East of Gongping township, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,220km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,714km
The line has disappeared. For all the time I have spent in the Yangtze Gorges region, there has been a line visible around the banks of the huge reservoir backed up behind the Three Gorges Dam, marking 172 meters above sea level. It is now invisible, sunk beneath the waters. This means that after seven or eight years of gradually raising the water levels, the guys in charge of the world’s largest hydropower plant have finally completed the project. The Three Gorges Reservoir is full.
The latest and last rise in water levels occurred in the month since I was last in the area, when the water level was at 165m, as it had been for the past year and more. It was shocking to see the difference 7m made to everything along the banks. At Fengjie town, where I disembarked from the ferry, the walk up the steep steps to street level was dramatically less of an alpine experience. It felt like the whole town had sunk.
Inland, in the valleys, the impact was even more pronounced. The fast-flowing river to which I referred last month was now a placid lake for a dozen more kilometers. Bridges I had crossed last time were now gone, completely submerged. Roads near the river crossings had been hurriedly reconstructed ahead of the rise in water levels, but not fast enough in some cases, and there were long delays as trucks got stuck in muddy ruts.
Vehicles had no option but to wait patiently for movement up ahead. One truck driver said he had waited a whole night to pass through one particularly bad section of the road linking Fengjie with Yunyang town upriver.
It was a phenomenal display of power – how a decision at the dam, several hundred kilometers away to the east, to not press a button to open the sluice gates could so fundamentally change hidden corners of the huge mountain region.
On this trip, for the first time I actually met someone who expressed reservations about the dam project.
"We all think the dam and the huge amount of water behind it have had a huge impact on nature," the man said. "There seem to be more earthquakes now than before. The climate has changed, temperatures are higher now than they were. There are now constantly fogs and mists on the river, which were quite rare before."
Is it possible that an increase in pressure on the earth’s surface from all the water could have some impact on the stability of the earth’s crust? I guess so.
Another man said that the dam officials could in theory continue to push the water level up to 175m, or even higher, but had decided to leave it at 172 and not risk it for fear of creating even more directly accountable problems such as landslides.
"I hear that in the US they are pulling down dams because they are so bad for the environment. Is that true?" he asked me.
I spent time asking people about the global financial crisis and its impact locally. The answer of course was that nowhere is immune from some impact, just as everywhere has benefitted to some extent from the long boom years. I was told many factories have closed in the Yichang area, and many migrant workers are heading home from the coastal cities. I met several men who had been working in Shenzhen and had recently returned. The pace of the reverse trek is picking up, and the impact of their return will be felt. But it will be a dispersed impact, one that is far less threatening to the government than the prospect of masses of unemployed workers in cities.
It is possible to sit in the doorway of a farmhouse in the mountains looking out at the fields or inside at the television set, and before you know it, a day, a month, a year has gone by, and then half your life.
There are benefits to this great return, including the reuniting of families, and the prospect of reinvigorated local economies. I met a man who was planning to build some houses for returnees.
"There are more than 5,000 workers from our area who are working on the coast, and many of them will come back," he said.
The river towns were still busy – the good restaurants were full and noisy and the presumably bad restaurants suspiciously empty, as always. There are more SUVs on the roads every time I go out, some of them pretty upscale. But with migrant worker salaries not flowing through to the villages in such a volume as before, there will inevitably be less cash in the local economies for a while.
How long the recession will last and how low and slow the economy will go (I feel a song coming on) is the question to which we would all like an answer. But it will not be forever. And when orders start coming in again from the US and the Shenzhen factories reopen, as they will, then the guys will be back on the long-distance buses.
I asked a few people what they thought of Barack Obama’s election to the US presidency, and to the extent that they had noticed, there was amazement that the US could elect a black man as its leader. Al Qaeda must be feeling the same. But politics, even the domestic variety, seems a long way from the lives of the farmers of central China. Except, of course, that it isn’t. Land policy appears to be undergoing a change. The Communist Party recently announced new rules allowing farmers to transfer the rights to the fields under their control. Ownership remains with the state, and the lease periods are for a theoretical 30 years. It seems as though the old structure – a right to use the land, but not to sell, transfer or bequeath it – is being overturned.
The result, hopefully, will be fewer cases of unreasonable land seizures by local officials, and more combining of small plots into larger fields than can be farmed more economically. But the implications are unclear and there has been no announcement at the local level to explain what is going on.
Out on the road, it was drizzling and autumnal gray. The mountains were shrouded in mist and there were few people out for me to talk to. Many farmhouses had slogans on their walls urging young men to sign up for the army, which may prove to be a more popular career move in the months ahead.
"Answer the call of the motherland, you hot-blooded boys!" said one.
I was still following the river upstream, and it had again become a river, having finally topped the magic 172m line. The delightful sound of running water was once again added to the scene.
I passed two homemade cable cars spanning the stream – little cages just big enough to hold one crouching human being. And I passed one part of the riverbank that was absolutely covered in garbage. The contrast with the beauty of the valley at that point made it all the more disgusting.
China really needs to clean itself up.