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Published: April 23rd 2013
And so to the impressive gorge sections of our Yangtze River Cruise. First to wow us is the Quatang Gorge, its huge towering mountains enveloping us on both sides in all their majesty. Massive folds of rock cascading down to the water's edge, a white stripe indicating the levels the water rises to in the winter months. Rock beautifully drizzled with vegetation clinging to its folds, lush and green against light brown. In the gorge we are suddenly dwarfed, our previously large boat now a tiny spec floating on the water as if nothing but dust. Massive grins and sighs from Lottie Let Loose, in her favoured natural environment.
But even here man has made his mark with massive red lettering carved into the rocks 'Kuimen stands powerfully and sails pass trippingly' it proclaims. Personally I prefer to take my own messages from the mountains and turn my eyes above the lettering to watch the mountains reaching ever upwards into the clear blue cloudless sky.
We pass the city of Wushan, its hundreds of tower blocks teetering on the hillsides like a domino-run about to topple. A new, red arched bridge marks the entrance to Wu Gorge and so
Writing on the wall
'Kuimen stands powerfully and sails pass trippingly'
the majestic scenery continues in awe inspiring glory. Tectonic splendours crash weirdly into the water via crazed slopes seeming to sink Titanic style into the ocean. These mountains are forever, our breath just a tiny moment in time against their eternity. They will be here long after humans have obliterated themselves under their choking mountain of consumerism.
So, Shennong Steam, what's it all about?
In the afternoon we set off on our final shore excursion, only this time we hardly set foot on dry land, most of our time being spent in boats of various kinds. Our destination was Shennong Stream, a tributary of the Yangtze River that gradually narrows the further in you go, with three gorges of its own Mianhu, Parrot and Longchang.
Before the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and the resultant higher water levels, Shannong Stream consisted of a wild torrent of a river with almost vertical limestone cliffs each side. Additionally, until the 1950s when the rapids were cleared, boats were only able to make it upstream with the help of trackers - teams of men harnessed together with ropes to pull the boat inch by inch
through the turbulent waters. Paths were cut into the banks to made their work easier and slightly less hazardous, but it was a thankless and physically demanding task, with little financial reward. The men worked naked in the main as this was both easier and more healthy than wearing constantly damp and chafing clothing.
We start our journey by transferring to a smaller passenger boat with a shallower keel than our massive cruise boat and headed off towards the Shennong Stream. As the gorges started to narrow the rock faces towering above us seemed very foreboding. The eerie feel to the place was heightened on seeing a few of the hanging coffins we had learnt about at the museum at the White Emperor City. How the coffins were placed so high up in such precarious, vertical cliffs was hard to imagine. The eeriness was broken by a sudden joyous dart of jewel-like blue, a kingfisher skimming along trying to find a perch from which to fish.
We eventually arrive at our next transfer point where a heaving mass of people are noisily trying to board tiny 'pea-pod' wooden boats, each seating about 15 or so people all trying
to put on bright orange buoyancy aids. Each pea-pod boat has 4 men to paddle and one to steer. At the front of each boat is a tour guide with a megaphone pointing out to the side telling us about the history of the Shennong Stream and the trackers who used to pull the boats through the narrow turbulent gorge. Our guide is called Lily and she explains that the boat men are from the nearby villages and mountain houses we can see high up in the hilltops of the gorge. Their average age is 55 and the oldest one is 83! We realise that maybe our desire to see naked trackers was slightly misplaced and instead watch the incredible stamina and strength of these rowers as they put their backs into propelling the boats forward in a kind of leap frog race with all the other boats around them. We have learnt another phrase from Dennis, which seems rather cruel here, but we give it a go anyway 'Jah yoh!' we shout in time with the pushing on the oars. 'Faster, faster!'
We reach a bend in the river and the guys unfurl ropes and jump ashore to
show us a demonstration of pulling the boats along while they run along the pathways on the hillside above us. They are quickly back in the boats and we are off again, the gorge narrowing ever more as we go further in. We see one guy sat in a boat by himself watching the proceedings from afar and it turns out he is the safety guy, though quite what he would be able to do in an emergency is not made clear. We eventually arrive at a turning point and start to head back to base again. In all this time the rowers haven't let up once - it looked such back breaking work. We find out that once we are back and transferring to our passenger boat again, these guys would have to row themselves all the way back to their villages before they could properly rest!
What at a fantastic trip and a fascinating insight into a way of life that will sadly die out with these guys once they pass on. No young men are coming forward to take their place - much too hard work, so like the coffins they will gradually disappear into the
waters of the river to become just a fleeting breeze in the history of the great Yangtze.
As we wend our way back up stream we see some chattering monkeys and some nimble goats up on the hillside. There's also a couple more flashes of blue as kingfishers skim the water making their way to their fishing spots. The sun sets on our fantastic day on the Yangtze river experiencing the majestic gorges and cultural history of this jewel in China's crown.
It's just the Captain's farewell dinner to enjoy and a performance by the crew - complete with lovely translations from the charming young girl Pearl who sang so sweetly at the previous night's karaoke evening, her adoring parents dancing ballroom style along to her song. She is one of the nicer results of the single child policy, not a little emperor stamping its feet, just a loving, polite daughter of whom they are so obviously proud.
Good night Yangtze River, another early start beckons to view the dam itself in the morning!
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