We had a leisurely journey on a cruise through the Three Gorges on the Yangzi river. These are – as it says on the tin – three gorges through which the river passes in fairly rapid succession, but the scenery is simply breathtaking as the river is cut through mountains that instantly rise to 1,000 metres and more.
So leisurely was our boat trip that it is hard to imagine how come the Tang poet Li Bai (AD c.712-770) wrote of the waters through which we passed that they were as ‘A thousand seas poured into a single cup.’
Before the 20th Century rugged mountains would have virtually isolated Sichuan province from eastern China if it hadn’t been for the 400 mile stretch of water down which we travelled from Chongqing to Yichang, but it was a very perilous journey. As the river narrowed to pass through the gorges, so the water turned to vicious torrents.
The water levels were far lower before any dams were built, but it was also extremely rocky, and in fact to navigate the Three Gorges needed the assistance of men known as the river trackers whose job was to help haul the boats through the gorges with the aid of ropes. For some of the biggest ships up to 400 men would be involved in trying to get the ship safely through the gorges. The dangers presented by the waters gushing through the gorges defeated the attempts of the Japanese to pass through them during the Second World War and attack Chongqing.
After the war work was done to smash the hazardous rocks and as water levels have risen the raging waters of the river have been calmed. Trackers are no longer needed on the main stretches of the river, but do continue to work in the tributaries. Inevitably this is now mainly to satisfy the tourists.
The trackers used to work in the nude because for one thing if they wore clothes they would get wet, and probably didn’t possess a change of attire anyway. The other thing was though that the ropes would rub the fabric of their clothing and cause terrible sores, so they always stripped off for work. So as not to offend the sensibilities of we precious tourists they now wear shorts but continue to be bare chested. We did travel down one of the tributaries called the Shennong Xi, on first a smaller boat, and then on one rowed and later, as the water got shallower, pulled by the boat men. There are many such trips available but although the boats are all the same size the number of people taken by the trackers in each one depends upon nationality. Chinese people travel 15 to a boat, as opposed to 9 Americans. And yes – that is down to the ‘small’ matter of size. (13 of us on ours).
The youngest tracker currently working on this stretch of river was 17 and the oldest was 84. One of the men rowing our boat was 68. He had the most incredibly muscular frame I have ever seen. All the trackers come from farms up in the mountains. As if it is not enough to spend your working day rowing and pulling along boatloads of tourists, we were told that to get to these boats they hike between 2 and 3 hours, and then after they finish they hike back to their homes again. They are renowned for their longevity, and I can’t say I am surprised. Though not exactly a relaxing life that they lead!
Along the Shennong Xi there are caves in which are visible from the river three hanging coffins. These were left by the Bai people who were the earliest Sichuan people, some 2,000 years ago. They are high up the cliff face because they believed that the closer a deceased person was to heaven the better their chances of getting a place up there. I did see these coffins but capturing camera on a moving boat proved well beyond my ken.
But as for the scenery?
Words fail me, but thankfully my little digital camera where that was concerned certainly did not.
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