Chapter 3

Silver Dragon: China’s Qiantang River Bore

This is the strangest and most wonderful sight under heaven.
– Mei Shang, second century BCE

I wake before dawn on the last day of China’s Bore-Watching Festival, when large tides occur during daylight hours. The air is warm, thickened with smells of wastewater and pesticides in the dusty streets of Yanguan. Hidden below the jetty a few hundred yards away, the Qiantang River—one of China’s largest—slinks toward the sea like a drowsy dragon. It sleeps now but will awaken with the next tide. During festival days, when the tides are extraordinarily large due to a full moon, the dragon rears up into a twenty- five-foot wave—the largest bore in the world—and terrorizes everything in its path.

Slipping through the gates where festival tickets are taken by day, I make my way to the riverbank. On the jetty, a woman practices tai chi in the moonlight; a man smokes a cigarette on the bleachers. Candy wrappers and Styrofoam cups carpet the seawall top. Nearby, four shirtless men play cards under a bare incandescent bulb. In a few hours this stretch of river will be packed with people.

More than a million tourists come each year to the Bore-Watching Festival, some to pay spiritual homage, others to celebrate the holiday with family and friends. They come from Yanguan, from Shanghai, seventy miles northeast, or from Hangzhou, forty miles upriver. Some travel thousands of miles by train from the western provinces of Qinghai or Sichuan. Vendors sleeping under tables will rise to unfurl colorful umbrellas and sell eggs boiled in tea, dried fish, Wrigley’s chewing gum. Men on bicycles will wander the crowd selling melons and sugarcane. Everyone waits for the tidal bore.

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 4.06.43 PM

Twenty miles downriver, where the Qiantang meets Hangzhou Bay, the tide rises and falls exactly as it does on most coasts around the world. But inside the river’s entrance, it becomes a monster. Squeezed by the river’s funnel-shaped sides and bottom, the tide erupts into an avalanche of whitewater. Known as Yin Long (Silver Dragon), it spits and jerks through the Qiantang’s bends and shallows. The dragon finally collapses a hundred miles upriver, only to rear up again at the next flood tide.

The Chinese have been haunted by this monster every day—twice a day—for at least 2,500 years. In earlier times, when the Qiantang and Yangtze shared a mouth, the monster favored the Yangtze. When the rivers separated some two thousand years ago, the dragon shifted to the Qiantang. Throughout the region, it has inspired poems and stories, scientific analysis, spiritual revelation, and engineering feats. “The waters in the Crooked River will roll on rising waves as high as mountains . . . gathering up a force that threatens to engulf the sun and sky,” wrote fourth-century BCE poet Zhuangzi.

The Silver Dragon has also wrought unimaginable destruction. Not infrequently, weather and tidal conditions conspire to amplify the bore’s size, and it jumps the dikes, destroying acres of low-lying fields. Peasant farmers, who raise silkworms, tend livestock, and till the rich riverside soil, are often caught unaware and drown. But the preponderance of drownings occurs among bore-watching enthusiasts whose curiosity lures them too close. Over the years, thousands have perished, like crumbs swept from a table.

Yet I too want to get closer. I first learned of the Qiantang’s unusual tide in the early 1990s while reading George Darwin’s book Tides and Kindred Phenomena, written in 1898. Darwin, son of the famous evolutionist, wrote: “There are in the estuaries of many rivers broad flats of mud or sand which are nearly dry at low water, and in such situations the tide not unfrequently rises with such great rapidity that the wave assumes the form of a wall of water. . . . Notwithstanding the striking nature of the phenomenon, very little has been published on the subject.”

A hundred years later, there was still little written on the topic. In the early 1990s, I searched the Internet for “bore,” only to be redirected to “boar,” a male swine. “Tide” led to laundry detergent. I sent letters and faxes to China that were never answered, so I finally gave up. For all I knew, the dragon had died for good. Years later I ran across a Japanese film of the Qiantang’s bore and immediately began planning a trip to see it.

Now, on the jetty’s edge, I wonder how close I’ll get. I don’t have a plan, but I didn’t come all this way to stand behind a fence. Knowing the dragon-bore will not reach Yanguan for several hours, I climb down the seawall and wander the mudflats. The ebbing tide is swift but silent, exposing neat rows of boulders and rotted piles. A light breeze, cooled by the river, dries my sweat. In this river-bottom world twenty-five feet below the jetty, I am almost completely alone. I lean against the seawall’s base, mesmerized. Standing waves loom for seconds, then sink into the chocolaty water. Whirlpools cast off dimples of tension. A man squats chest-deep in the river, his hands feeling for crab in the rocky crevices. Green-netted weirs hang haphazardly on bamboo poles, ready to snare eels swept in by the next bore; the catch will be shipped live to restaurants like A Shan in Shanghai, where I ate a few nights ago.

As the hours pass, I settle on the mudflats and decide to stay as long as I dare. I’m overtaken by a longing to lose myself in the river. If I felt it were safe, I would strip my clothes and swim, let the dragon take me under, push me around, spit me out. I imagine the many intrepid Chinese who have swum in this river, many of them drawn to it as I am. In fact, from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, when the bore was largest in Hangzhou, thousands came to see it and to watch a swimming competition in which the participants tested their luck by jumping into the river, carrying colored flags as they tumbled in the violent water. They were called nong’chao’er, “tide players.” The poet Sun Chengzhoung wrote: “Don’t marry the tide player. The tide doesn’t keep its word.” So many tide players drowned, the practice was eventually outlawed.

I decide to stay out of the river. I choose a firm spot on the mudflat and practice scaling the seawall. The time it takes to reach safety will determine how close I can let the bore get to me. The first attempt takes ten seconds, which may not be quick enough. Rehearsing every step, I eventually reduce my time to eight seconds, then seven. That might be fast enough. I’m inside a bend in the seawall, within view of the 120-foot-high, eleventh- century Bhoda Pagoda. The bore will be hidden until it rounds a corner a hundred yards away. I do the math: At twenty miles per hour, the dragon devours twenty-nine feet per second. As soon as I see it round the corner, I’ll have ten seconds to escape.

I don’t know if I’ll have the nerve to stay in its path that long.