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The Yellow River

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The Yellow River flows for 5500km through nine provinces, making it one of the world’s mightiest waterways. However, the vast quantity of silt the river carries along its twisted length – 1.6 billion tonnes a year – has confused its course throughout history, and its unpredictable swings have always brought chaos. From 1194 to 1887, there were fifty major Yellow River floods, with three hundred thousand people killed in 1642 alone. A disastrous flood in 1933 was followed in 1937 by another tragedy – this time man-made – when Chiang Kai-shek used the river as a weapon against the advancing Japanese, breaching the dykes to cut the rail line. A delay of a few weeks was gained at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives.

Attempts to enhance the river’s potential for creation rather than destruction began very early, at least by the eighth century BC, when the first irrigation canals were cut. In the fifth century BC, the Zheng Guo Canal irrigation system stretched an impressive 150km; it’s still in use today. But the largest scheme was the building of the 1800km Grand Canal in the sixth century, which connected the Yellow and the Yangzi rivers and was used to carry grain to the north. It was built using locks to control water level, an innovation that did not appear in the West for another four hundred years. The more predictable Yangzi soon became the county’s main highway for food and trade, leading to a decline in the Yellow River area’s wealth.

Dykes, too, have been built since ancient times, and in some eastern sections the river bottom is higher than the surrounding fields, often by as much as 5m. Dyke builders are heroes around the Yellow River, and every Chinese knows the story of Da Yu (Yu the Great), the legendary figure responsible for battling the capricious waters. It is said that he mobilized thousands of people to dredge the riverbed and dig diversionary canals after a terrible flood in 297 BC. The work took thirteen years, and during that period Yu never went home. At work’s end, he sank a bronze ox in the waters, a talisman to tame the flow. A replica of the ox guards the shore of Kunming Lake in Beijing’s Summer Palace. Today, river control continues on a massive scale. To stop flooding, the riverbed is dredged, diversion channels are cut and reservoirs constructed on the river’s tributaries. Land around the river has been forested to help prevent erosion and so keep the river’s silt level down.

Surrounded by colossal sand dunes, the Ningxia resort of Shapotou is probably the most spectacular place from which to view the Yellow River, but for most of its course it meanders across a flat flood plain with a horizon sharp as a knife blade. Two good places to witness this are at the Yellow River Viewing Point in Kaifeng and from the Yellow River Park outside Zhengzhou. To see the river in a more tempestuous mood, take a diversion to Hukou Falls, farther north on the Shaanxi–Shanxi border.

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