Three Gorges Dam Kicks Small Community to Life in the Fast Lane

Tourists make their view of the Three Gorges Dam project from the observation deck  (AFP Photo)

Sitting with his fishing rod on the left bank of the Yangtze river, 70-year-old Ding Xijian has given up following the huge change taking place around him.

"I moved here as a student in '53," the retiree says. "At that time there were only six motorized vehicles in all of Yichang."

Now there are 88,000 in this city of 1.3 million people, and the number is expected to rise to 200,000 by 2020, according to the municipal government.

The streets are filling with expensive imported sedans, for the officials and engineers the dam has attracted, and a large fleet of taxis, for all the tourists arriving to marvel at the concrete wonder on the Yangtze.

The Yichang area, in the interior province of Hubei, is what many would consider quintessential Chinese -- narrow rivers bending beneath steep forested mountains -- but the modern world has arrived, and it will not go away.

The 180-billion-yuan (22.5-billion-dollar) project has been blasted for being too wasteful, making little long-term difference to flood control efforts, harming the environment and inundating world-famous scenery.

That may or may not be, most locals seem to reason, but for them personally the project has meant one big change for the better.

One of them is Feng Zhengpeng, a native son who rose to become manager of the dam's hydropower complex.

"It's true that some of the scenic spots will disappear because of the dam, but new ones will be created, like a lot of nice little islands," he says. "And large numbers of visitors now come just to see the dam."

Tang Minqiang was 15 and had had little exposure to the world outside his quiet and picturesque village on the Yangtze when bulldozers and trucks and laborers speaking strange dialects started arriving in 1993.

His parents and teachers had told him about the scale of the project, but its dimensions only dawned on him when the wall of concrete started rising above the misty blue waters of the river.

And he was an adult before he realized how the dam would provide him with opportunities he would otherwise not have had, as the owner of a shoe shop prospering on the inflow of tourists with money to spend.

"No one had heard about us before the dam, now everyone in China knows about Yichang," Tang, now 28, says as he sat wearing a shiny white suit, waiting to have his wedding photo taken at the upmarket Mona Lisa studio.

Workers make the final preparations on the soon-to-be completed Three Gorges Dam project in Yichang (AFP Photo)

He says the sudden arrival of visitors from all over China and abroad has transformed not just the face of the city, but the mindsets of its inhabitants as well.

"People are more cosmopolitan now. They comb their hair, take showers more often, dress better," he says.

Change has picked up in a place where everything used to happen at glacial pace.

Yichang was first mentioned 2,400 years ago in the records kept with meticulous obsession by local officials in ancient China.

It has a long history that can only be attributed to its position as a natural hub for river transport on the central stretch of the Yangtze.

In the late 19th century, as the Chinese empire reluctantly opened its doors to foreign merchants, Yichang was one of the few harbors permitted to engage in overseas trade.

Now, a more profound transformation is taking place, and a city that was built on commerce is coming to rely increasingly on tourism.

During national holidays, such as the week-long May 1 vacation, the hotels are full, boosting incomes.

Tourism accounted for 9.4 percent of the city's economy in 2005, up from 8.8 percent the year before.

The career of 47-year-old Xu Xiaohua reflects Yichang's gradual change in economic focus.

Xu spent most of his adult life earning a living shipping cargo by boat up and down the Yangtze, but then decided to set up a travel agency with a friend. He has never regretted his decision.

"During the May 1 holiday, while everyone was relaxing I had the busiest time of the year. We had tourists going to the dam non-stop," he says.

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