Yangtze River Cruise - White Emperor City

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April 7th 2013
Published: April 22nd 2013
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We were again woken up at 6.20am with an announcement over the boat's intercom and zombies were in evidence once more shuffling up to eat a massive breakfast. For someone who normally only has a slice of toast and a cup of tea in the morning I was finding the volume of food I'd been having in China quite an effort and I assumed a bit of dieting was likely to be needed on my return to the UK! As we tucked into our breakfast our boat was starting to pull into our mooring spot, up against another cruise boat, and were treated to the sight of an older gentleman standing naked, bar his white Y-fronts at his bedroom window - completely oblivious to us! Not a pretty sight it has to be said, but pretty funny nonetheless.

After breakfast we picked up our shore excursion passes and trouped off the boat, through a couple of other boats be were moored up next to. As we walked along the dockside there were stalls with food stuffs for sale - dried fish seemed to be a favourite and we guessed that fish was likely to be on the menu that evening. Judging by some of the stories we'd heard about pollution getting into the Yangtze River since the dam project was built, frankly I was pretty glad to be a veggie and spared this 'treat'.

We were introduced to our new guide Sherrie (hmmm that can't be right, I thought the other guide at the Ghost City was called Sherrie - oh well they are made up names anyway that they choose when they start learning English so she will have to be Sherrie too!) and were shown the 400 year old entrance gate to Baidi Cheng or the White Emperor City. She explained that the whole building had been moved to save it being destroyed by the flood waters, although many of the accompanying buildings were now under water.

So, the White Emperor City, what's it all about?

The White Emperor City, or Baidi Cheng, is an ancient temple complex on the northern hillside shores of the Yangtze river - now an island due to the flood waters from the dam. It is said that the area used to be covered by a white mist making for a serene and Emperor-like feel for the place and that a white dragon was also seen at this spot along with a white toad in a well. Local warlord Gonsun Shu felt this was a sign that he should declare himself Emperor of Chengja! And so he founded the city, naming himself the White Emperor. A 12 year reign of peace and harmony followed and on his death Gonsun Shu was commemorated with the building of a temple which dates back over 1950 years! In later eras the White City was seen as a place of inspiration for many famous Chinese poets including Du Fu who lived at Baidi Cheng and wrote many poems about it and also Liu Bai who wrote 'Departing from Baidi in the morning'...

"This morning, I depart the town of Baidi engulfed by vibrant clouds. I return to far away Jiangling within a single day! From both banks, the steady sound of shrieking monkeys fills the air. Our little boat has already carried me past thousands of hilltops."

Since the Three Gorges Dam Project made the water levels rise the White Emperor City is now on an island, or what is now left of it anyway since many of the buildings were submerged by the rising water levels! The sides of the island have had to be reinforced by tonnes of concrete to make sure they don't erode! The new national gemstone of China, concrete, coming into its own again!

There are 350 steps going up through the wooded hillside to negotiate before reaching the main complex of temples. This isn't the only thing that visitors have to negotiate these days. Massed ranks of vendors line the sides of the steps, all attempting to sell tourists similar items (not a very savvy business practice - they should find themselves a unique sales item and go with it I reckon). Anyway we took a deep breath and forged a path through the sales patter and managed to make it up to the top unscathed, whereupon ensued another set of 'photos with a foreigner' sessions. This time Dennis had given us two new Chinese phrases to use, so whenever they said thank you after having a photo taken with us we responded with 'poke a chee' or 'you're welcome'. This got a few shocked and delighted responses at our excellent Chinese - which we then followed up with 'Nali, nali, mama hoo
Three calligraphy representations of the same poemThree calligraphy representations of the same poemThree calligraphy representations of the same poem

The scruffy hand on the right is by the late Chairman Mao.
hoo' which literally translates as 'no, no, tiger tiger horse horse' but is actually a self-deprecating phrase to show humbleness. This completely stunned them and Dennis loved having such star pupils - so proud of us he was 😊

I love seeing the prohibitive notices put up at such sites and their often odd translations and the White City had a few too, my favourite being 'Don't take shelter under tree because of lightening!'. I also spotted a rubbish bin in the shape of a log, made from concrete! They must have had quite a bit of concrete spare sloshing around after all the bank reinforcements I guess.

As we made our way round the temple complex we realised that this really had been an inspirational site for poets. It was in evidence from all the calligraphers who had made their mark copying some of the famous poems. These had been made into stone tablets which looked beautiful, despite us not knowing what the words actually said. Sherrie showed us a set of three tablets depicting the same poem, but in different calligraphic styles - one very messy one was done by the late Chairman Mao.

Frog Mountain and Dragons Gate Frog Mountain and Dragons Gate Frog Mountain and Dragons Gate

Same view as shown on the 10 yuan note.
moved to a scenic viewing area and wondered what all the fuss was about - masses of people were waiting to get their photo taken with a specific gorge shot in the background. All became clear when Sherrie got out a 10 yuan note and showed us the picture on the back of 'Frog Mountain' and 'Dragon's Gate' - the view laid out in front of us! In the early morning light it looked very beautiful and photos were duly taken, including a few more with excited Chinese who giggled at seeing us weird looking westerners. 'Look at their shoes - so frumpy, why don't they wear pretty high heels like us?' giggle, giggle!

We moved further on, past a very beautiful and ornate dragon statue, presumably depicting the white dragon who inspired the original White Emperor Gungsan Shu, and arrived at the main building complex surrounded by a red wall and impressively ornate gateway. Inside the Ming Liang Palace was what to me appeared to be a comedy farce going on, but was actually a depiction of Liu Bei on his deathbed entrusting his sons to the care of Zhuge Liang. The looks on the faces of the colourfully painted figures and the stances they are taking were hilarious (see photos) perhaps not quite the reaction intended when they were created - oops!

As we went back outside we saw a guy doing some calligraphy rubbings by placing thin paper over the stone carved calligraphy tablets and wetting it down. Presumably when it was dry he applied ink somehow - we didn't see this part of the process unfortunately. We did however see the finished products which were for sale in a nearby souvenir shop and beautiful they were too.

Sherrie took us to see yet more calligraphy tablets explaining that they were poems by Liu Yuxi. One of them was a famous traditional folk-style love song that she sung beautifully for us. I've just seen that I can add videos here so may see if her singing will upload. She then randomly started singing 'Hey Jude' which was never really explained!

We also went to look around a museum explaining the fascinating history of cliff coffins, or hanging coffins as they are also known, and saw a couple of the examples of the wooden coffins used for this strange practice. They were usually made from a single piece of wood, some in the shape of a boat. This ancient funeral custom of some minority groups, including the Bo people of south China, involved placing coffins high, high up in inaccessible places on the rock faces and it isn't actually known how they got them there. Some were balanced on posts protruding from holes made in the rock face and some placed in natural crevices. We would get to see some of the few remaining hanging coffins further on into our Yangtze River Cruise. Unfortunately many were trashed by the dam project!

This was the end of our fab tour around the White Emperor City, so it was a quick dash down the steps through the aggressive sales patter vendors and back to the bridge leading us off the island to our waiting boat and yet more food no doubt! And hooray, the sun was still shining on our fantastic Yangtze River Cruise. An anticipated amazing afternoon awaited us as we approached the spectacular gorges...

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