Tragedy on trip of a lifetime

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Shanghai

media caption"A miracle appears to have happened" - Jo Floto reports on the rescue of a woman

The Yangtze River is the world's third longest river and through much of its history it has been China's physical and spiritual lifeline.

From its source on the high Tibetan plateau it runs through 18 provinces and major cities on its way to the East China Sea and over recent years it has become a major attraction for millions of Chinese tourists.

The country's domestic tourism industry, which has grown alongside its rising middle class wealth, now keeps dozens of boats afloat on the Yangtze's waters.

The Eastern Star was one of them.

An online advert offers a 13-day voyage from the eastern city of Nanjing, west against the current, to the inland megacity of Chongqing.

image source, AP
image captionState television showed rescuers using hammers to knock on the hull and listen out for survivors
image source, Reuters
image captionOnly a handful of people have been rescued
image source, AFP
image captionThose on board would have been on their way to the Three Gorges Dam, just a little further upstream

It is not yet confirmed whether that is the same itinerary that was being followed this time, but if it was, then those on board would have been on their way to the Three Gorges Dam, just a little further upstream from where the boat has now gone down.

Many of the passengers, according to Chinese state media, are over 50 years old and would have paid around $300 (£200) for a shared, economy class, cabin.

That's still a lot of money for many - not far off China's average monthly wage - but nowadays quite within reach of the comparatively wealthy senior citizens with their pension funds and stock-market portfolios in the big eastern-seaboard cities of Shanghai and Nanjing.

No doubt for some of those on the Eastern Star it would have been the trip of a lifetime.

And the Three Gorges Dam, a place of pilgrimage in its own right and a powerful symbol of China's rising economic might attracting around two million visitors a year, now has its part to play in the rescue.

The dam's engineers have been ordered to reduce the water volume flowing through the giant turbines.

The sinking of the Eastern Star will resonate widely.

A boatful of everyday Chinese tourists - from grandmothers and grandfathers down to the youngest listed passenger at just three-years-old - has been lost in the waters of the country's best loved river.

Tens of millions of comments are being posted online, with the emoticon of two hands clasped together in prayer featuring prominently.

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