It was one of the most controversial- and dangerous- construction projects ever undertaken. After six years of filling, the Three Gorges Dam is now complete and Beijing is keen to turn the engineering marvel into a tourist attraction. Is there anything left to see?

Steeped in history and folklore, for centuries the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges were celebrated by bards and artists. Famous for its beauty, infamous for its ferocity, this stretch of river squeezing through Hubei province’s mountainous terrain was as spellbinding as it was terrifying.

Tumbling off the Tibetan Plateau, then rushing through the lush Three Parallel Rivers and spinning almost 250 degrees after hitting the Great Bend in Yunnan province, the Yangtze faced a tumultuous journey before even reaching its greatest hurdle, the Three Gorges.

Brimming with whirlpools and rapids, the Three Gorges inspired terror in all who passed. In his 1956 novel, A Single Pebble, journalist John Hersey recounts the experiences of an American engineer surveying the gorges for a dam site: “The primeval landscape seemed to have been arranged by some force of fury … supernatural and malevolent. [Whirlpools stretching] 30 feet across, [their] centres depressed nearly a foot below the rim, as if the waters of the Great River were running off through some huge partially clogged drainpipe down to the cesspools of Hell …”

In those days, “trackers”, barefoot men – sometimes naked – would scramble along the sides of the river, hauling junks upstream by ropes tied to their waists.

In 2003, I took a farewell cruise through the gorges before China’s ambitious Three Gorges Dam began to fill. The three- or four-night trip between Chongqing and Yichang (the upstream journey takes a day longer) had become a popular tourist attraction, with scores of cruise ships plying the route.

It was a spectacular journey. Sitting on the top deck, we had to crane our necks to glimpse the mountain tops. We held our breath as our 146-cabin cruise ship squeezed through the narrowest section: the 150-metre wide Qutang Gorge. Spiritual offerings and multi-tiered pagodas lined the river’s shores, with prayers etched into the rock face. People believed the gorges were alive with chi and needed to be nurtured and appeased. It is said that during the Cultural Revolution, the army destroyed religious symbols but refused to tear down the pagodas along the Three Gorges, terrified of the fury that the river might unleash.

I returned to the Three Gorges last year to see the outcome of six years of dam-building.

Like my 2003 trip, this one came with a hiccup. My earlier journey ended abruptly when a government official decided to stop the river’s traffic, leaving our cruise ship on the far side and a rusty old bus to deliver us to Wuhan, what would have been a 24-hour sail away. This time, when we arrive at the port to board, we’re told the new locks have suddenly closed for maintenance and our ship is stuck on the far side. So we’re taken by bus to Sandouping – to the dismay of some passengers – where Victoria Cruises’ Katarina, a glittering monstrosity plush with maroon carpets, sparkling chandeliers and a team of chirpy, proficient staff, is waiting in the dam’s reservoir.

Next morning we head to the dam itself: 2335 metres long, 101 metres high, with five locks and a massive ship elevator. It is an engineering marvel and authorities hope it’s as impressive as the gorges once were – Beijing predicts the dam site will attract 1 million visitors a year and recently started engineering a 3000-room resort park overlooking the dam’s tranquil waters.

Dreams of tempering the “wildest, wickedest river on Earth” were first voiced in 1919 by the founder of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen. Mao Zedong shared similar sentiments in the 1940s and even had a few attempts at kick-starting a dam project. But the economic drain of the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward hindered progress. Construction of the world’s biggest hydro-electric dam began in 1994.

The project was plagued by controversy. There were accusations of corruption. Inch-wide cracks appeared in the dam wall shortly after it began to fill. And the vast relocation of river people gathered pace. Official figures claim 1.24 million people were relocated; critics say 1.8 million.

As we’re driven along the dam wall, our guide, Vivie, spins Beijing’s well-oiled propaganda wheel. “All of the Three Gorges people are better off now,” she says enthusiastically and lists the dam’s benefits but none of its costs. When I ask her about this later, she expands the story.

Born in the town of Ba Dong, near the Little Gorges, 24-year-old Vivie grew up in a 40-square-metre apartment with her parents. There was no running water, only coal for cooking and only one toilet for the entire block. “All I ever wished for was an indoor toilet,” she recalls.

The dream came true when Ba Dong was relocated. Vivie’s family moved to a 120-square-metre apartment with separate bedrooms, a shower, hot water, electricity and gas. “I don’t like the dam, it has completely destroyed the essence of the river,” she says. “But it has greatly improved our lives.”

Vivie says people believe the Three Gorges are inhabited by spirits, which manifested as rapids and whirlpools before the dam was built. They would give offerings to appease the river and spare their lives.

“Now everybody in Ba Dong is scared of the river,” Vivie says. “The weather has changed; the sun doesn’t shine any more. We think the river is angry and one day it will get revenge.”

Though it is mid-summer, there is no sun today. In fact, it is so grey and misty our only glimpse of the dam wall is from a model inside the visitors’ centre.

Controversy over the dam still rages. There are arguments about compensation and reports of pollution and algae blooms. Sturgeon and paddlefish stocks have been decimated and the Siberian crane and baiji dolphin are endangered. There are grave concerns about the risk of earthquakes as sediment at the dam wall builds up. In late 2007, the Xinhua news agency reported that by 2020 a further 1 million to 4 million people will have to be relocated – some of those for a second time – to prevent large-scale landslides.

On board, Katarina’s anchor is lifted and we sail towards Xiling Gorge, the first gorge encountered when sailing upstream. The once-swirling water is dead calm and the once awe-inspiring mountain ravines, though still beautiful, are shadows of their former selves. My fellow passengers and I laze on the top deck and our chief guide, Kathy, offers running commentary, retelling the sagas and stories of the great Three Gorges. We sail past Goddess Peak, which the ancients believed was a beautiful deity sent from heaven to help with flood control, and 900-year-old inscriptions warning junks to slow down, some of them moved higher when the water rose.

But many of the pagodas have gone and the narrow ledges where trackers scrambled to drag junks upstream have disappeared. White Crane Ridge, a 1600-metre-long sandstone belt, which in the dry season revealed a pair of Tang Dynasty carp etched into the rock, has disappeared. The carp’s fat bellies marked the water line and were once vital for navigation on this treacherous part of the river. The coffins of the Ba people (who believed the closer to heaven the better one’s chances in the afterlife), once tucked precariously into the cliff’s crevices, are no longer there. The stone cottages and tiny farms growing corn, oranges and leafy vegetables that I remember clinging to the fertile riverbanks have vanished. Gone, too, are 13 cities, 140 towns, 1350 villages and about 8000 unexcavated cultural relics.

In 2003 many of these cities, towns and villages were being dismantled, piecemeal, and were moving to higher ground. New cities sat on the horizon like Lego blocks, gleaming white and futuristic. At Fengdu, a small city huddled at the base of Ghost City, I watched a Buddhist temple being dismantled. One of the most fabled sites on the river, Ghost City is a 2000-year-old jumble of Confucius, Buddhist and Taoist temples believed to be where people’s spirits go when they die. Several wrathful deities, whose angry faces are symbolic of the efforts in conquering immorality, had been left out in the rain; their faces seemed apt for the occasion.

Ghost City’s temples have since been tarted up and provide the cruise ship’s passengers with one of the trip’s best outings, but Fengdu has been shifted to the other side of the river.

While the dam drowned some areas, it also opened up others, such as the Daning River Small Gorges. Previously a mountain stream, this gorge is now deep enough to enter in small, 10-passenger boats. The sheer sides of the gorges, thick with forest, appear straight from a Chinese calligraphy painting and offer a refreshing change of scenery.

As we sail further upstream, the dam becomes shallower. A few traditional villages can be seen clinging to the embankments. Factories have sprung up alongside them, belching smoke. The river is a hive of activity: tug boats drag piles of coal, a shiny red tanker is being launched from a shipbuilding yard and a man fishes from a dinghy as soaring bridges above him offer easy passage from side to side. It is a fascinating glimpse into China’s rapidly developing interior. From here, it is easy to understand how this country has become the factory for the world.

As evening falls, Chongqing’s dazzling neon lights illuminate the sky. In my six-year absence, this city has been transformed by its proximity to the trade and transport created by the Three Gorges Dam. Chongqing is now the largest municipality in the world, home to 32 million people and growing at 1 million people a year.

I drop my bags at the Hilton hotel and head out to Nanan Binjiang Lu, a riverside road with dazzling views of the city. Six years ago this strip housed little more than barbecue stalls; it now teems with chic hotpot restaurants and sleek riverside bars filled with young people splurging on beer and champagne. There is more money, more opportunity and more smiles than I remember.

But I feel a little like the engineer described by Hersey. After sailing through the Three Gorges in an old junk and cursing the river’s heinous ways, he has an epiphany and decides the Yangtze is probably better off left alone.

Getting There

Singapore Airlines has a fare for about $1290, low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax, flying to Singapore and then SilkAir to Chongqing. This fare allows you to fly out of Beijing and a number of other Chinese cities. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

Cruising There

The US-operated Victoria Cruises sails eight ships year-round between Chongqing and Yichang, with departures from both destinations daily. Above-water cabins on the three newest boats, Katarina, Anna and Jenna, cost from $US535 ($576) a person twin share, all inclusive (low-season rates). www.victoriacruises.com

This article appeared in a January 2010 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age’s Traveller.