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According to Chinese mythology, a hole in the sky caused by two feuding gods threatened the collapse of the human race. The goddess Nuwa came up with a solution: to meld together several giant rocks to fill the hole. Some say that you can see the stones Nuwa left along the Yangtze River — they formed the mountain called Shibaozhai (Stone Treasure), located on the north bank of the Yangtze in the center of the Three Gorges Reservoir.
During the Ming Dynasty, a Buddhist temple was built on the top of this mountain. Worshippers had to use chains to climb the mountain’s craggy sides to reach the temple. Then, during the Qing Dynasty, in 1819, a red, wooden pagoda featuring a spiral staircase was built to facilitate access to the temple. The pavilion was built with nine levels, believed to be a reference to the Chinese mythological belief that heaven has nine stories. In 1956, three stories were added to the pagoda for reinforcement, reaching a total of 12 floors for visitors to climb.
But that’s not the end of the story — when the Three Gorges Dam was built, water buried the village surrounding the pagoda and temple, creating an island. A dam was built around the base of the pagoda to protect it from the rising water level of the Three Gorges Dam which would have reached the base of the pagoda.
And that’s how Shibaozhai’s nickname changed.
“Now the pagoda looks like a huge bonsai tree compared to its past nickname ‘Pearl of the Yangtze,’” said Richard Xie, director of marketing and sales at Century Cruises.
Bonsai or pearl, Shibaozhai remains a popular excursion for cruises along the Yangtze. About 180 miles downstream from Chongqing city, the pagoda is a state-protected historic site. Since the Three Gorges Dam raised the water levels, the pagoda is easier to access than ever before.
Whether seen from the ship or up-close, Shibaozhai’s pagoda is an astounding piece of architecture — built without nails and designed to lean against the length of the rock, with three stories peaking beyond the 100-foot outcropping and reaching toward the sky. Inside, the building is filled with prayers written in gold, and circular windows on each floor provide progressively better views of the surrounding water.
To get to the pagoda and the temple, a guide met us at our ship, the Century Paragon, and took us on a walk through the new town to the brand-new bridge, which connects the village to the pagoda. The ancient town that once stood alongside the pagoda has been replaced by a rebuilt village. When I visited, workers were in the middle of construction, and few villagers were out — perhaps a sign that many past residents have left for the cities. There is little to explore in the new village, but conditions are not unpleasant.
Though river cruise operators are still unlikely to guarantee which excursions passengers will experience — due to river navigation, weather condition, pier condition and government acts — there’s a good chance that Yangtze River cruisers will visit the most popular excursions. Among these are Shibaozhai, Shennong Stream — a tributary of the Yangtze that provides a thrilling sampan ride led by local guides — and, of course, The Three Gorges Dam, which is compelling enough on its own to attract new visitors to the Yangtze River cruise product.
During the construction of the dike around Shibaozhai, cruises opted for the nearby Fengdu ghost town or Fengdu Snow Jade Cave. Many have complained about port conditions at Fengdu but, by-and-large, port conditions along the Yangtze River have failed to keep up with the rapid development of river cruising in the area.
“Compared with the condition of European river ports, the Yangtze River’s ports are a long way behind,” said Xie. “This also makes us have to organize group tours to a single shore excursion at one time, instead of offering multiple choices and self-touring. On the other hand, this is also an area where Yangtze cruises can develop.”
Century Cruises, for instance, is exploring the possibility of new excursions.
“We may have a few cruises try Wulong, a scenic spot along Wu River, another Yangtze tributary close to Chongqing,” said Xie. “But this will be just a temporary test for this summer. We will see if all goes well on every aspect before Century adds it to 2014 cruise itinerary. Another small stream known as Shennv Stream is under consideration as well.”
The potential for new excursions and better conditions at port will certainly sweeten the Yangtze experience. However, most visitors — especially those with a curiosity for Chinese history and culture past and present — will find the excursions compelling.
“The shore excursion is a river cruise extension that helps people understand the local culture and the local people,” said Xie. “That is the essence of the river cruise.”
Shibaozhai, nicknamed the bonsai tree of the Yangtze River, is a popular river cruise excursion. // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Guests must walk through the new town to access the Shibaozhai pagoda. // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Century Cruises hires a local guide who explains the changes `has undergone since the Three Gorges Dam. // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Detailing on the new bridge leading to the pagoda // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Shibaozhai’s pagoda was built without nails and was designed to lean against the length of the rock. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
In 1956, three stories were added to the pagoda for reinforcement, reaching a total of 12 floors. // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Advise clients to wear comfortable shoes and pants as the Shibaozhai excursion requires climbing uneven, rickety steps. // © 2013 Mindy Poder
The view from the pagoda is of the Yangtze River. // © 2013 Mindy Poder
The top of the Shibaozhai pagoda // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Artwork surrounding the historical site // © 2013 Mindy Poder