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Mao Zedong 1956

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By Jack Souther

At Sandouping, a few kilometres upstream from the city of Yichang, we pulled into a viewpoint for our first look at the Three Gorges Dam. Stretching almost 2.5 km across the Yangtze and towering 185 metres above the torrent of muddy water gushing from its flood gates, the Three Gorges Dam dwarfs the men and machines still working on it. It won't be finished for another two years but the tourist facilities are already in place. Parking lots are paved, walkways wind through landscaped gardens to viewpoints, and a large-scale model of the project is displayed in the visitor centre.

We began our trip up the Yangtze in Wuhan, a city of eight million that sits astride the river 350 km downstream from the Three Gorges Dam. From there we drove north to Yichang. At first the air is thick with pollution from Wuhan's massive industrial outskirts where factories and warehouses bear familiar names: Volkswagen, Chrysler, Jeep, Nissan, Coke — companies that are cashing in on China's vast pool of cheap labour and coal-fired energy. A few miles out of the city the sprawling factories give way to clusters of two- and three-rise apartment buildings, the homes of farmers who own and till the surrounding land. The countryside is lush, green and flat — a maze of fields, levees, irrigation ditches, and carp ponds. In one field a farmer guides his plow behind a plodding water buffalo, in another a group of women with reed baskets are picking cotton, and in one of the carp ponds a fish-farmer balances on a tiny bamboo raft. In the distance we can see huge fields of grain. This is one of the most productive food-producing areas in China. The rich alluvial soil from the Yangtze can produce two crops per year, but for generations the river has also threatened to destroy both the crops and those who farm them.

The Yangtze is the third longest river on earth. From its headwaters at 16,000 feet on the Tibetan Plateau the river makes a great loop through western China before turning east and churning through the Three Gorges. Beyond the shoals and rapids of the Gorges it winds through the fertile farmland of the lower Yangtze Basin before spilling into the East China Sea near Shanghai. For hundreds of years it has been a transportation corridor through central China — a link between the eastern and western parts of the country and a gateway between the land and the sea. Large boats could navigate as far inland as Wuhan, a thousand kilometres up-river from the ocean, and smaller boats, with the help of trackers to drag them through the shoals, were able to make it another 1,500 km upstream. For the people of the Yangtze Basin the River was both friend and foe — the source of life-giving water and devastating floods.

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