The Yangtze River: Picturesque, vibrant, mysterious

The Yangtze River: Picturesque, vibrant, mysterious

Watson E. Mills has visited all 28 sites comprising the Smithsonian Institutes “travel bucket list,” also known as the “28 places to See before You Die.” He is a member of the Circumnavigators Club of New York having completed three around-the-world journeys. As a long-time member of the Travelers Century Club, he has visited 276 of the 318 countries on the club’s list of the world’s countries and regions.

The Smithsonian list of “28 Places to See before You Die” contains only one of the world’s rivers, China’s Yangtze River, found in the 5th group of four among the 28–a group that is called “Scale New Heights.” This sub-group also includes Antarctica, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Grand Canyon.

Stretching almost 4,000 miles, the Yangtze is the longest river in world that flows entirely within a single country. It is the third-longest river in the entire world behind the Nile and the Amazon (the longer of these two outdistances the Yangtze by less than 200 miles). The river originates in the Plateau of Tibet at an elevation of more than 16,000 feet and then proceeds generally eastward along a winding course until it empties into a major delta system on the East China Sea. Also, four of China’s five main freshwater lakes contribute their waters to the Yangtze.

The Yangtze River basin is home to nearly one-third of China’s population, and so this river plays a major role in the history, culture, and economy of China, generating about 20 percent of the country’s GDP. In recent years the Yangtze River has suffered from industrial pollution and agricultural run-off. These factors, and others, have resulted in the loss of wetlands and lakes in addition to the general pollution of the river. In mid-2014, the Chinese government announced it was building a multi-tier transport network, comprising railways, roads, and airports, to create a new economic belt alongside the river. The hope was that this massive undertaking would offset at least some of the effects of pollution and loss of wetlands upon the general economy. Another effect of the loss of lakes and wetlands can be seen in the seasonal flooding of the Yangtze.

As a result of these factors, when the lower Yangtze basin experiences sustained, heavy rains, the consequences have been frequently catastrophic. This seasonal flooding has occurred mainly in central and eastern China. Some of this flooding has resulted in sizable loss of life and property. Among the most recent major flood events are those that occurred in 1931, 1954, 1998, and 2010. By far, the worst of these was the flood of 1931. It affected an area of more than 30,000 square miles and included the cities of Nanjing and Wuhan. More than 300,000 people died and many millions were left homeless. Even though more-effective levees were built during the years following the 1931 disaster, the floods of 1954 and 1998 were still highly destructive and killed more than 33,000 people.

Because of these floods, one of the major objectives of the Three Gorges Dam project was to alleviate flooding along the lower Yangtze. In fact, two dams have been built on the Yangtze River, and today are functioning: Three Gorges Dam and Gezhouba Dam. The former is the largest power station in the world as measured by the output of electrical power. Other dams are being constructed (or planned) on the upper portion of the river.

By far, the Three Gorges Dam is the largest built, being built, or in the planning stage. The dam proved effective during the extraordinarily rainy summer of 2010 by holding back much of the resultant flood waters and thus minimizing the impact of flooding downstream. Even so, it was necessary for the dam to open its floodgates in order to reduce the high water volume in the reservoir. As a result, flooding and landslides in the Yangtze basin killed several hundred people and caused extensive property damage.

For centuries the Yangtze stood as a major geographic barrier that divided northern and southern China. There were no bridges until the middle of the 20th century, and so travelers were able to cross only by ferry. This meant that those traveling by rail from Beijing to Guangzhou and on to Shanghai had to disembark and board a ferry before they could complete their journey. And on occasion, these crossings proved dangerous, as evidenced by the Zhong’anlun disaster which occurred on October 15, 1945. About 1,000 people boarded the ferry for a crossing to Taixing City. The ferry sank just over a mile short of its arrival, resulting in the deaths of 800 people. Many observers suggest that this disaster motivated the government to accelerate the development of bridges across the Yangtze.

So after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Soviet engineers assisted in the design and construction of a bridge near Wuhan. The bridge was a dual-use bridge for both vehicles and trains. After its completion many other bridges were built – both of the dual and single use variety. By the dawn of the new millennium there were more than 50 bridges and one tunnel across the Yangtze River. These include some of the longest suspension and cable-stayed bridges in the world. And this rapid pace of construction has continued into the 21st century. Today the city of Wuhan, for example, has six bridges and one tunnel across the Yangtze.

Because the source of the Yangtze was not ascertained until modern times, the Chinese have given different names to lower and upstream sections of the river. “Yangtze” was actually the name for the lower part from that runs from Nanjing to the mouth of the river at Shanghai. However, due to the fact that Christian missionaries carried out their activities mainly in this area and were familiar with the name for this part of the river, “Yangtze” gradually came to be used to refer to the whole of the river in the English language.

No other waterway in all of China has inspired the number of myths and legends as the mighty Yangtze, which meanders its way through the heartlands of the People’s Republic, from the glacial summits of Tibet to the warm waters of the East China Sea. During my two cruises down the Yangtze, I have greatly enjoyed hearing the stories that the guides relate about the myths and legends that have grown up about this famous river. These legends vary widely and all of them are still believed by at least some of the people who live along its shores. For instance, there are those who believe that the Yangtze River is the “Mother River” and that it is the life spring for all other rivers. Another popular legend centers around a lonely Chinese princess who was about to be married to a man she did not love. When she refused, her father pushed her into the Yangtze River where she drowned, but the mighty river took pity upon her and she was reincarnated as a dolphin. For thousands of years she reigned as the Goddess of the Yangtze swimming along with the river’s currents; however, in recent decades this goddess was again betrayed. As China soared to new economic heights, the Yangtze’s increasingly toxic waters poisoned her food. Then the Three Gorges Dam sealed her fate. By the beginning of the 21st century she succumbed, becoming the first dolphin driven to extinction by humans. Yet remarkably, her less-storied cousin still swims the river. This finless porpoise is fleshy and rotund and its mouth is fixed in a permanent grin. So far this creature has survived the environmental assaults that conquered her predecessors. Unfortunately, the Yangtze finless porpoise population is now critically endangered and conservationists estimate there are fewer than 10 years remaining to stave off their extinction.

The smog that often envelopes the Yangtze creates a mysterious and luminous beauty that has lured tourists to its banks for decades. This world-renowned river hosts cities both large and small, and industrial complexes, bridges, barges, and small houseboats may be found along its shores and upon its waters. The natural beauty of this waterway is truly beyond description. The Yangtze definitely belongs among the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.”

Next time: “Antarctica: The seventh continent at the end of the world”