After a century or so of residing in the north Atlantic Ocean, the Titanic had just about dissipated from the public radar until director James Cameron turned her into a blockbuster movie in 1997. China has its own version of the Titanic. Recently, a five-day live broadcast co-launched by China Central Television and Zhejiang Satellite Television featured Shi Cheng, a thousand-year-old ancient town at the bottom of Qiandao Lake in East China's Zhejiang Province.
Along with He Cheng, a town built in 208 AD, Shi Cheng was submerged for over 60 years. Attention to the submerged town is now being brought back to the surface.
While Qiandao Lake has attracted attention for decades for its serene environment, few Chinese people knew about the ancient towns under the lake. In 1959, in order to build the Xin'anjiang Reservoir, Shi Cheng and He Cheng were covered by water. Half a century later, when Xin'anjiang Reservoir became a backup hydropower station, the ancient towns began attracting attention.
In 2001, Qiu Feng, a local official in charge of tourism, discussed ways to provide entertainment on Qiandao Lake with a Beijing-based diving club. He thought about utilizing the towns.
"I asked them if their divers could dive into the water and have a look at the towns."
Qiu remembers the first time they tried to find the ancient towns, on September 18, 2001. "We were lucky. As soon as we dived into the lake, we found the outside wall of the town and even picked up a brick," Qiu told Guangzhou Daily in an interview.
The brick was carved with words like "Mingguo Ershisan Nian" (the 23rd year of the Republic of China, or 1934) and "Xianzhang Zhangbaochen," (Zhangbaochen is the county magistrate).
Qiu quickly reported his discovery to the local government. As more research was conducted, it was discovered that the entire town, submerged for decades, was intact. Even the wooden beams and stairs were preserved.
In 2005, the local tourism department discovered three additional ancient towns under the water. Along with Shi Cheng and He Cheng, the complete ancient building complex was made public.
On January 7, 2011, the ancient towns were assessed as provincial level relics. In the following month, Chinese National Geography magazine printed photos of the town. Local governments were excited, but the problem of how to preserve the ancient cities remained. Xu Xiangzhi, vice-director of a local tourism administration said that while many ideas were proposed, few were realistic.
Some suggested opening the area up for tourists. But for inexperienced divers, it's hard to bear water pressure over eight meters. The ancient towns are much deeper (20-30 meters below water).
"Besides, the bottom of the lake is full of mud. Landing on the bottom will stir the water, reducing visibility," said Xu.
Some suggested building a protective wall and pumping water out of the city. However, this method is costly, and the walls are unable to sustain pressure.
In the end, a submarine was built for underwater visits. The 23.6 meters high, 3.8 meters tall submarine, came at a cost of 40 million yuan ($6.36 million). The submarine contains 48 seats and a diving capability of 50 meters.
But since it was finished in 2004, the submarine was never used. Local officials said laws did not allow submarines to dive into inland waters. Further, no rules regulate civil submarines. Even if officially approved, the submarine might cause strong water flows under the water, which may damage the buildings.
Some experts believe the best thing to do now is nothing, as technology is limited. "Before we make use of our cultural relics, we should protect them," said Fang Minghua, former director of Chun'an County's Heritage Management Office. He said that currently, technology does not offer viable options.
Fang uses an example of two wooden beams from the ancient city that gradually began to shrink when taken out of their underwater environment and exposed to air. Water offers wood better protection; exposure to the air increases the possibility of damage.
Further, the walls are delicate and might collapse due to changes in water currents. Fang suggests that sailing, fishing, or sand digging in nearby areas should be prohibited.
At the end of 2002, the Institute of Mechanics, Chinese Academy of Sciences proposed building an Archimedes Bridge, also known as a suspended tunnel. An Archimedes Bridge relies on the buoyancy to float in water. Cable ropes are fixed to the bottom of the lake to prevent it from shifting. The top of the tunnel provide a distance of 20 meters, enough for big liners.
"Right now, the test for a model Archimedes Bridge has passed," said Fang Yang, a local official in charge of the tourism in Qiandao Lake. "Next, we will test the model in lakes that have the same environment as Qiandao Lake."
The Archimedes Bridge is a difficult project. Seven countries are doing research on it at the moment, including Norway, Japan, Swiss, Brazil, and the US. If the Archimedes Bridge for Qiandao Lake succeeds, it will be the first real Archimedes Bridge in the world.
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