|Today is a rare day in that there is virtually no walking for us. We will spend the day on board ship (or rather ships as you will see) cruising through the Three Gorges section of the Yangtze. About the only exercise we’ll get today will be walking up to the sun deck to experience the view. Gad, this may mean I will have to break down and do what I have been avoiding – hit the gym that is onboard ship. Hopefully they have had the foresight to put a cup holder on the treadmill that is just the right size for a martini glass. You hydrate your way and I’ll hydrate mine.
Okay, so, what’s the deal with this Three Gorges thing? I mean it’s one of the biggest tourist draws in all of China. But it doesn’t have any amusement park rides, there’s no opportunity to ski, no beaches to lie on and sip Piña Coladas. What’s the draw? Well, I’ll tell ya’. It’s the scenery, pure and simple – and spectacular. The Three Gorges section covers about 120 miles along the Yangtze, going through the Wushan Mountains. The Gorges are a mix of tall mountains, sheer cliffs, and rich vegetation.
It was soon after breakfast when we approached Qutang, the first of the Gorges. So, with cameras at the ready, we hit the sun deck. It was still fairly early, so it was chilly. Adding to that was an overcast morning (as usual) and a fairly strong wind coming across the water. So not only were cameras at the ready, jackets were too.
We sailed into Qutang Gorge through what might best be described as a natural limestone “gate”, known as Kui Men. Qutang is the shortest (5 miles) and narrowest (never more than 500 feet wide) of the Gorges. You are almost surrounded on both sides by towering limestone peaks, up to 4000 feet high and almost purely vertical. Couple those with overhangs of massive rock and you feel like you’re sailing through an underground cave. You can really see all of the folding of the rock, the carving by nature that over millions of years formed the Gorges. We were like a bunch of ants going back and forth from bow to stern with cameras just clicking away.
The Yangtze is fairly swift in the Qutang and was more so, and more dangerous, prior to the Dam project. It was especially dangerous during the high water season when the river could quickly rise about 170 feet and really pickup speed. There was no such thing as just leisurely floating along with a bottle of wine and a baguette. The massive Three GorgesDam project has served to somewhat tame the river.
After navigating the Qutang Gorge, we came to the town of Wushan where we docked for a bit. For the next part of our Three Gorges sail, we would be going through what is known as the Lesser Three Gorges. We would actually be on the Daning River which is a tributary of the Yangtze. It is too narrow for large ships so we hopped off our ship and got on an excursion boat – and away we went.
But wait, wait - first a little about Wushan. The founding of this town dates all the way back to around 2000 BCE. In other words, more than a little ways back. Wushan was a port on the Yangtze and there was also a good deal of farmland in the surrounding area. Wushan was a pretty compact city and had many farmers markets, small shops, and businesses that catered to the many sailors whose ships docked there as they plied the Yangtze. In sum, Wushan was probably the epitome of a lively and spicy port town.
All that changed in 2002. Wushan was leveled as part of the Dam project. “New Wushan” was built higher up the mountain and the people were relocated there. It looks very modern because, well, it is. There are wide boulevards and a number of tall buildings. Against the hillside it looks almost like a vertical city. Suffice to say, the character of the old port town is gone, submerged with the physical rubble under the Yangtze. Our guides said some of the residents were upset with the relocation and loss of their old town. But they also thought the dam was a worthwhile project. It brought reliable electricity to the area and offers, hopefully, a better life for their children.
So, now,lets go on our excursion boat as it heads off to take us along the Lesser Gorges. There are actually three gorges that make up the Lesser Gorges – Dragon Gate, Misty, and Emerald. I’m not sure why they are called the Lesser Gorges because they are spectacular – sheer cliffs, precipices, and tall mountains. You look at all this as you cruise down the river and all you can say is “Wow!” And you just have to marvel at Mother Nature’s handiwork and the millions of years it took to carve it all out.
Since we were on a narrower river, it was easier to see some of the detail up the cliffs and mountains. Like there are numerous openings up the cliffs that are actually small caves. Our guide pointed to one opening in particular, way up on a cliff. As we strained our necks upward, we saw something inside the opening. The guide told us this is a hanging coffin of the Ba people. This is how The Ba people laid their dead to rest and date back 1000-2000 years ago. There are a number of these hanging coffins along the Three Gorges but many others are now submerged as a result of the dam project.
Another thing we were able to see was the remnant of what is known as the plank road, which was laid out around 300 BCE. Way back in those days it wasn’t easy to go from the river to the villages located on the other side of the mountains. There needed to be a route to get people and supplies to these villages. Hence the plank road. Calling the plank road a “road” may be overly generous. It is laid into the side of a cliff. More than 6000 holes were carved into the cliff by hand. Wooden stakes inserted into the holes supported bamboo pipes. And there you have it; going up and over the cliff and on to the villages on the other side. It runs for 60 miles. It’s one of those things you look at and say “How did they do that?!
One other item we would like to mention regarding the Lesser Gorges involves the snub nosed monkeys. Going back in time, these monkeys were plentiful around the Lesser Gorges. But due to hunting and habitat damage, their numbers had declined so much that by the 1990’s only about 15 could be found. The Chinese government stepped in just in time, declared the monkey a protected species, and set out to rebuild the population. And they succeeded. Today there are several hundred of them in the Lesser Gorges and on into Qutang Gorge.
We were fortunate enough to see a few of the monkeys as we cruised the Lesser Gorges. They aren’t easy to pick out as they blend in quite well with the river bank and the cliffs. Mother Nature is doing her part to keep the snub nosed monkeys goin’. Hopefully humans will continue to live up to the challenge.
After exploring the Lesser Gorges, our excursion boat arrived back at Wushan and we reboarded our Viking ship. Now back on the Yangtze, we headed into the third section of the Three Gorges, the Wu Gorge. Once again we were surrounded by sheer cliffs and tall peaks. But, in addition, there was quite a bit of mist engulfing the mountains. So much mist that at times we couldn’t see all the way up the mountains. The sun, such as it was, had a tough time penetrating through.
You know there is the scientific, geological explanation as to how these gorges were formed. And then there is the Chinese legend perspective. A Cliffs Notes Version of the formation of the Wu Gorge goes like this:
In ancient times there were twelve dragons that were wreaking havoc and causing a lot of fear among the people. The Goddess Yao Ji became aware of this. She arrived on the scene and put an end to it all by turning the dragons into mountains and, thus, Wu Gorge was born. The tallest mountain is called the Peak of the Goddess and Yao Ji lives there, keeping eternal watch over the people.
Which perspective is right – science or legend? Well we Westerners always go with the science (You know – In God we trust; all others bring data.). But before we just dismiss the folklore, remember that the Chinese had an advanced civilization long before we Westerners could find our way out of the bog.
Well, that is enough on the Three Gorges. I could go on but I would just be describing the mountains and cliffs with the same adjectives. This was more of a spectacular visual experience, so take a look at the pictures. Though, once again, let me apologize for the “crumminess” of some of the pictures (That’s high brow media speak.). On outside shots, we had trouble throughout the trip with the aperture settings. Though I am far from a good photographer, this was not “operator error” – Promise. Do I sound defensive? Yeah, okay, I am.
After dinner, the Program Director told us that around 10:00 p.m. we would be starting through several locks and it would take about five hours to get through them. Going through a lock can be a pretty neat experience and we have gone through plenty on all our river cruises. It is cool – the first couple of times. After that it becomes more like “another lock; okay fine.” So it becomes rather routine for us. It’s a little different story for the captain. It takes quite a lot of navigational skill to maneuver through these things.
So, if you’ll allow us a large diversion, let us tell you about our first experience going through a lock. It was in 2006 and we were cruising the Danube with Sherry and Bryan Dold and we were somewhere between Budapest and Vienna. The ship got to the lock about 1:00 in the morning. We had intended to go up on the top deck and take it all in. But we fell asleep. We woke up with a start when we heard loud screeching. We opened the window and looked out; but didn’t have to look far. We were almost nose to nose with this concrete and brick wall that was one side of the lock. We stuck our heads out and looked up and couldn’t see the top – the ship was way down in the lock.
Joye couldn’t resist and said “I wonder what it feels like?” So, she leaned out and ran her hand over the wall and – yuck! – it was all slimy and cold. We halfway expected the Creature from the Black Lagoon to leap out at any moment (Uh, you do remember the black and white Creature from the Black Lagoon movie, don’t you? Oh, you don’t know what “black and white” movies are. Okay, now that we have really aged ourselves, let’s move along. Quickly.)
Joye stuck her head out again to take another look and all of a sudden we heard a shout – “Joye!” Agh, we jumped up about three feet. We looked up and there were Sherry and Bryan above us on the top deck. Joye yelled up, “How did you know it was me?” Sherry said, “Once we saw that cotton ball of white hair, we knew it had to be you!”
Anyway, we spent about the next 45 minutes just taking in all the up and down and side to side maneuvering to get through the lock. We had another of our “Beverly Hillbilly” moments – “Golleee, Granny, look at that. This is more fun than bein’ a pig in slop.”
And there you have our first lock experience.
Back to the present.
Oh yeah, I did hit the treadmill onboard ship. And, saving grace, the martini fit just fine in the cup holder, thank you. Ah, there is a God.
Drink of the Day: Red Pagoda (rum, Campari, Triple sec, pineapple juice, and coconut milk) 3 stars.