The lake created by the Three Gorges Dam stretches all the way to the city of Congqing in the west and this is a good place to start a cruise down the Yangtze.
Seventy years ago Chongqing was the headquarters of both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek. The two leaders stopped fighting one another and formed a shaky alliance against the Japanese. The city is far away from the coastal regions conquered by the Japanese and perpetually shrouded in mist. The Japanese bombers could rarely find Chongqing and the city was relatively safe from attack.
The mist gives Chongqing a distinctive feeling. Another distinction is the extraordinary building program launched to house people displaced by the rising waters of the dam. I have never seen so many construction cranes. Apartment blocks have sprouted up like mushrooms on land that was used for farming only a few years ago. The massive project has led to discontent and some people are not shy in expressing their anger to visitors.
Not much is left from the war years but, here and there, you will find the odd reminder. The residence of Song Qing (Sun Yat-Sen’s wife) still stands and so does the residence of General Joseph (Vinegar Joe) Stilwell, who was “lent” by the Americans to the Chinese to help them fight the Japanese.
A museum of the revolution retains the atmosphere of the Mao years. Patriotic workers and peasants stand shoulder to shoulder with soldiers to forge a new destiny for the nation and fight the oppressive forces of the capitalist running dogs. It’s the sort of thing that is getting increasingly hard to find. While in Chongqing, I was told of an old soldier who expressed a desire to be cremated in a Mao suit. The country was once awash with them. His dutiful relatives hunted high and low and eventually hired a tailor to have one specially made.
There are some magnificent World Heritage rock temples at Dazu to the west of the city. These date from the Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th Century) which is widely regarded as the golden age of Chinese culture. The statues and rock carvings are in a good state of preservation and mainly Buddhist.
The cruise boats take three or so days to make the journey down the Yangtze to the dam, visiting places of interest on the way. I’m not an enthusiast for cruises but I liked this one.
The boats usually call at Fengdu, which has been renamed “City of Ghosts” by the tourist board. It once stood at the edge of the Yangtze. The lower part is now well below water level and protected by a dam wall. There’s a lot to be seen in the sunken area but the main attractions are higher up. Ancient paths lead to temples. Some are Taoist and the statues inside are scary. A tour guide told us that the Taoists think of hell as a place inhabited by devils who have first claim on your soul. If they judge you unworthy of their company they send you further down the line. That’s an interesting twist on what I was taught at Sunday school.
A shore excursion to Shenlong Village provides a glimpse of what life was once like for the communities along the Yangtze. Until recently, boats were dragged upstream, through the rapids, by gangs of men. Many of these “boatmen” have since migrated to other parts but some remain and they have found employment in the tourist industry. Their wives have souvenir stalls and they give demonstrations of boat dragging. You get in one of their boats and they take you down a narrow gorge to Shenlong. After that, they transfer you to smaller boats and drag you up fast flowing streams.
The people of Shenlong belong to one of China’s minority groups. Their ancestors used to place their dead in caves high up in the cliffs of the Shenlong gorge. Some of the coffins are visible from the boats. We were told that in ancient times the coffins were lowered down on ropes from the top of the cliffs and tended by people climbing down on ropes. Putting flowers on grandma’s grave required a lot of skill in those days.
The three gorges are still impressive but not as impressive as they once were. The dam is one of the wonders of our modern age. One small tip: If you buy a fossil fish from the stalls at Shenlong (or anywhere else), don’t expect it to be real. We had people on our boat comparing purchases and getting upset when they found that their fish was identical to someone else’s fish. The fish were cast from moulds made from real fossils. They weren’t cheated. The price they paid was entirely reasonable for what they got.
The top picture is of one of the gorges. The bottom picture is of the Shenlong boatmen with a boatload of tourists.