In the Xiling Gorge, Hubei province
Distance from Shanghai – 1,080 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,805 km
Once upon a time a long time ago, there was a Chinese official named Qu Yuan who was so incensed by the corruption tolerated in the Imperial Court that he committed suicide by throwing himself in the Yangtze River. The sign in front of me said that this man, who lived more than 2,300 years ago, had been born in this very village.
“The Hometown of Qu Yuan” was not much. A few new houses built along a road cut into the cliff walls of the Xiling Gorge above the Yangtze River, plus a small shop with a few people sitting around inside.
I went into the shop and bought a bottle of water as an excuse to ask about the successful suicide.
“So this was where Qu Yuan was born?” I asked.
They looked at me, thought about it a bit, and shook their heads. “Up in the mountains,” said one of them. Strange that they didn’t leap at the chance to claim one of China’s most famous children trumpeted in such a prominent way right outside their doors.
Anyway, Qu died and he was so respected for his fatal act of protest that even today Chinese people all over the world mark the day, the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, with dragon boat races. Why? The paddling represents the way the people beat the water to chase away the fish to try to stop Qu Yuan’s body from being eaten.
Then there are the rice dumplings wrapped in leaves (zongzi) eaten on that day, harking back to mythical efforts by the people to distract the fish, again in an effort to keep Mr Qu’s body intact.
The exact place where he is said to have committed suicide is down river at Maoping, near the Three Gorges Dam. Thanks to the dam, the water levels at this part of the river are now around 30-40 meters higher than they were from the preceding 2,300 years.
People along this section of the gorges have all been moved up to new houses built alongside the new road, provincial highway 334, constructed only five or so years ago along the southern banks of the river-reservoir.
The steep mountainsides above me on the left and way across the water were formidable. High up there were lonely houses, far from the road, far from my world. Down below was the river, a broad chocolate fondue that sparkled in the sunshine.
The colors of this section of the gorge on this particular day were sharp and satisfyingly coordinated. The blue sky, the rocky grays and shrubby greens of the gorge walls, and the rich browns of the river. I had met a man several months previously near Yichang while looking out at a section of the river and bemoaning the misty pall hanging over the scene.
“You should see it after it has just rained,” he said. “That is when it is clearest.”
He was right. Here in the gorges, it had rained the day before, and on this particular morning, the scene was definitely one of after-the-rain clarity.
There was little traffic out on the “water road”, as one person I spoke to called the river. A few high speed ferries, some cargo barges. But it was a weekend, and maybe the crews were resting at home, taking in some satellite television. I passed a pile of cathode ray tubes nestling in the undergrowth. Cathode ray tubes? I know. Total disconnect – but welcome to 21st century China.
I passed some purple flowers and spent a couple of minutes photographing a besotted butterfly while a ferry glided below through the frame.
The river widened for a while and the cliffs became less precipitous, and then the gorge closed in again. The day was hot. In every vaguely suitable space, however small, there were orange trees and corn growing. One a long term investment, the other incredibly short. I was reliably informed that the corn I was inspecting was a month away from being ready to be picked.
There were more tunnels dug through the cliffs above the river, long and dark, the air inside heavily laden with particles my lungs really did not wish to experience. I am not naturally claustrophobic, but a few more of these tunnels could definitely change my mind on the subject.
But in between the tunnels were stunning vistas out over the river with the steep walls and valleys of the gorge-plus interesting local sidelights. Chinese medicinal herbs and ingredients laid out by the roadside to dry in the sun; a huge pile of old shoes; a predictably disgusting cement factory surrounded by vegetation turned pale, every leaf covered with thick film of creamy cement dust; and the self-styled “orange town” of Guojiaba, a little settlement on the river’s southern bank, mostly newly built in the past few years, the old town invisible beneath the river waters.
The problem with walking through the gorges is that the sections that are particularly steep and narrow are so attractive that they make the broader sections seem tedious by comparison, despite the magnificence of the surrounding mountains.
On to the next narrows.