gold fields ('Gold Mountain') and many more were imported from China. Hired by Central Pacific Railroad, they tunnelled through hard granite of Sierra Nevada mountains, braving the elements like snowstorms. Some of these scenes were recreated in Shanghai Noon (Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson. The Chinese rail workers were uncredited in this movie as they were centuries ago in US history).

The two companies, Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad had a competition to see who could build the fastest, and Central Union, the company that hired most of the Chinese workers won. The UP didn't believe Chinese workers can deliver with such speed (sore loser!), and CP's director reminded UP that the Chinese ancestors built the Great Wall many centuries before. I guess this railroad's terrain is considerably easy compare to the tortuous mountain terrains where the Great Wall slithered on. Still, hundreds, if not thousands, died in building the railway (as were the building of the Wall).

China's GDP is approaching as the 2nd biggest economy in the world this year, surpassing Japan. Thus some people say China should drop its developing or emergent economy status, I say not so fast. Its GDP per capita ranks about 100, roughly similar to the living standard to El Salvador. So if El Salvador has the same population size of China, it too will be the 2nd biggest economy in the world. Sure, China has top-notched infrastructures that are envy of the West, and the modernity of their first tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but it's in the social sphere that this developing economy status sticks: income disparity, low GDP per capita, rampant official corruption, degradation of environment, etc. All the hallmark of a developing economy with social and environmental issues that country like USA faced in the early 20th century and Japan in the post WW2 period where China is now in. The bright side to all of these is that these topics take up the most air time on TV, the most space in newspapers, the most hard rive space on the Internet blogs in China. And the government is putting high priority on these issues. China has to listen to its people as it wants to stay in power. Giving what people want is their only legitimacy. The Communist party doesn't want another Tianamen Square's type of Pro-Democracy Protest.

Because of the size of China, both in terms of population and geography, building big things are second nature. When they build something, in order to satisfy the needs of the population and the land, it simply ends up building the biggest even without trying to break record. If you build a fortification wall across England, take the Hadrian's Wall, it won't end up being be the longest in the world because of Britain's size. China builds the biggest things out of necessity.

I guess the buildings of infrastructures is not only essential, but a great leverage to this stage of China's economic development. Transporting goods is the bottleneck of the world's largest factory, and efficient transport of goods is so crucial to China's industrialisation, and transporting of people is critical to China's urbanisation - the two twin developments go hand in hand, and transportation infrastructures is the vital link (pun intended). Don't think China could achieve an average of 10% GDP growth in the last 3 decades without these cutting-edged infrastructures (another first in the world record). Some of the growth came from the buildings of these infrastructures itself.
Many bonuses (or is it boni?) coming out of these world-class infrastructures, take tourism, can't do it any damn harm. And what about winning the bid to host Olympics Game, and World Expo. Credits have to go to these infrastructures.

All These shouldn't come as a surprise then that many high-level party officials in the Politburo are scientists and engineers. I sleep more soundly when I know the nerdom runs a country like China. Geeks by their very nature are not interested in power, they're more occupied in building things. They're bridge builders, not empire builders. They build bridges, not blowing up bridges. Since 1978, theses technocrats built friendship bridges to the West, not walls. For scaredy cats who freaked out by the current rise of China, please take note, China has the most technocratic government in the world today, and the infrastructures are screaming this fact. Of course when China begins to shift their gears into a developed economy status, the engineers and scientists might be replaced by lawyers and bureaucrats like those in the West. Maybe not. Not in the near future. In the West (at least country with a British system), the lawyers are trained to persuade jury to their sides in the courtrooms, and as a politician, the same skills can be applied to win the voters to their sides in the living rooms (via TV). I guess Hollywood actors (Ronald Reagan, Big Arnie, etc) win over voters using their looks, charms and celebrity status. They already have a fan base, which morphs naturally into supporters. Since there's no one-person-one-vote system, don't know exactly what criteria do they base to vote a political candidate into the communist party. "Geeks rules ok!" although you won't see that graffiti in China. But you might be surprise.

Technocracy was a popular movement in USA in the 1930, perhaps also because China is in a similar stage of the USA's economic development then. Many problems are needed to be solved by technology. Only when all these technological problems are addressed would China get their handle on the social problems. Of course, these things can and are occurring concurrently, it's just one is receiving more focus than the other. "One thing at a time, please. I only have two hands!"

The idea of this dam went as far back as Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, who came up with the idea. With the financial, engineering and technical issues it faced at the time, the construction is nothing but a pipe dream (The 'pipe' refers to the opium pipe). By the 1990's, the vision is no longer a piped dream, and the construction begun in earnest.

This damn dam is the largest in the world, matched only by its potential challenges - silt buildup, garbage pile-up (because it's now a lake, not a river), ecological damage, etc, etc. Actually we tend to think of dam as being infrastructure, and it is because of its navigational function and the hydroelectric scheme. But more than any reason, the dam was built to control the flood. People complaint that many village had been relocated. When (not if) the flood comes, many villages would be devastated. Relocation by man is preferable than devastation by nature.

Back to the ship, the lull of a lazy afternoon was interrupted with activities like information sessions on the history and geography of the Yangtze, followed by presentations of snuff bottle, silk embroidery, and Chinese painting, and especially how these arts and crafts were made.

After dinner, a Dynasties Parade was shown where the "crew models a variety of Chinese costumes from the Han Dynasty to the present". This should be interesting for Sinophiles and fashionistas/fashionistos alike. It's right up my runway/alley. Even if you these things don't appeal to you, the eye candies might be sights for your sore eyes. In addition to a few selected dynasties, the crew also strutted down the stage in costumes of the Chinese ethnic minorities (sometimes is referred to as 'nationalities'). 'Nationality' in some cases sometimes spot on by the traditional use of the word. Koreans who live on the west side of the Yalu River[2] are considered an ethnic Chinese minority or nationality. True can be said about many other minorities who have their own independent countries until they decided to take over China, and became a Chinese minority as an outcome. When a snake tries to swallow an elephant, it ends up being an elephant (no negative connotation of a snake is intended). I've seen this done in a cartoon. I blabbed about this minority business in great length in my Guilin (Days 3 & 4) diary entry from last week. I'm glad that I've clued up further about the Chinese minorities during these two consecutive trips.

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I've always find the young Tang male costume so dandy, and so befitting of the young playboys of these ancient times. The playboys are learned scholars who sought to indulge in fine rice wine and reciting poems (with cup in one hand and fan another. Let's say they have busy hands), sometimes in the company (or for the sake) of beautiful maidens.

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When this lovely young maiden (I presumptuously presumed) strutted in the Tibetan traditional costume, I heard cries of "Look, cowboy hat!" in the audience in American accent. If the same girl walks in Texas (or swaggers as ex-president George W. Bush said that was how Texans walk - the 'The Duke' John Wayne's way), I think the cries becomes "Look, Tibetan costume!". Now that they were in China, the familiar becomes surprising.

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I'm not 100% sure that this girl modelled an Uyghur costume. It was too dark, and I was too busy taking photos and notes the same time. This conclusion was based on my home-brew research afterwards (can be of top-class quality). The round cap, the two long ponytails, and the embroidered black vest nails it for me. ID it is never easy as there're umpteen variations in any genre of clothing fashion, may it be of a particular ethnic group or period. But this particular piece isn't too hard to ID - it was chosen to typify the costume of the Uyghur people. What I'm 100% certain is that she's no Uyghur, but a Han girl (99.5% definite without the aid of DNA testing (which won't give you 100% accuracy anyway). Eyeballing is a very old schooled technique, sometimes it does the job nicely). There are also other ethnic minority people in Xinjiang who wear similar traditional costumes, but I'll stick to my gun on this.

You can easily tell that these models are obviously amateurs. They all wore cheerful grins on their faces. A professional model strictly wears a poker face that says, "all the millions won't make me crack a smile to you poor slobs below".
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[1] For my Sydney mates, Lupu Bridge, just like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is a single arch bridge. And just like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Lupu Bridge is a tourist attraction. That is, tourists can climb up the bridge and have a panoramic view of the Huangpu River and Shanghai city. The one major architectural difference between the two bridges is this. The two arches in the Sydney Harbour Bridge run parallel to each other while the Lupu Bridge ones lean towards one another at the top.

[2] The Korean called Yalu River Amnok River. It's the river that forms part of the border between China and Korean. A bit like the Murray River that makes up part of the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria (most of it anyway) states of Australia.

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