New buildings tower over the Wu River.

Wu River

New buildings tower over the Wu River.

Return to River Town

In 1996 a Peace Corps volunteer arrived in Fuling, a sleepy town on the Yangtze, to teach English. He went back recently to find the landscape—and his former students—transformed.

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 escalator encased in a steel tube, like a massive straw dipped into the muddy Yangtze.

“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 construction 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 population was around 200,000, which was small by Chinese standards. Most people strongly 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.

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