“I’ve watched the river 320 days a year for 28 years. Her changes are beyond my imagination,” Nie said, steering a cargo vessel through a busy waterway full of giant ships.
The Yangtze, China’s longest river, is at the center of an economic belt entrusted to offset China’s economic downturn. It is now a cargo artery linking the wealthy coast and the vast inland, but a decade ago the seasoned captain says plying the river had been a dangerous venture.
“When we neared Chongqing (a metropolis in upper reach of Yangtze), I would press my ear on the deck to hear the riverbed pebbles rubbing the ship’s bottom,” Nie said.
That was around 2000, when the river had much fewer ships than today. Back then, its upper reach was off-limits to big vessels for being too narrow and shallow, while its many winding and turbulent stretches were called “ghost gates” that are life-threatening for smaller boats, according to Nie.
In 2003, the Three Gorges Dam, located on the upper middle-reaches of the Yangtze, opened its ship lock, ushering in the era of colossal ships. The dam greatly improved the navigation on the river by lifting water levels on the upper reach and releasing storage of rainy-season flood waters to supply the middle-lower reaches during the dry season.
“I used to steer small ships several hundred tons at most, now I wouldn’t even call a 3,000-ton ship a big ship,” Nie said.
The growing ship size is also a result of greater demands for river transportation after China made the Yangtze River economic belt a national strategy in 2014 to boost concerted development in riverside provinces and municipalities.
“There are many more ships on the river thanks to the economic belt. My ships now carry everything from fertilizers and ores to manufactured goods,” Nie said. Orders from transportation companies continue flying in, securing for him a monthly income of 13,000 yuan (2,300 U.S. dollars).
According to the dam’s administration, as many as 150 cargo ships, carrying 300,000 tonnes of goods, passed through the ship lock every day in 2015, more than eight times of that in 2003. In more recent years, the dam saw building materials and goods of high added value, including cars, make up a larger proportion of the cargo.
Booming river transportation also brought rapid changes for regions on the riverside. “There used to be few bridges on the river, I could easily recite their names. Now the city of Wuhan alone has more bridges on the Yangtze than the river’s total in the past,” Nie said.
He Jiayong, a longtime cruise liner captain, also noted better riverside scenery thanks to fast urbanization.
“The riverside cities used to be dark at night and villages had many mud-brick houses. Now the cities are all ablaze with light, and the village huts are all made of bricks,” said He, also a deputy general manager of a cruise liner company based in Wuhan, central Hubei Province.
Also gone is the common sight of trash floating on the river, as China improves its water pollution monitoring. All cruise ships under He’s management have been ordered to install sewage treatment facilities and can no longer discharge waste into the river, as they did before.
His customers are changing too. Before the turn of the century, there were mostly Western faces on Yangtze cruise liners, as such trips were unfamiliar and over-priced for domestic vocation goers.
“Now Chinese tourists have turned the table and make up 70 percent of all passengers on Yangtze cruise liners,” He said.
That also explains why the sinking of the Eastern Star cruise ship, which left 422 dead last year, dealt a hefty blow to his company by driving away many domestic guests. The industry is in recovery, though, and He has confidence on the river and China’s tourism. “The water will not stop flowing.”