In the Xiling Gorge, Hubei province
Distance from Shanghai – 1,080 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,825 km
The town of Maoping, just beyond the Three Gorges Dam, was the starting point for the next phase in my walk. The dam had always been a key objective in my journey westwards, and with that behind me, new and unfamiliar territory opened up before me: The Yangtze Gorges.
I had been through the Gorges once before, on a ship heading downstream from Chongqing to Yichang. At that point in the year 2000, the Gorges were deeper than are today, but their shape and feel were the same, and they were cloaked in the same misty haze.
Maoping, meanwhile, has been almost totally reconstructed with Three Gorges Dam money and there are even a couple of hotels there that claim four-star status but still have no coffee.
I started out from the end of the coffer dam with the main dam visible across the placid waters of the new reservoir. It was a grey day, with a few spots of rain keeping me on my toes about the possibility of a downpour. I passed the main river passenger terminal, a large and new building, then passed a large fruit waxing warehouse where the local oranges are waxed and shined to give them a higher resale value.
Out on the right was the river, or what had once been the river, and to some extent still was. The waters were now a quiet body of water, broader than a decade ago and lacking the eddies and pretty imperfections of a flowing body of water. But still recognizable as a river.
I also saw the Line. The Line rules the world of the Yangtze River Gorges. It marks the 175 meters above sea level contour, which is the highest water mark chosen for the Three Gorges reservoir when fully filled, a day expected in 2009.
In preparation for this, officials, engineers and workers went round the whole Gorges area during the main project years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and destroyed, moved, razed and scoured everything under the Line. Houses and fields of course, but also vegetation.
Above the Line is a lively green, below the Line is a dead brown. There is now a gap of perhaps 10 meters between the water and the Line.
So the question is: How deep is the water out there? How much deeper than it used to be? I asked many people along the way, and got few answers that really made sense. My guess is the river is now around 30 or 40 meters higher than before. Maybe less.
Close to Maoping, the water was wide and there were ferry wharves and repair yards for the huge flat-bottomed boats that chug up and down the waterway. The higher, calmer water levels and the slower flow of the river have made life much easier for those operating on it.
Where I was standing, the river/reservoir was perhaps a kilometer across at this point, probably double the width of the old days. But the old submerged farms have been replaced in many cases by floating fish farms. Just about every inlet now has a steel grid on its surface with fish swimming on cages below, eating turbo-charged fish food, effluent from upriver and perhaps the occasional natural morsel floating by.
One thing that surprised me was the extent to which the river still seemed like a river. The word reservoir suggests a broad expanse of water, and I had had an image of the Three Gorges Dam project as being a massive lake spreading out in all directions. In fact, it is just the same river, but somewhat wider.
I came upon a man selling piglets. He had maybe a dozen of them divided between two cages on either side of his motorbike. The piglets were lying squashed on top of each other, unsure of what was happening but going with it. I chatted with the seller for a while, and as I was taking photos of the cute pigs, he suddenly gave one of the cages an almighty kick, which set the piglets flying into a prison cage squealing frenzy.
“Hey!” I shouted in alarm.
“Get them moving to give you something to photograph,” he grinned.
“No! They are animals too, you know,” I said. “Just like you.”
It came out not quite as I meant it. The atmosphere went suddenly chilly.
“He called you an animal,” said one of his mates quietly.
I said goodbye and walked off rather quickly. Raising fish for food is less dehumanizing than raising animals.
The road I was on was provincial highway 334. Once upon a time before the waters rose, it would have been a fair distance from the river. But now in many places it almost skirts it. In other places, the road heads off into side valleys, curving round to the right over a bridge and then making its way back to the river side. After one of these side valleys, I suddenly broke out into the real Gorges.
There in front of me was a cliff, a wall of flat rock several hundred meters in height, then pretty much a straight drop to the water far below.
The Gorges are unique in their magnificence. The river demands an adjective such as mighty, the cliffs and steep mountain sides on either side are daunting, and the lonely farmhouses perched high up on the slopes speak of proud independence of spirit. The mist covering the scene creates the Chinese painting effect of grayscale layers, each layer darker with distance.
A steady flow of massive boats passed by in both directions. At any given moment, there were probably two or three boats visible – ferries and big flat-bottomed cargo boats carrying containers or coal. A very different scene from a century ago when the river was lower and laced with whirlpools, rocks and rapids. The boats then were tiny – sampans and wupans (boats made of either three or five boards), and to get upstream, the boats had to be hauled by trackers who lived and often died in harness struggling up the paths and over the rocks against the river.
Edwin Dingle, in his book Across China on Foot published in 1910, gives an illuminating description of the scene: “On shore, far ahead, I can see the trackers – struggling forms of men and women, touching each other, grasping each other, wrestling furiously and mightily, straining on all fours, now gripping a boulder to aid them forward, now to the right, now to the left, always fighting for one more inch, and engaged in a task which to one seeing it for the first time looks as if it were quite beyond human effort. Fagged and famished beings are these trackers, whose life day after day, week in week out, is harder than that of the average costermonger’s donkey.”
Today, that drama has gone from the Gorges, but the natural glory of the Gorges is still there.
The gorge below and around me was the Xiling Gorge. A road has been cut into the cliffs on the south side of the river with tunnels linking together tiny communities along the way.
Walking through the tunnels is pretty scary – there are no lights and no ventilation. Asphyxiation in the pitch darkness of a tunnel in the Yangtze Gorges would not be a good way to die. The shorter tunnels, I handled by the light of the occasional passing car and my PDA set on full brightness. But there was one tunnel that felt really, really long as I entered it.
A woman and her 12-year-old son were just walking in ahead of me, heading home.
“Do you have a torch?” I asked her.
“No,” she replied.
I realized, I did have one, a very large one. I had a car follow behind us with its headlights killing the darkness.
“It takes 45 minutes to walk through,” the woman shouted. Good grief. That would make it close to four kilometers in length. In the event, it was much closer to two kilometers.
I asked the woman how she handled the tunnel normally without a torch.
“We walk when a car passes through, then stop when the car has gone and wait,” she said.
I thought about that. Standing there alone in a tunnel deep under the peaks in total darkness, breathing the stale, particle-filled air, and waiting for who knows how long for the next car to come along. When a vehicle approached, it filled the tunnel with a breathtaking rumble rising to an ear-splitting road which was somewhat deflated by the reality of the little three-wheeled truck trundling past which had created this crescendo of thunderous power.
Just before we emerged into the light on the other side, I stopped in the tunnel, waited for the car to leave, and gave a quick powerful shout, as loud as I could, and listened with great satisfaction for what seemed like a long time as it echoed far back down the tunnel.
Back in the blessed daylight, I asked the woman when the tunnel we had just walked through together had been built.
“Maybe 15 years ago,” she said. How did you get out before that? “We walked over the hills,” she said simply, pointing up at the incredibly steep slopes towering high above us.
Phenomenal feats seem to be the norm for the people of the Gorges. Is it is some way the result of the natural selection process of the river trackers that Edwin Dingle described? Surely it was only the strong that survived, and maybe these are their descendants.
The China Reading Project
The China Reading Project donates books to schools in rural areas of China. The aim is simply to get books into the hands of kids. To stock a remote school library with a lavish selection of books costs around US$800. Donations are tax-deductible. Payments can be remitted to The China Reading Project, Xinhua Finance Library Foundation Limited, HSBC Hong Kong account 809-215064-838, SWIFT code: HSBCHKHHHKH, HSBC Causeway Bay Branch. Visit www.chinareadingproject.com for details. For more Walk photos and diary excerpts, visit www.walktotibet.com.