The white waters of the Three Gorges have gone for good, but Daniel Allen finds their majestic landscapes still justify a more sedate Yangtze voyage
Ming Mountain is turning out to be as kooky as I had expected. Not the oriental hideout of Flash Gordon’s arch nemesis, after all, but the site of a whimsically macabre collection of Buddhist and Taoist temples known as Fengdu Ghost City. From ghoulish statues and instruments of torture to grisly montages of the afterlife, this is Halloween night on steroids, China-style.
Here on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, even the morning weather is suitably eerie. Through tendrils of mist and gaps in the trees, I can just make out the river’s brown ribbon way below, as China’s mightiest waterway silently powers ahead on its journey from Tibet to the East China Sea.
This is the first stop on my four-day downstream cruise aboard the trusty Victoria Katarina. With its luxury cabins, fine dining, bar and gym, the Yangtze stalwart promises a refined introduction to south-central China. Having embarked under the neon glow of Chongqing’s skyscrapers the night before, I’m soon enthralled by Fengdu’s quirky, Hadean charms.
Under the golden eaves of a Buddhist temple, I queue nervously at the Nothing-To-Be-Done-Bridge, where stick-wielding guards prevent those of dubious character from traversing the narrow span. As we wait, tour guide Tu Wei Wei gives me a quick history lesson.
“Fengdu became a ghost city during the Han Dynasty (25-220AD), when two imperial court officials came here to teach Taoism,” she explains. “Taken together, their names sounded like ‘King of Hell’ in Chinese, so the connection with ghosts and the afterlife began.”
With my virtue thankfully confirmed, I complete the tour and reboard Victoria Katarina. The vessel’s inscrutable captain, Xie Shou Gui, shouts me a cappuccino in the bar.
“Until the 1960s, boats on the Yangtze would often moor in the middle of the river to avoid getting too close to Fengdu’s ghosts,” he tells me, as we watch the last few stragglers from the morning’s tour return across a plastic pontoon.
Today the only human ghosts inhabiting Fengdu appear to be temple workers in costume or children in gruesome face masks. “I think we can manage to repel both if necessary,” says Xie.
Considered the cradle of China’s ancient civilisation, today the Yangtze remains the lifeblood of a nation. Flowing eastward for nearly 4,000 miles before discharging into the sea near Shanghai, it drains one-fifth of China’s territory, while its basin is home to a third of the entire Chinese population.
The ghosts and colourful architecture of Fengdu may be an unexpected delight, but it’s the epic natural beauty of the Yangtze’s middle reaches for which they’re famous. For it’s here, on the border between the municipality of Chongqing and the province of Hubei, that the Three Gorges — a 120-mile long trio of spectacular canyons — constrict the river’s flow. This is what the Victoria Katarina’s passengers, myself included, have really come to see.
As we pull away from Fengdu, the Katarina’s horn resonates rudely across the water. On the opposite bank, serried ranks of cranes and half-finished apartment blocks emerge from the mist. The whole place resembles a giant building site, which is hardly a surprise considering New Fengdu City was terraced fields only a decade ago.
In addition to its spectacular natural landscapes, the Three Gorges are notorious as the location of one of mankind’s most ambitious and controversial projects.
Completed in 2012, the Three Gorges Dam is a concrete leviathan whose construction has allowed cruise ships to travel further upstream than they ever could in the days of Chairman Mao. It has also turned life upside down for more than a million Chinese.
Joining me on deck, affable cruise director Michael Darby explains. “Between Chonging and the dam, we’re effectively sailing on a giant, 400-mile long reservoir,” he says. “When the dam went up, the water along the river behind it rose over 100 metres in some places. Huge numbers of people had to be relocated. Right now we’re actually sailing over some of the houses of old Fengdu.”
Our passage through the Three Gorges begins after breakfast the following day. I leave my muesli half-eaten and hightail it to the Katarina’s viewing deck, where early birds of various nationalities have already nabbed the choice seats. As the ship passes the ancient temple complex of Baidicheng, the scenery begins to change. The river narrows and the banks become steeper, with forested upper slopes shrouded in fog.
We soon pass through the Kui Gate, a pair of sheer cliffs riven from the stained limestone. Way above, the opposing peaks of Mount Chijia and Mount Baiyuan rise to over 1,000 metres, lost in a swirling blanket of low-lying cloud as they stand guard over the entrance to the Qutang Gorge.
Our ship, which once seemed so large, is but a white speck floating through a succession of giant Chinese scroll paintings. Dwarfed by its rocky cleft, even the Yangtze seems subdued, as a series of cliffs, peaks, waterfalls and ravines tower above its emerald waters.
Before the days of the dam, the Three Gorges presented would-be voyagers with whirlpools, rapids, shoals and reefs. Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai once described the Qutang Gorge — the shortest and most treacherous of the Three Gorges — as “a thousand seas poured into a single cup”.
Today our progress is untroubled by white water as we sail past an eye-catching array of mountaintop temples, pagodas and towns. Rising waters may have soothed the fury of Qutang, but its beauty and drama thankfully appear undimmed.
The five miles of the Qutang Gorge are soon left behind as we approach the entrance to Wu Gorge, the second of the three canyons and nearly six times the length of Qutang.
Less imposing but more beautiful than its predecessor, the Wu Gorge is another gallery of breathtaking sights. Forested slopes run down to the river on each side, while traces of diaphanous mist swirl overhead, trapped between the steep walls. A succession of serrated peaks, known as the Shi’er Feng or Twelve Peaks of Mount Wu, present a pair of dragon’s tails wrapped in cloud.
“According to Chinese legend, the peaks were once maidens that protected boatmen on the Yangtze from 12 evil dragons,” says ship’s guide Amy Zhang. The only beasts I can see on hand today are a herd of sure-footed wild goats, but the Tolkienesque tale is in keeping with the landscape.
With Xiling Gorge and the record-breaking Three Gorges Dam to come, we pull over opposite Shennu (Goddess) Peak to moor. It is here that the Shennong Stream, a short but incredibly scenic waterway, empties its modest volume into the Yangtze’s serene flow.
The Shennong’s waters, which also rose with the completion of the dam, are now plied by a collection of former fishermen. These entrepreneurial individuals have recently turned their hand to tourism, ferrying passengers from cruise ships along the newly navigable waterway. Like worker bees attending a queen, they cluster around our bow in their customised boats.
As I disembark, I wonder at the ingenuity of the Shennong fishermen. They, like the Yangzte itself, have shown resilience in a time of massive change. Not having experienced China’s ‘mother waterway’ in its pre-dam state, it’s hard for me to judge the gains and losses. Still, with two days of stunning scenery under my belt, I can’t wait to see the rest.