The flat, broad river plains west of Wuhan don’t seem too exciting at first, but historic remains lend solid character along the way. It takes around 36 hours to navigate upstream from Wuhan via Jingzhou to YICHANG (宜昌, yíchāng), from where the exciting journey through the Yangzi Gorges and on to Chongqing begins. Most boats, however, don’t stop along the way, so if you want to see anything it’s more convenient – and far quicker – to use the Wuhan–Jingzhou–Yichang expressway, which cuts the journey time to Yichang down to less than four hours.
You may well end up spending a night at Yichang, a transport terminus on the Yangzi 120km upstream from Jingzhou and virtually in the shadow of the Three Gorges Dam. Ringed by car showrooms (western Hubei has long been a car manufacturing centre), the town is where visitors land after riding ferries and hydrofoils down from neighbouring Chongqing through the Three Gorges – or it can be used as a staging post for visiting the dam itself. Wild Shennongjia Forest Reserve is a bus ride away to the north.
Remnants of Yichang’s treaty port days provide a dash of character, such as the St Francis Cathedral (圣方济各堂, kūfāngjĭ gĕtáng) on Zili Lu. Early evening is a good time to head down to the river and watch crowds flying kites, gorging themselves on shellfish at nearby street restaurants or cooling off with an ice cream.
The Three Gorges Dam
The Three Gorges Dam
The Three Gorges Dam (长江三峡大坝, chángjiāng sānxiá dàbà), the world’s most ambitious hydroelectric project, is 35km west of Yichang at Sandouping. The statistics are impressive: completed in 2006, the dam wall has raised water levels upstream by up to 175m and holds back a 660km-long lake; and when it becomes fully operational around 2012, the turbines will generate 22.5 GW (gigawatts) of power – about ten percent of the entire country’s needs. It’s hoped that the dam will help control the disastrous summer flooding which has long afflicted the lower Yangzi – something that received its first serious test in 2010, when torrential “once-in-a-century” monsoonal rains upstream seemed to be successfully contained. Critics of the dam label it a vanity project that has submerged countless archeological and historical sites in the Three Gorges, required the relocation of millions of people, caused landslides along the lake and will become redundant through siltation within seventy years. But there’s no doubt that, with its electricity consumption increasing every year, China desperately needs the power that the dam provides.