There are ghosts aplenty here - some very recent ones. Almost all the temples in the Fengdu complex were destroyed by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. The fact that these officially sanctioned hooligans were scared of destroying the temple of the King of the Underworld himself, gives an idea of the amount of power that was handed - locally at least - to the ignorant and superstitious, all just for the sake of a powerplay back in the capital. The Red Guard was motivated by violence and petty power. Maoist principles were just a lick of red paint on the shithouse wall.
This wasn't a Chinese problem. The parallels are easily seen with the early SA in inter-war Germany, the blackshirts under Mussolini, and the pickup-driving, Kalashnikov-wielding Taliban. Ignorance and violence are a natural match. The repeating pattern of unholy alliances between destructive and arrogant youth and cynical manipulative experience makes me very angry - and very frightened too when I think of what kind of circumstances could bring about the same pattern for me or my daughters. Because despite what some bestsellers say, I don't think anyone can really believe that history is over.
The other ghost that haunts this part of the Yangtze lies a few hundred kilometers downstream - the Three Gorges Dam.
There is a background eeriness in the many references to what has already been submerged under the rising waters of the dam, and what awaits the final phase of the project in a few months time. Life around the Yangtze is coloured by numbers: 156 metres above sea level - the current height of the water here. 175 metres - the final dry season level. 13 cities, 140 towns, the homes of 1.4 million people - all under water when the project is complete. Everything that we look at has a question mark over it: Will it still be here in a year's time? Everything we see can be compared dramatically with pictures of 10 years ago or so. The river banks today are unnatural - their ecology needs time to adapt to the new reality.
The spell of numbers and levels is only broken when we finally move through the locks of the great dam itself. The landscape is once more fixed and reliable. No more disappearing towns. But just before that happened, there was time for one more moment of surreality. The the boat made its way through the 5 chambers of the shiplock, snow began to fall. Nina, Sara and I went uptop, along with the Australian/Indonesian family we shared the dinner table with, and had a snowball fight under the cold glow of the locks neon lights, while moving slowly through the belly of the largest dam in the world. If you ask the girls what they remember most about the cruise, they will probably say the snowball fight. Me too, actually.
Should the dam have been built or not? This is the question that was posed by Luther, our Yangtze Guide on the Victoria Star, after a powerpoint presentation on the pros and cons of the project. He left the question open, and left plenty of room for both sides of the argument in his talk. He raised negative consequences of the dam that I hadn't thought of or heard about before. Most importantly, he avoided the temptation to be didactic or propagandist on the matter.
My own impression is that although national pride is noted as one of the minor reasons for the project, it has at least as much to do with the decision to build as the three major ones: Flood control, Power generation and Improved navigability. I don't know what decision I would have made, but I'm uneasy with the knowledge that only a political system of almost absolute centralized power could decide to relocate 1.4 million souls, and that this very same monopoly on power has led to the kind of corruption that can jeopardise the safety and viability of a megaproject such as the Three Gorges Dam
Make up your own mind.