China's Lesser Gorges Reveal History and Culture

Ancient cities along the Yangtze River are easier to access than ever before thanks to the Three Gorges Dam project.

By: By Skye Mayring

The Roman poet Ovid once wrote: “There is nothing in the whole world which is permanent. Everything flows onward; all things are brought into being with a changing nature; the ages themselves glide by in constant movement.” 

The Three Gorges Dam project has increased visitor access to the ancient cities surrounding the Yangtze River. // (C) 2010 Ray Devlin

The Three Gorges Dam project has increased visitor access to the ancient cities surrounding the Yangtze River.
// (C) 2010 Ray Devlin

Indeed, his sage words ring true in an age where mankind is undertaking some the most ambitious construction projects in our known history, from Dubai’s 2,625-foot-tall Burj Khalifa skyscraper to the largest hydroelectric project in the world, the Three Gorges Dam in China, which will cost an estimated $28 billion upon its completion.

While most of the Three Gorges Dam project is finished, the dam’s power plant is set to become fully operational in 2011, helping to provide power to the rapidly expanding nation by harnessing the flow of the Yangtze River. The dam also intends to mitigate the effects of the region’s infamous floods, which have claimed more than 1 million lives in the past 100 years, according to a CNN news report. The project’s plans called for the controlled flooding of the Yangtze and the relocation of approximately 1.5 million people, with their villages rebuilt on higher ground. Subsequently, it has helped to increase tourism to the region by opening the Yangtze region to larger river cruising vesels and by providing easier
access to riverside cities.

Access Granted
Now that some of the largest river cruise lines on the Yangtze — including Victoria Cruises and Viking River Cruises — can arrange ferries and sampan boat rides along the river’s tributaries, the masses are finding it easier than ever to explore more off-the-beaten-track destinations, including the scenic Lesser Gorges area near Wushan.

The Lesser Gorges encompasses the Dragon Gate Gorge (named after the mythical creature it is said to resemble), Emerald Gorge and the Misty Gorge, where travelers can spot Rhesus monkeys as they nibble on fruit along the banks, as well as three ancient coffins hanging high on the surrounding cliffs.

The hanging coffins in the Misty Gorge area were created some 2,000 years ago by the Ba people, ancestors of
the Han ethnic group who are said to have inhabited the gorges region as far back as 3,500 years ago. While a fraction of the hanging coffins remain today, hundreds once dotted the nearby cliffsides.

It was generally believed that the higher the wooden coffin was placed on the precipice, the more respect was shown to the surviving family, whose departed was, in effect, closer to heaven.

In addition to the skeletal remains, some coffins contained ancient coins and fish bones. Others might reveal two skeletons which, in most cases, meant one of the remains belonged to a high official, the other his concubine. It would be fairly easy to tell the two apart, my guide said, since the concubine likely had a crushed skull — it was considered an honor for a concubine to die for her superior and be buried by his side.

A City Fit for a King
The White Emperor City, or Baidicheng, overlooks the western end of Qutang Gorge, the narrowest of the Three Gorges. This temple city has long been known for inspiring poets and serving as a refuge for kings such as the Kingdom of Shu’s Emperor Liu Bei who, in Baidicheng, with his dying breath, famously entrusted his son to his advisor, Zhu Geliang.

Baidicheng also features an impressive collection of more than 70 stone tablets from the Sui, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties inscribed with calligraphy; tranquil gardens with bamboo trees and koi fish ponds; and a lookout point
affording the precise view of Qutang Gorge that is featured on the back of the 10 yuan note.

Prior to the controlled flooding of Three Gorges Dam project, the 1,800-year-old city was a peninsula. Higher water levels have helped pave the way for tourists, who can now reach the island by a bridge and a shorter climb to the top. Still, with a 356-stair climb to the gates, it’s not an excursion for everyone. At the foot of the steps, strong men aggressively sell human-powered bamboo chair rides for about $7 to those who want to put their feet up and get the royal treatment.

The Judgment
Located on the northern bank of the Yangtze, Fengdu, also known as the City of Ghosts, has a population of 760,000. Its temple area on top of Ming Mountain pays tribute to the Chinese concept of hell and the spirit world.

According to traditional Chinese beliefs, the social structure in the spirit world is somewhat similar to that of the living world, meaning everyone must undergo judgment — the good will be rewarded, the sinners will endure punishment. More specifically, according to my guide, the most immoral of spirits were thought to be reincarnated as insects or animals, while the obedient received a pass to heaven.

Furthermore, different sins called for different forms of retribution, and the temples and pathways of the City of Ghosts depict the 18 levels of punishment in accordance to Chinese ideology. Also on display throughout the grounds are menacing demon statues and models displaying torture techniques. Monuments and landmarks along the way add texture to the experience, with names such as “River of Blood,” “Way to Hell” and “Tower of Last Glance to Home.”

Although Fengdu was flooded with foreign tour groups on my recent visit, my tour guide said that this destination is
popular for Chinese people, who visit the temple grounds to pray for deceased loved ones. These spiritual pilgrims may not believe in Taoist or Buddhist theology, but they likely believe in ghosts and find some form of solace in this ancient city.

These pilgrims can also purchase a “passport to heaven” for their loved ones for about $1.50. Tradition says that the survivor should write the name of the deceased on the “passport” and burn it to release the dead person’s soul to heaven. In keeping with Ovid’s philosophy that “all things are brought into being with a changing nature,” watching someone perform the ritual can be a moving experience — one of many that travelers to these riverside cities are sure to have.