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First stop after Chongqing reveals a provincial city cashing in on its geography and China's national priorities


MARCH 22—After several days of interviews in Chongqing, I booked a ticket for a weekend "fast" boat trip down the Yangtze River to the next big city, Yichang.

The 40-hour trip was on an old--and actually rather slow--passenger ferry used by local people on a budget. There were faster boats from Chongqing doing the trip in 12 hours, but the passenger areas on these boats were fully enclosed by windows that are unsuitable for photography. Despite some shortcomings, my boat had an outstanding cafeteria aboard. Sichuan peppercorns, a spice that leaves the mouth numb with pleasure, are unfortunately too little-known in the West.

Most of the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River has been completed. When the second phase of this project ended in 2002, the river's water level rose by about 140 meters. When the dam is complete in 2009, the waters will rise another 40 meters.

DISPLACED Many people whose homes were flooded as a result of the Three Gorges Dam project wait for new housing to be built. PHOTOS BY JEAN-FRANÇOIS TREMBLAY

Contrary to what travel agents were telling tourists before 2002, the Three Gorges have not disappeared. Though a bit shorter than before, the gorges remain spectacular. (My boat sailed past the first two during the night, but I saw the third one.) Parts of the riverbank are still several hundred meters high.

Also impressive is the extent of the changes taking place along the banks upriver from the Three Gorges. The dam flooded the homes of more than 1 million people, many of whom are still waiting to move into new apartment blocks that are under construction.

In the town of Zhongxian, people selling snacks at stalls by the pier said they had left their temporary housing and come into town less than three months earlier. Further downriver, the city of Wanxian is the scene of an enormous building site just above the boat pier. It was obvious that the construction of many apartment blocks was nearing completion.

BUILDING UP Much construction is taking place at cities along the Yangtze between Chongqing and Yichang; shown here is Wanxian.

When I arrived in Yichang, a taxi driver waiting for passengers by the pier took me to the Chang Cheng Hotel, a centrally located guest house skillfully managed by the People's Liberation Army.

Amusingly, in hindsight, I had expected that the cities just downriver from Chongqing would be very backward and that it would be difficult to get things done. Yichang is a surprisingly pleasant up-and-coming city of 1.2 million people. Much like rural towns in Taiwan, it's disorganized, but not really dirty. The traffic comes from all directions, but vehicles are slow moving and there are few of them.

SCENIC Magnificent views around Yichang attract tourists.

There are two McDonald's, two KFC chicken restaurants (all doing a roaring business), and many parks. The schools are large, and there are trees in the yards. There is an abundance of fresh produce in the markets; all kinds of new shops are opening; and people seem content. As in Chongqing, one can see unemployed men sitting by the curbs, but misery is not obviously prevalent.

Yichang is benefiting from its geographical location and from the policies of the national government. The neighboring Three Gorges have long provided Yichang with a thriving tourism business from both China and abroad. More recently, Yichang has been getting its fair share of the $25 billion that Beijing is spending on the dam project.

Around the city, there are a few military bases--another source of economic benefit. The town also hosts a huge university, attended by 100,000 students, that is famous for its electrical engineering department.

Alex, an English teacher from Australia whom I bumped into on the street, said he had arrived in Yichang two years earlier after going through a Beijing-based agency that places foreign instructors throughout China. He considers himself lucky. "God's hand must have placed me here," he said.

WILL WORK Unemployed men gather as they look for work in Yichang.

[Back to Chronicling the Yangtze River]


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