Three Gorges

Three Gorges Overview

Imagine drifting downstream past dramatic cliffs, mist-shrouded peaks and thundering waterfalls—the kinds of scenes that have inspired Chinese poets and painters for millennia. Now picture much of that very scenery slowly disappearing beneath the waters of a vast artificial lake. You can stop imagining now. It's a reality: Welcome to the Three Gorges (Sānxiá, 三峡), post 2007. The Three Gorges Dam has been holding the Yangtze River (Cháng Jiāng, 长江) back since 2003, and with the dam's official completion in July 2012, time is running out on the gorges of old. That said, the mountains remain and the peaks still soar—if somewhat less majestically—above the Yangtze's surface.

The tour operators remain, too, and despite the dam a journey downriver promises breathtaking scenery and fascinating insight into contemporary China. The third longest river in the world, the mighty Yangtze stretches some 6,400 km (2,700 mi), running from the snowy peaks of far-western Qinghai before emptying into the Yellow Sea near Shanghai. Damming the powerful waterway remains a controversial but undeniably impressive feat, and the dam—the world's largest—is destined to be a major tourist attraction. The controversy is not over, however, even as the waters rise. It remains to be seen how the consequences of such massive intervention in the natural world will play out.

The government justified the project by claiming the dam would help control the Yangtze's devastating floods, generate electricity and enhance navigability for shipping. Environmental critics observe that the Yangtze is already badly polluted and that flooding banks saturated with industrial waste will further poison the region's water. They add that the reservoir could silt up and what's left of the Yangtze's wildlife may be facing extinction. Archeologists and historians mourn the loss of access to thousands of sites containing valuable traces of China's long history. Dam proponents counter that the dam's huge output of emissions-free electricity mitigates environmental degradation caused by burning fossil fuels and that further economic development trumps historical and environmental preservation. Whatever the case, you can catch it all in transition.

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