Just beyond the Three Gorges Dam,
Distance from Shanghai – 1,050 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,835 km
There is a four-lane highway running from Yichang city west to the Three Gorges Dam, built to move leaders and honored guests quickly to and from China’s biggest showcase infrastructure project. Needless to say, there are military guards on every single entrance and exit.
To travel on the road, a guard said sternly, a car needs a permit issued in Yichang. Well, maybe.
I walked along the local road on the northern side of the Yangtze River. The road turned away from the river and passed through a tunnel under the Gorges freeway, then doubled back into a village. There was a shop front with tourist signs – "see the dam!" – several young girls milling around, and a guy in a black track suit who came over to me.
"You want a tour of the dam?"
"No, thank you, I am just walking through."
"There is a guard post up ahead," he said. "I have a car with a permit that can take you through."
"We’ll see," I said, and walked on back towards the river, and came to the gate with a sentry box beside it, and the Gorges highway beyond. I said hello to the guard, who was distant and unforthcoming, but I got out of him that I could walk through onto the highway, but cars could not pass without a permit, which are obtained in Yichang.
So I went back to the tourist office, and the manager said she could sell me a car permit for RMB100 (US$13), no need to go to Yichang. I did a deal with the man in the black tracksuit whereby he would meet me inside the dam zone in his Ford Transit van and drive me back when I finished for the day.
"Can I walk across the dam?" I asked my new friend, Mr Wang.
"No, it is impossible."
"So how do I get across to the other side?"
"There is a bridge below the dam, but you cannot walk across that either. It is not allowed. You will have to ride in my car," he said.
"I’ll deal with that problem when I get to it," I replied, and started off through the gate and onto the high-class but somewhat empty highway.
It was raining, misty and miserable. I trudged along and came to a turnoff to the left beyond which was visible the white pillar support of a massive bridge. There was a sentry post at the edge of the bridge, and the guard was wearing a steel helmet and white gloves.
"Ni hao," I said, and gave him my most winning smile as I made to continue walking past him. He shook his gloved hand at me vigorously.
"Stop!" he said. "You cannot walk across."
I stopped, and from a little booth there emerged a young officer in a smart military uniform, putting on a military peaked cap as he came out.
"You cannot walk over the bridge," he said, rather apologetically. "You must take a car."
"But I have walked here all the way from Shanghai. I am from England and am walking to Tibet. It is a charity walk for the poor children in Anhui province."
I tried to look as non-threatening as possible, and after some exchanges back and forth, he said: "Are you sure you can’t take a car across, and then resume your walk on the other side?"
"I am afraid not," I said with a broader smile.
"All right, then," he said.
"Thank you!" I exclaimed, gave him a name card and walked triumphantly across the bridge, singing in the rain as I went. Reaching the southern bank, I turned right, and walked along the southern promenade.
The rain cleared, the mist lifted a little and a long, low barrier topped by cranes gradually became visible to the west. The dam.
I chatted with Mr Wang about it.
"What impact has the dam had on the life of people around here?"
"Neither good nor bad really," he said. "Although for people with good guanxi (relationships), it provided an opportunity to make a lot of money."
"Is it safe?"
"Safe? Oh, yes. It won’t collapse. But the danger is war."
"Right. If there is a war, this dam will definitely be a target."
In 2003, construction work was basically completed, and the reservoir behind the dam began to fill up. It is expected to reach its maximum level in 2009. The water is now at about 145 meters above sea level, and the dam is at 185 meters above sea level, so there is another 30 meters or so to go before it hits its targeted highest water level of 175 meters.
As I walked along, the density of electricity power lines increased. The dam was getting closer and now looked more imposing, although its length means that it will forever lack the vertical majesty of, say, the Hoover Dam.
A turnoff to the left headed up the hill and around the southern end of the dam. A man carrying some postcards came up to me and said: "Do you want to go to the dam?"
"Yes! How much?"
Good deal. I followed him along a track off the road and we came out at a point level with the top of the dam, looking along its length with the southern generating plant, not yet commissioned, right below us.
My guide, Mr Tan, gave me the two-minute elevator version of dam statistics, and I asked: "How is security?"
"Pretty poor. Full of loopholes. But if there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to make a living."
We walked back to the road and around to the back of the dam. There was a road to the top of the dam, just 100 meters away and a sentry box.
"They just set up the guard post a couple of months ago," Mr Tan said. "Before that, I could take people out onto the dam."
The reservoir was now below us, and it looked benign. Children and couples were sitting on the rocks below the road and above the water level, chatting peacefully. The sense of danger, negativity and impending environmental disaster that one gets when reading about the dam in Western media reports was entirely lacking.
On the other hand, the dolphins have gone and there were dredges under the shadow of the dam battling with silt.
The bottom line is that China was always going to build the dam and the consequences were always going to be unknown. But the land, like the people I was meeting, might well find a way of working round it and getting used to it.