National Geographic : 2013 Mar
there is excellent cell phone coverage at the bottom of the Yangtze River, although Huang Dejian is one of the few people who know this. He’s the director of the new White Crane Ridge Underwater Museum, and today his phone rings constantly at a depth of 130 feet. The museum is the strangest sight in the city of Fuling—visitors enter via a 300-foot-long escala- tor encased in a steel tube, like a massive straw dipped into the muddy Yangtze. supported the dam, although they didn’t talk about it much. It was scheduled for completion in 2009, which seemed an eternity in a place where so much was already happening. In China the reform era had begun in 1978, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that free market ideas started to have a major impact on smaller cities like Fuling. Locals coped with overwhelming change: the end of government-assigned jobs, the sudden privatization of housing. In those days the White Crane Ridge gave me a different perspective on time. The strip of sandstone emerged only in winter, when the water level dropped. Low-water season was treacherous for boatmen in ancient times, and somebody carved two fish into the side of the ridge. They served as a gauge, allowing pilots to anticipate the shoals and rapids downstream. Locals associated the stone fish with good fortune, and it became a tradition to mark their annual emergence with a carved message. The earliest dated engraving was from A.D. 763, dur- ing the Tang dynasty, and eventually more than 30,000 characters decorated the sandstone. The calligraphy was stunning, and messages had the rhythm of incantations: “The water of the river retreats. The stone fish are seen. Next year there will be a bumper harvest.” In the 1990s admission to the ridge was three yuan, about 35 cents, which included a ride on a rickety sampan manned by an off-season fisher- man. Huang Dejian used to sit on the ridge for hours, wrapped in a surplus People’s Liberation Army overcoat. He would note the water level and tell stories about the most famous carvings. During one of my last visits, on January 30, 1998, BY PETER HEssLER PHoTogRAPHs BY ANAsTAsIA TAYLoR-LIND “ This is the most expensive museum in the Three gorges region,” Huang says, answering his phone again. The ringtone is a woman’s voice that urgently repeats the phrase “Jia you—go, go, go, go, go!” The last time I saw Huang, this was all dry land, and the $34 million museum didn’t exist, and the Three gorges Dam was still under con- struction 280 miles downstream. I lived in Fuling from 1996 to 1998, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer at the local college. Back then the pop- ulation was around 200,000, which was small by Chinese standards. Most people strongly River Town isthefirst ofthreebooksbyPeter Hessler based on the ten years he lived in China. This is documentary photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s first assignment for the magazine. Watch an interview with author Peter Hessler on the iPad, Kindle Fire, or iPhone.