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High Tide at Qiantang River

Sitting at the tide-watching pavilion by the Qiantang River for the whole morning, sexagenarian Zhang Guizhi was still patiently waiting for the tide which was expected to come in at 2:25 pm. It was on September 14, which was also the 18th day of the eighth month of the lunar year, the best date for tide-watching.

Like Zhang, many people started to gather at the Xiaoshan Qianjiang Tidal Bore Watching Resort in groups in the early morning, hoping to occupy a better place to witness the annual natural wonder -- the Qiantang Tide. Some sat in blue sheds and some gathered around the tide-watching pavilion, which commands a panoramic view of the river.

It has been the tradition for people living by the mouth of the Qiantang River to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival by eating mooncake and watching the tide.

The Qiantang River looks to be shaped like a trumpet at its mouth, while flowing east to Hangzhou Bay. Every year it demonstrates its magnificent tidal wonders, which usually show up around the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar year, with its climax on the 18th day.

The tide rolls in as high as a huge wall, with its crest reaching 3.5 meters and dropping 8.9 meters. The best place to enjoy the wonder is in Haining County, as well as other places nearby including Xiaoshan and Haiyan.

The natural wonder has become a popular attraction for visitors as well.

"I had been watching the tidal bore on TV every year, but had never made an on-the-spot visit," said Zhang, who came with her husband from Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province.

"I know Haining is the best place to watch, but Xiaoshan is nearer to my home," she said.

Though it was a sunny day, the river was covered in mist. People had only an indistinct view of the opposite bank.

Twice a day, the tide from the East China Sea visits here and carries with it mud, sand, and stone from the lower reaches of the river, so the vast water is yellow and muddy.

"It is pretty dry this year, and the high temperatures lasted for nearly a month in Hangzhou, so there is a shortage of water in the river and the tide this year will not be as tall," said Xu Guanqiao, a local policeman who grew up by the Qiantang River. He has been here to maintain the public order for the past 10 years.

"Generally speaking, the tide arrives on time, but sometimes influenced by the wind, it will come at an earlier or later time," said Xu.

At 1:30 pm, crowds of people started to huddle around the railing starting from the tide-watching pavilion and gazed at the faraway river surface in the east.

At 2:39 pm, the crowd was suddenly in a frenzy, some yelling that they saw a white line, but it turned out to be a false alarm. Nothing but a white wide strap stretching obliquely on the river surface could be seen.

Five minutes later, a white line finally revealed itself gradually against the background strap, becoming increasingly wider and clearer. Minutes later, its true face came into view, waves about 1.5 meters tall rolling on steadily in a straight line stretching the whole river.

When the tide drove near to the hydrometric station about a mile from the pavilion, its southern part was suddenly pulling backward, and the waves beat and submerged the station with its full force and splashed into the air.

The energy of the tidal wave seemed to be released greatly after hitting the station, and the waves appeared weak.

However, when it passed before the crowds, mud and stones on the riverside were fed into its huge mouth within seconds. Sadly, the grand sound was totally covered by the cheering crowds.

Right at that moment, three iron boats drove at their full speed, making a head-on bump with the waves and sending up a fountain of spray, while the ships were thrown into the air and then crashing down onto the water surface heavily, going around like this several times. Accompanying the loud cheers, the tidal wave finally surged off.

The boatmen were given loud applause by the local people, most of whom were farmers in the nearby villages. The boatmen believed the fish they caught at that moment would be much fresher.

"I set off on the timing of the tide arrival to go back home when it ebbs," said Sun Yonggui, a fisherman of Nanyang Town. After fishing in the river all day long, he appeared tanned and sturdy.

The local fishermen all have a good sense for the tide's arrival and seldom make mistakes. Each time the tide comes, they strip naked and run side by side with it, carrying a two-meter-long bamboo pole with a string bag tied on the end. There are a lot of fish of different varieties carried in the tide and the fishermen can make a sizable harvest.

Dangerous tide

However, the game remains only for those who know its rules. In the meantime, Xu kept reminding people not to go near the riverbank.

"Each year, many people die from tide watching, since most of them go beyond the designated tide watching areas," said Xu. Between 1999 and 2001 it claimed 64 casualties.

During the past few years, many people, mostly coming out of town, would come to the embankments to wait for the tide. They were not quite aware of the power of the tidal waves, and some came to the riverside to get a better view of the tide, some even jumped into the river to swim.

"They have no idea about the arriving time, or its devastating force, so they are most likely to be taken away," said Xu. "When I make my rounds, I repeatedly tell people about the tide and the related safety rules."

Sometimes, the tidal waves appear to be far away from people, but the waves could suddenly surge, and there would no time for them to escape. Once they are swept away, it would be impossible to come out again, for the waves are rolling forward with huge momentum.

Standing on the part stretching deep into the river of a T-shaped dam will be especially tricky. Though the tide appears to still be far away, the waves from the two sides already steal their way and cut off the retreating route. People could only wait there desperately till they are carried away by the rising waves.

"Anyway, it will be absolutely safe for outsiders to watch the tide in the designated areas," said Xu.

Apparently, this year most people looked a bit disappointed and seemed not to enjoy themselves to the full, because the tidal waves appeared not as high and grand as it was said to be before, and especially when it comes and goes so quickly.

"How about coming tomorrow?" a young man said to his girlfriend.

(China Daily September 24, 2003)

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