It seems like an eternity ago when I was a young China program manager for ATA and spent my time running tours with titles like “Decorative Arts of China,” “To The Edges of the Empire,” and “History through the Dynasties.” That was back in the 1980s, before Tiananmen Square took place.
Two years went by and ATA had no China tour business whatsoever. Americans felt strongly about what had happened on June 4, 1989, and expressed their outrage by turning their travel interests elsewhere. Then slowly, travel to China began again, and soon, Li Peng announced in 1992 at the National People’s Congress that the Chinese government was going to build the largest hydroelectric dam in the world on the Yangtze River.
It didn’t take long for the China National Tourism Office to apply this news to a brilliant new marketing campaign: “Come to China and see the Three Gorges before they disappear!” Few promotions indicated that the project would not be completed until 2009—a mere 17 years later. The buzz spread like wildfire—cruising the Yangtze River before the landscape changed forever became a top priority for Americans traveling to China. In fact, this keen interest eclipsed all other destinations within China. The Yangtze River sucked most American tourists away from many of the traditional cities and towns, and took them up and down the roiling waters between Chongqing and Yichang. No more visits to Qufu, Confucius’ home town; to Jingdezhen, where the kilns of ancient dynasties produced so many ceramic masterpieces; to Huangshan’s misty peaks and the surrounding Ming Dynasty villages; to Kunming and its lush tropical climate and rice paddy fields; to Kashgar and its intriguing history at the crossroads of the Silk Road; to Xishuangbanna and its colorful Water-Splashing Festival, and even to Hong Kong, whose glamor unjustifiably diminished after 1997.
So here we are: it’s 2009 and the Three Gorges Dam is essentially completed (2011 is when it is expected to be fully operational). The water level has risen to its maximum anticipated level of 175 meters above sea level (574 feet). Goddess Peak in Wu Gorge now stands less lofty; some Ba hanging coffins (believed to be 2500 years old) are now submerged; the reservoir is full; the roiling, muddy waters have calmed; and the Yangtze River sturgeon continues to fight for its life. The river is still a fascinating place and shall remain so throughout time. But I think it’s time for a change…
Without diminishing the interest the Yangtze River holds, I urge American travelers to venture off the beaten path of the past 17 years and explore the rest of this magnificent country! There are wonders to behold in China that have long been neglected by our compatriots. Go, discover a China beyond the Yangtze.