Archive for October, 2007

China: An Emerging Superpower

Friday, October 12th, 2007

The highlights on a visit to China for us were not what we saw, but what we experienced.  Sure, China has its share of interesting museums, pagodas, and the Yangtze and its Three Gorges were beautiful.  And the Terra Cotta warriors deserve to be a “Wonder of the World.”  In this posting, though, I’ll focus on  how our visit affected my view about China’s role in the twenty-first Century.

Beijing 261 I didn’t spend time in China on business issues.  Today, though, China is a hotbed of entrepreneurship.  The “Silicon Valley” of Beijing (at right, photographed from the Emperor’s Summer Palace), has lots of start-ups, many quite successful.  Chinese entrepreneurs are talented and dedicated.  In Silicon Valley (U.S., not Beijing), some 1/3rd of all start-ups involve Asian-American founders, and many of the most successful start-ups in the U.S. were founded by Chinese entrepreuers.

Beijing 396 We met many young Chinese and learned a lot about their education.  Over and over, we observed smiling, confident, and very bright kids, many of whom speak excellent English (note, China will soon have more English-speaking citizens than the U.S.!).  And school schedules go far beyond what U.S. schools require.  The school day in China typically calls for 45 to 85 hours a week in the classroom.  United States, take note!

Hong Kong 241 I have long taken it as a given that a capitalist system is efficient, while a Communist system is bumbling and corrupt.  I don’t have enough new information yet to completely throw out that view, but I saw some impressive things in China.  Everywhere we went had a brand new (less than ten year old) airport, and Chongqing and Yangtze 342 flights were always on-time — far better than our free-market air transportation system.  Need a fast way to get people to the Shanghai airport — build a magnetic levitation train that goes 431 kilometers/hour!  Need a major source of clean electricity — dam up the Yangtze River, displace and re-locate 1.3 million people, and complete the project way ahead of schedule!  In contrast, U.S. public works projects are often dumb things like the $400 million bridge to nowhere in Alaska, or the ineptly-managed $20 billion “Big Dig” in Boston, reflecting all the negatives of “pork barrel” politics.

China is investing a higher percentage of its GDP in education or national R&D than the U.S.  Their investments in core R&D have increased 17% per year for the past decade, the fastest increases in the world.  They graduate three times as many engineers as the U.S. does.  Their economy has been growing much faster than the U.S. economy, running a trade surplus – without piling up a huge deficit or pouring endless resources into foreign-policy quagmires.  Make no mistake about it, China is locked and loaded on becoming the world’s biggest economic power.

While China is a Communist country, it’s clearly a new brand of Communism.  Government entities are being privatized.  Individuals can form and own their own businesses, and realize most of the gains from their efforts (the tax rate is around 16%!).  Somehow, it’s ok in China tor an individual to make a billion dollars on something (e.g., Baidu) — which sure isn’t the Communism I studied in college.  Yet people in China can only lease, not purchase, land, so we never once saw a “McMansion” as we traveled throughout in China.

Tibet 146 China has its challenges, though.  Everywhere we went, people were amazed that we had TWO children.  Most of China has in place a “one child” rule, and it’s become increasingly expensive to “buy” the right to have a second child.  So the basic math of population dynamics says that, over time, China’s 1.3 billion population (level for years) will include an increasing number of elderly, and they’ll have to be supported. 

Tibet 068 China, while moving fast, still has a long way to go.  We got a great introduction to primitive toilets (see right for a good example), and the combination of cigarette smoke and toilet stench was often unbearable.  And smoking is ubiquitous — some 1/4 of all Chinese die from lung-related diseases. 

Beijing 112We went through many neighborhoods, and even the better-off people still live  basically.  The dominant mode of living in many of the big cities is an apartment in a high-rise, and we talked to many people who lived pretty high up in a building (up to ten stories) without an elevator.  So while their standard of living is on the rise, it has a long way to go. 

Beijing 123

The quality of the environment in China is abysmal.  In most of the locations we traveled, the air was constantly hazy, and everything seemed blurry.  I’ve never been anywhere in my life with such a total lack of wildlife.  After the fifteenth person told me that the reason there are no birds in China is because they’ve all been hunted and eaten, I became convinced.  After three weeks in China, we were excited to see a house sparrow!  At China’s growth rate, especially as more and more of its population convert from bicycles to cars, their pollution problems will become even more acute.

In many parts of China, we couldn’t access our own website, the highly-subversive www.dintersmith.org, or lots of other sites censored by the Chinese government (wikipedia most notably).  It was an emphatic reminder to us throughout our stay of how intrusive the Chinese government is in the daily lives of its people.  It was eery to have to whisper in our hotel room about what we observed during the day, for fear that our room was bugged.   Our children definitely picked up on these issues, wondering why no one in this heavily-Buddhist country has a picture of the Dalai Lama in their home (he was expelled from China in 1959, and anyone caught with a picture of him can be — and often are – put in prison).   

I’m old enough to recall a period in the 1970′s when the popular press in the U.S sounded alarm bells that Japan would soon eclipse the U.S.. economically.  Well, it never happened.  So is China the next “Japan”?  I don’t think so.  Many Chinese have an entrepreneurial drive that is rarely seen in Japan.  With a deep and technically-skilled workforce, and a hunger for achievement, China will be the world’s next superpower.  Can the U.S. stay ahead?  I’d love to say yes, but I doubt it.  Our educational system is badly broken, our governmental priorities bollixed up beyond belief, and our population is far too complacent.  Our strength is that we’re a nation that responds to challenges.  But China may bolt past us so quickly that by the time we respond, there’s no chance to regain the lead. 

Buoi Sáng, Viet Nam

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

Hanoi 204 Oct. 5-8: I’m old enough that the Viet Nam War was a major part of my high school and college years. So I came to this country with a great deal of curiosity. We arrived in Hanoi on a short flight from Hong Kong, arriving on the tail end of a tropical storm. We proceeded to our old-style hotel, the Sofitel Metropole in downtown Hanoi. The service was impeccable there, although at times we felt we were on the set of a movie harking back to a century ago.

Hanoi 023 The first thing that struck us about Hanoi (or didn’t strike us — fortunately) was the traffic. I haven’t seen anything like it since my first visit to Boston! Automobiles, buses, trucks, bicycles, cyclos (pedicabs), and motorcycles all share the road in a haphazard manner, and at any point in time, a major collision seemed all but certain. Hanoi, with a population of about 4 million, has some 2 million motorcycles — and they get lots of use! But somehow, nothing bad ever seems to happen, despite lots of horn honking and many close calls.

Hanoi 035 We headed out early Saturday morning to prison . . . fortunately, just as tourists. The Hao Lo prison is a famous one. It is quite old, and its history includes being used in the Viet Nam War to hold U.S. pilots shot down over North Viet Nam, including John McCain. While I don’t agree with many of his positions, I have a huge amount of respect for the Senator, and seeing where he spent five years of his life only increased thatHanoi 047 admiration. It was so interesting to read the descriptions on the signs in the prison. Not surprisingly, the signs told us that the French would torture Vietnamese in these prisons (probably true), while the Vietnamese were exceptionally kind to U.S. personnel held there during the Viet Nam War (hard to believe). Anyway, most of this prison has been torn down now, and it’s the site of a major new hotel, while a small part of the old prison has been retained for use as a tourist attraction — a symbol for what’s happening throughout Viet Nam.

Hanoi 109 There’s an interesting contrast between the countryside landscape of the Hanoi area, and its downtown. Downtown was just plain jam-packed, with people, stores, apartments, you name it. The scene on the left was pretty typical for downtown. The countryside, though, had this odd assortment of beautifully-architected multi-story houses next to rice paddies, a few run down huts, a beautiful stream, and several piles of garbage. Much of the Hanoi 159 landscape of North Viet Nam was destroyed during the War (which they call the American War), and there’s lots of new construction. Anyway, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, and while I wouldn’t call it stunning or beautiful, it’s certainly quite interesting to see the country rebuilding in front of your eyes.

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Hanoi 048

And speaking of downtown, it’s just bustling with commerce. Viet Nam is a Communist country, but, like China, Viet Nam seems to have figured out how to unlock to power of capitalism while not straying too far from its Communist roots. Both countries have low marginal tax rates and many emerging businesses, but somehow it seems ok for wealth to be created and retained in theseHanoi 053 societies. But Hanoi is filled with a mix of places of commerce — from this Louis Vuitton store to the people selling bananas on the street! And, for the most parts, blocks are organized by stores — so there’s the shoe block, the electronics block, the art block, etc. Makes for efficient shopping. And prices are quite low. Our first dinner out was $18 for four (and fabulous). A one-hour cyclo tour of downtown cost $2!

Hanoi 121

We toured Ho Chi Minh’s residential and office compound in Hanoi, right near his mausoleum. The mausoleum was closed for repairs, so we missed viewing his body (still preserved and on display). But the grounds of his compound were quite beautiful, including the garage for his car collection. Our guide explained that HCM was a simple man who only wanted what is best for the Vietnamese people, after which our kids asked, “So why is it that someone so ‘simple’ lived in such a fabulous place?”

Hanoi 198 On a Sunday morning, we drove out to a village on the outskirts of Hanoi that specializes in pottery production. It was interesting to see so many people hard at work early on a Sunday morning. The Vietnamese people are incredibly industrious! Their goal is to be a middle income nation by 2012 and a developed nation by 2020 — and I wouldn’t bet against them. And we ended up making our first purchase of the trip — a pair of large urns (a la John Singer Sargent) which we have shipped to Elizabeth’s very understanding sister and brother-in-law in Seattle — wait until that box arrives!!

I wasn’t immediately taken by Hanoi, but it grew on me over our stay. The food is outstanding — our entire family now loves Vietnamese food. The people are really nice, and we didn’t see a single sign of ill will toward Americans, even though I kept thinking that many peopleHanoi 180 we met may well have had a relative killed or hurt during the War by U.S. actions. As one person we talked to explained, “We know quite well that the actions of a government don’t reflect the feelings of the people, so we hold no grudge against the American people.” Let’s hope people in the Middle East feel that way toward the U.S. I remember all too well the intense emotion (in many cases ripping families apart) in the U.S. over the Viet Nam War, and the many senior policy-makers who insisted that our nation’s security depended on stopping the “dominoes” from toppling. Well, it’s mind-boggling to reflect upon these policies in light of the friendly and industrious Hanoi we just visited.

Our Hanoi photo album is at

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/440303

Hong Kong — So Sweet!

Saturday, October 6th, 2007

 

Hong Kong 266 Oct. 3-5:  I’ll start by reviewing a running debate our family has been having about Hong Kong.  Should we view Hong Kong (HK) as a distinct country, or as part of China?  Sounds like a simple question to answer, right?  Well, there are some good arguments to view HK as a separate country — it has its own currency, legal system, customs policy, and immigration policy.  On the other hand, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has sovereignty over HK, controls its government, is responsible for its defense and foreign policy, and plans to completely absorb it into the PRC in 2047.   Separate country??  You’re guess is as good as ours.

Hong Kong 269 One thing that isn’t ambiguous is the spectacular beauty of Hong Kong — surrounded by lush mountains, the China Sea, and a gorgeous harbor.  It consists of some 262 islands and peninsulas, the largest of which are Hong Kong Island, Lantau Island, and Kowloon Peninsula.  Hong Kong literally translated means “fragrant harbour.”  The city is a center of finance and tourism, with a population of about 7,000,000.

Hong Kong 301 A highlight of our stay in HK took place some 8,005 miles away in Boston, MA, where the Red Sox opened their series against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  While we would have loved to have been there live, we were able to watch the game in our hotel room.  It started at 6:30 a.m. HK time, and we watched a gorgeous sun rise over HK harbor and an even more gorgeous game from Josh Beckett.  I also traded e-mails with my good friend Jeff Bussgang, who was at the game.  He kindly e-mailed me back a delicious Fenway Frank using a revolutionary attachment technology developed by one of his portfolio companies (another good investment, Jeff!). 

Hong Kong 311 A highlight of our time in Hong Kong was a trip out to Mai Po Nature Preserve.  After a dreadful lack of wildlife in China, we saw almost 50 different types of birds, including this grey heron sunning itself on the edge of one of Mai Po’s marshes.   It was terrific to spend time at such a protected spot just a short drive from downtown.  After three weeks in China, we had seen a shockingly anemic grand total of three different species of birds, so it was great to see some beautiful birds in HK.

Hong Kong 283 At night, HK is alive with activity.  Each evening there is a laser show at 8:00 p.m. which we observed one evening from a boat in the harbor.   HK lies in the tropics, and the weather in early October is balmy; it was a fabulous night to be out on the water.

Hong Kong 263 The architecture of the buildings in HK is varied and interesting.   In the photo on the left, the larger building on the left hand side with the two antennae and the criss-crosses running up and down is an I.M. Pei design and was one of our favorites.  At night, the cross-hatches were lit, and it was pretty jazzy.

Hong Kong 015 We managed to squeeze in a bit of baseball while in HK, but it wasn’t easy.  We ended up walking fifteen minutes from the hotel to the nearest “park.”   As far as I can tell, “park” in Chinese means “tiny amount of land that is mostly cement, and anything grassy is strictly off limits, with a policeman ready to stop you in a matter of seconds.”  So we threw on a little sidewalk area.  The guy on the left was running very small laps around the park, and passed us every 180 seconds — like clockwork.  Gibson was tempted to use this opportunity to work on his brushback pitch, but decided to keep his pitches away from the “runner.”

The contrast between HK and some of China’s (other) cities couldn’t have been more stark.  As one person put it, in Beijing you see lots of bicycles being used for transportation by a relatively poor population.  In HK, the only bicycles you see are in fitness centers, of which there are many.  It’s cosmopolitan and multi-cultural.  HK was as diverse as any place we’ve ever been, with a very educated population.  It has great culture, museums (we didn’t make it to any, unfortunately, since we only had two days there), shopping, and restaurants.   We’ve generally allocated the right amount of time to the places we’ve visited, but we would love to spend more time in HK.  It gives us a great excuse to return!

 

 

If you want to take a look at our Hong Kong  photo album, go to http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/394279/605896#imageID=28097166

19 Million People Can’t Be Wrong

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

I have to admit to bringing little enthusiasm to Shanghai. A couple of people had cautioned me about the pollution and crowding, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be too excited about this city. I was wrong.

Shanghai 138 Shanghai’s population of 19 million makes it one of the ten largest cities in the world. We all take for granted to numbers and rankings presented about “city size,” but even a little digging shows that there’s a high degree of arbitrariness around what actually is a city’s “population.” We talked a couple of postings ago about Chongqing, China, which claims 32 million people, but that encompasses a very large geographical area (think, Los Angeles). So a city’s population is subject to differing definitions, and rankings will shift accordingly. But almost every list of the world’s biggest cities includes Shanghai, and there seems to be little doubt it’s China’s biggest city.

Shanghai 139 The first thing that struck us about Shanghai was this round yellow sphere in the sky. In most of China, the haze had obscured the sun, but Shanghai’s air was good . . . at least by China’s standards. And, even though we were there during China’s national holiday week, and it was unusually crowded, it was a fabulous place to visit, and a world-class city.

Shanghai 149 Someone told us that, in visiting China, if you want to understand its past, you need to visit Beijing. And if you want to understand China’s future, you need to visit Shanghai. One glance at Shanghai’s skyline underscores that insight.

Shanghai 064 The first thing that you can’t miss is the sheer size of Shanghai. It’s massive. And mostly very new. Unlike Beijing, it appears that architects were actually involved in designing some of the newer buildings. Several were breath-taking, and in aggregate it makes an indelible impression. If you love big cities (we do!), you’ll love the feel of Shanghai. A must stop is the Urban Planning Museum, which gives a history of Shanghai’s evolution, and has a great model of this giant city. This model seemed bigger than a lot of the cities we’ve been to!

Shanghai 150 Shanghai is this interesting mix of the old and the new. In the shadow of the new skyscrapers is an area called the Bund, along the Huangpu River. BTW, Shanghai lies on this river, about 40 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean and not on the near-by Yangtze. The Bund in the early 1900′s was the center of foreign enterprise in Shanghai, and the architecture looks far more like an older European city than like noveau China. Foreign enterprises were forced out after the Communist victory in 1949, and many of the buildings are now occupied by government offices, banks, or have become historical or tourist sites.

Shanghai 170 We also took a trip out to an ancient river town, Zhujiajiao, which reflects simple and elegant Ming and Qing dynasty architecture. You get around the city through a combination of quiet stone streets, and canals with boats powered by boatsmen. We had lunch at a great Ming Dynasty private residence that is now a museum. The kids spent time feeding goldfish in a pond, and nearly grabbed one for lunch! Nothing like Goldfish Sushi!!

Shanghai 087 We went to the Shanghai Museum, which has a world-class collection of ancient Chinese jade, hand-carved furniture, and bronze. We had a great visit to this museum. But our visit was also fairly brief (about an hour). One challenge to our trip for us is that we could spend ten hours a day visiting museums, temples, cathedrals, and shrines of various sorts. We have put a limit on the number we’ll visit in any week, and and how much time we’ll spend in any given site. Given that we’re traveling for over ten months, we’re concerned about “museum burn-Shanghai 135 out” and have organized our schedule accordingly. So I’m sure we missed many interesting things at the Shanghai Museum, but we had a great time there, learned a lot, and got back outside to watch some of the kites being flown over Shanghai!

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Miscellaneous from family camera 022 Our Shanghai highlight was an evening at the Chinese Acrobatic Show, which had act after act which we just couldn’t believe. These performers were so acrobatic, it often took our breath away — whether it was juggling with 100 pound ancient Chinese vases, or balancing on a large (20 meters in diameter) spinning steel wheel blind-folded, we just loved watching them. I managed one picture (no flash) and probably risked spending the rest of my life in jail to do it, but wanted to capture the show’s energy.

A not-quite-highlight of our Shanghai visit was the Opening Ceremony of the 2007 Special Olympics. We did get a chance to meet some of the event’s organizers, as well as athletes from Canada, Ireland, and Chinese Taipei. We tried to get tickets to the opening ceremony, which were harder to get than Red Sox – Yankees tickets. We came close (too long a story), but ended up watching the opening ceremony on television (the first time we have watched television on our trip). Elizabeth and I kept saying, “Oh, it’s probably better that we’re not there live. There are 80,000 people, it will be jammed, and our kids wouldn’t get home until too late.” But we both know we would have LOVED to have been there live, and even on television it was very inspiring. Given that historically China ignored its handicapped (believing a handicapped child was somehow punishment for a family), so it was inspiring to see the Chinese Government and its Special Olympics contingent showcased, with over 600,000 Chinese participating in the games across the country. China is changing, and it’s changing fast.

Shanghai 224 We had another really fun baseball outing in Shanghai , and it was great to meet some college students in Shanghai who share our enthusiasm for this great sport. There were about fifty college students playing at a university in Shanghai (East China Normal University), and — despite having no real field to play on — they brought lots of enthusiasm and energy to the game. See my http://ted.dintersmith.org/2007/10/04/baseball-in-shanghai/ posting for more about this fun afternoon!

Hong Kong 241 We left Shanghai for its airport, and got there through its Maglev train. The train operates entirely on electro-magnetic forces (no wheels, no mechanics) and peaks out at a speed of 431 kilometers per hour (267 mph). I couldn’t help but think how great it would be to have this same train (based on German technology) running from Boston to Washington, instead of continuing to limp along with Amtrak.

For our slide show from Shanghai, check out

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/394279/603184#imageID=27977720

Baseball In Shanghai

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

Baseball in Shanghai 014 We were very fortunate to be able to join a great group of college students at East China Normal University for an afternoon of baseball. This enthusiastic initiative is led by Coach Pan Wen (nickname “Goose”) who has more than fifty students playing baseball well and regularly, despite the challenge of not having a field!

Baseball in Shanghai 002 There are three men’s teams and one women’s softball team who play regularly at the University, and have occasional games with other teams. We met on a school holiday and there were about forty students there! Our daughter Sterling played catch with some of the women, who were very nice to her.

Shanghai 208 Gibson played in an intra-squad scrimmage, and got a chance to pitch an inning. It wasn’t an easy challenge, since he was pitching from 60 feet, there was no mound, and the next thing after the catcher was a sidewalk and building (with glass windows!). He really loved the chance to pitch in a game, though, and it was very nice of the team to let him come in and participate at that level. He then played second base, and got a few at bats against some very good pitchers. Their best pitcher has a wind-up like Dice-K’s, which was fun to observe.

Shanghai 224 We brought Red Sox hats for the players, and they looked great in them. They could also use a bunch of equipment, and we’re going to try to help them out with some balls, bats, catcher’s gear, and bases. They bring such enthusiasm to the sport, and many of the player’s showed lots of talent. Also, baseball seems to be a great match for the Chinese culture, since it’s a very team-oriented sport and requires real focus and thinking. A challenge for any kid or group interested in any field sport in China, though, is the lack of available fields to play on. We’ve had to work like dogs on our China segment just to find somewhere that we can throw a ball, and have had to improvise at many spots.

Baseball in Shanghai 012

It was also fun to see a half dozen women on the field practicing. They were clearly excited about baseball, and appear to have a very good softball team. I’m a big fan of sports for women, so seeing talented young Chinese women excited about this great sport was really inspiring.

Shanghai 229 Our baseball experience in Shanghai was quite different from that in Adelaide or Beijing. The teams in Adelaide and Beijing were quite “professional,” with consistently talented players, great equipment, outstanding facilities, and excellent coaches. The fields in Adelaide and Beijing, for instance, were better than any baseball field (other than Fenway) that we’ve played on in the U.S. In Shanghai, it had much more of the feel of a bunch of young adults just hanging out on a holiday, playing baseball, and having fun — despite lots of challenges from the lack of a facility.

Baseball in Shanghai 029 All in all, our time with the team at East China Normal was a real highlight of our time in China, and we wish Coach Goose and his great group of players all the best as they build a fun baseball activity in Shanghai! To see photos of this fun day, go to our photo album at:

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/394279/605954#imageID=28099149

Dam, Dam, Dam!!!

Monday, October 1st, 2007

Sept. 27-30:  Imagine a construction project so vast it dwarfs Boston’s ineptly-managed “Big Dig.”  Not only a massive construction project, but one that involves relocating over 1,300,000 million people!  Well, that’s exactly what’s going on along the Yangtze River in China right now with the Three Gorges Dam.

Chongqing and Yangtze 110 After Tibet, we  flew to Chongqing, a city of some 7/13/32 million people.  Within the downtown area, the population is 7 million.  Including the near-by surroundings, it’s 13 million.   And most people in China say its population is 32 million, but that covers an area about the size of Massachusetts.  By any measure, it’s an incredibly large city . . . especially for one none of us had heard of before!

Chongqing and Yangtze 005 We liked Chongqing’s great little museum dedicated to “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, a U.S. Army General stationed in Chongqing in WWII, fun zoo, and overall energy level.  The city is famous for its ”hot pot” restaurants, which we visited briefly — very briefly.  We sat down at a table with a vat of hot oil and hot pot delicacies — eel, cow stomach, and other unidentifiable options.  Chongqing and Yangtze 023 We immediately bailed, showing just how unadventurous we are on the eating front!  Anyway, despite the not-so-hot hot–pot experience, Chongqing was a treat.

 

 

Before getting to the Yangtze, a few words about Stilwell and WWII.  During what the Chinese call the “Anti-Japanese War” (1937-1945), Japan occupied most of northern and western (heavily populated) China, as well as Singapore and Burma.  The Chinese army retreated up the Yangtze to the hilly and protected city of Chingqing.  The U.S. assigned General Stilwell (who had lived earlier in China and spoke fluent Mandarin) to help with operations in the CBI (China, Burma, India) area.  The Allies desperately wanted to prevent Japan from gaining control of China’s many resources.  Together, the Chinese and Americans fought off Japanese attacks, and kept open a crucial supply line running from India through the Himalayas  to central China, allowing the Chinese army to receive vital supplies.  From what we could gather, Stilwell remains a hero in China, and the museum in his honor is full of fabulous photographs from an important time in China’s — and the world’s — history.

Chongqing and Yangtze 081 After Chongqing, we boarded the East Queen for a three-day cruise down the Yangtze, passing through the incredible Three Gorges area, and ending by passing through the locks of the Three Gorges Dam.   It was our family’s first-ever “cruise,” although low-key by cruise standards. 

 

Chongqing and Yangtze 191The area we covered by boat is noteworthy for its beauty and for its dam.  The Yangtze River, and its gorges, are stunning.  Scenes from these gorges grace the 10 and 20 Yuan bills in China, and it’s the nation’s natural treasure.  And the scale of what the Chinese government is doing with the dam, and how they’re going about it, are remarkable.  So here goes . . .

Chongqing and Yangtze 202 As we sailed down the Yangtze, we were fortunate to have relatively good weather.  Early on the second day, we sailed through the first, and most spectacular, gorge.  Later in the day, we passed through the second and third gorges.  What unfolded that day was amazing. 

Chongqing and Yangtze 223 In many places the banks of the Yangtze rise straight up from the powerful river, and are dotted with caves and lush shrubs and trees.  We passed occasional towns and cities (more later), as well as Chinese working in and along the river in ways quite similar to what they’d been doing for hundreds of years (fishing, farming, barter trading).  We watched with dropped jaws as the Yangtze, and its gorges, unfolded before us.

Chongqing and Yangtze 349 Our voyage down the Yangtze was timely, since the Chinese government is nearing completion of the Three Gorges Dam.  Begun in 1994, and costing $25 billion, it’s the largest hydroelectric dam in the world.  It will  backflood the Yangtze’s river banks for over 600 kilometers (!!) upstream, and force the displacement of more than 1.3 million people.  The dam is 2.3 kilometers long and towers some 185 meters above the world’s third longest river.  It will generate some 18,200 MW of power, enough for five New York City’s!

Chongqing and Yangtze 335

The engineering model at right gives a sense of the projects’s scope.  Originally, the lower right of the screen was covered by two large mountains, which were blasted away to make room for the locks, with the rock residue used for the concrete to build the dam.  The Yangtze was diverted to the bottom of the photo, while two retaining dams were built in its normal flow zone.  The dam (upper part) consists of two sections with very large turbine generators for power, and a center section what can be used to release water from the upper reservoir.  A complex bi-directional five-stage lock system is at the bottom of the of the screen, and is operational today (we went through it!).  And there will be a “ship elevator,” scheduled to be operational in 2012, between the dam and the visible lock system that will rapidly transfer (30 minutes) boats of 3 tons or less (floating them in 7 tons of water, which will also be lifted).

Chongqing and Yangtze 320 At night, we passed through the locks — a really cool experience.  The doors on the locks are each the size of a full basketball court, and weigh considerably more than Shaq O’Neal.  The picture to the left, taken at night, is of one of the gates that opened to let our cluster of ships (some eight per lock) through.  Chongqing and Yangtze 329

We were able to pass through the locks in about three hours, and covered a total difference in elevation of over 100 meters.  Its the largest in-land lock system in the world.  The water drained from each lock (estimated to be 100,000 cubic meters of water) in about 7 minutes!!  The dam is becoming a big tourist attraction, and over time the area will include a golf course, top-notch hotels, and other recreation attractions.

Chongqing and Yangtze 186 What I found more amazing than the gorges or dam, though, was the scope of the relocation required to make this project happen — over 1.3 million people!  In the U.S., this is equivalent to relocating every person in the state of New Hampshire!  Over a fifteen year period, small towns and large cities along the Yangtze’s banks have been completely demolished, brand new cities and towns were built (like the one in photo above — an entirely new city!), and communities were entirely relocated, often on the other side of the river.  Some 50% of this $25 billion project went to relocation and rebuilding costs. 

Chongqing and Yangtze 145 We talked to a half dozen people who had been relocated. Either they were Academy Award winning actors, or they really did prefer the new arrangement — at least twice the space, brand new building, working toilets, heat and electricity, and running water, and rent free.  The picture to the right is the the balcony garden of one of the new houses.  We met the matriarch of the family, a 74 year old entrepreneur, who was very happy with her spacious new apartment. 

Anyway, this experience has been an excellent basis for family discussions on comparative governments.  For better or worse, a project of this scope could never be done in the U.S..  But in China, it’s a huge source of national pride.  The project has been completed ahead of schedule and under budget, they have a major source of clean  energy, and by most of the relocated people are happy with the outcome.  But this process clearly runs counter to many of the values so core to our country, and the Three Gorges Dam makes these contrasts very tangible.