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-by Ernie Diaz
Is this how China Expat has turned out? Hollywood finochios, always sobbing and wringing hands over China’s missteps – “Oh, what can we do, what can we do!” The Yangtze’s been dammed at the Three Gorges, and while the debate can go on whether the positives or negatives are greater, none can debate the great slice of old China washed away. Let’s get a hold of ourselves, though: not all the dammed are condemned to hell.
The Xin’an River was dammed in 1959, with China’s first such structure over 100 meters tall. The dam now gives Zhejiang province 850 megawatts of electricity. But first it gave to Zhejiang Qiandao Lake. Five hundred square kilometers, as deep as 120 meters, Qiandao Lake is for all its size utterly without mystery, just a reservoir.
Yet the man-made can add value, if not mystery to nature. And man has troubled to add over a thousand islands to Qiandao Lake. The islands’ names range from pirate movie (Snake) to Hallmark™ (Remember Your Childhood), and have been dotted with prefab temples, giant locks, and enough whimsy to rival the roadside distractions of America’s defunct Route 66.
Yet there is nothing of the forgotten and obsolete about Qiandao Lake. The action, from ferries to yachting to island-hopping to bicycle tours around the shore, is under ever-growing micromanagement, under the local Chun’an government’s mandate that Qiandao “march forward to the target of a leisure resort of the world level.” Above is Qiandao Lake Town’s New Century Resort, and we meant what we said about the yachting. Who doesn’t like their amusement pre-calculated down to the last detail, and premium-priced? It works for Disney.
And green sustainability is built right into the model. China’s National Tourism Administration is hip, no worries, no marching forward to world levels without an environmentally-friendly vanguard. Word is you can drink from Qingdao Lake, and half the people-watching fun revolves around seeing who will take the claim at face value. Nongfu Springs, China’s top bottled water brand, believes in Qingdao’s purity enough to have HQ there.
If the four million tourists who pass through and leave behind close to a billion RMB a year are edified by the clean water and air, the locals in the towns around its shores are positively electrified. Not just the juice from the power station, but other government initiatives, solar energy and liquefied gas used more than coal, millions invested to keep waste water from befouling Zhejiang’s premier waterside destination. No wonder the McMansions are springing up along Qiandao’s shores like barnacles on a fresh hull. A great weekend escape for Hangzhou’s growing elite, tired of the rabble at plain old historic West Lake.
Has some of Old China been lost in all this resort and garden city building? Oh, to be sure, but how much more has been created. Electricity for all western Zhejiang, and the kind of upscale, modern tourist wonderland the Chinese can hold up for comparison when the English boast of Northumberland’s Kielder Water and Forest Park. Besides, how many Indian settlements molder at the bottom of Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead, America? Don’t ask anyone up the road in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Qiandao’s drowning victims are on display to those with the time and means to delve below the surface.
Experienced divers, the type adept at greater than eight meter’s depth, can enjoy the remarkably well-preserved remains of Lion City, built in the Eastern Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE). Diving Tour Operator Big Blue guides people around the submerged ancient city walls, gates, and beams, that much more appealing for being inaccessible to the rank and file. Other villages sacrificed to the mighty reservoir have been recently uncovered, enough to prompt the commission of a civilian submarine, thus far unlaunched, and plans for an Archimedes bridge for those who find breathing tanks and wetsuits too bothersome.
So even if you can’t bubble on down to Lion City, you can go net fishing, sail around the posh Southeast Lake District, take in Qiandao’s stone forest, ramble through the Jiupaojie countryside, bike around the lake, drop serious discretionary income at the Qiandao Hilton’s seafood restaurant, on and on. What you can’t do, without bringing the festivities to a screeching halt, is bring up ‘the Qiandao Lake Incident.’
It was 1994, back when Qiandao had yet to win its coveted “International Type B Garden City” title. The Hairen ferry had not docked the night before, and the morning of April 1st found it ablaze. The police figured no one was on board, until the fire was entirely put out, and they found 32 bodies in the lower cabin, the entire ship manifest. Twenty four of them had been tourists from Taiwan.
A tragic incident, but it was the aftermath which set back cross-strait relations a good twenty years. The investigation became increasingly hush-hush as the level of official involvement grew. The souls were released from purgatory in a nearby temple rite, but the bodies were kept from the view of relatives who flew in from Taiwan to view them. Rather, the remains were cremated and handed back, while rumor grew – the assailants had been PLA soldiers, the fire was an anti-Taiwan opening salvo.
In the end, three men were arraigned and convicted of arson and murder, then executed a week later. But that was after acting PRC premier Li Peng had had to step in, all tours from Taiwan to China had been halted, and the Taiwan Board of Trade had halted all China investment deals pre-contract. Even worse, the percentage of Taiwanese who supported reunification with China immediately dropped twenty percent, and those who supported independence rose ten. Until China gets some serious crisis PR consultation, such incidents will continue to undo all the great leaps forward made in promoting its tourist spots and trains.