Wednesday, July 30, 2008

YANGTZE....History's Silent Witness !

It was right after lunch on board our Cruise ship which was sailing through the Wu Gorge. We were heading towards Baidi City about 3-4 hours away in the afternoon. The Wu Gorge, about 25 miles long, is one of the most scenic of all the Gorges, with many interesting mountain peaks whose shapes resembled either an animal, bird, human or a deity. Special names were given to these peaks. The most famous is of course the highest one, Goddess Peak towering over the others. It resembles the image of a young, exqusite girl seemingly eyeing and watching over the river below. Legend has

it that the Goddess was actually the daughter of the Queen of Heaven named Yao-ji who descended to this region and fell in love with the world around here. She got her 11 other fairy sisters to come with her. And they made themselves useful by helping the people here and guiding travellers on land or water... especially helping Da Yu to control the floods. Day in and day out they did that until finally, all turned into 12 mountain peaks. These 12 peaks are spread out on both sides of the canyon, forming a beautiful vista of mountains and river. These strange looking peaks and grotesque rock formations are made even more mysterious by the ever present fogs and clouds that envelope the gorge and its valleys. If you have seen typical Chinese paintings of these scenes...they always seem to be enveloped by a misty, magical film of cloud cover. There's an explanation for this.
The Wu Gorge, as well as the others, is a long, and narrow gorge that is filled with deep canyons. With high mountains on both sides, the daily amount of sunlight that passes through is very short and minimal. This impedes the dispersal of air-borne moisture within the gorge resulting in clouds and fogs and in a variety of fantastic shapes and patterns!

As the heat was quite oppressive in our rooms, most of us went up to the open sun deck to enjoy the scenery and the breeze. It was up there on the top deck that I saw this Australian family and a few others, mainly caucasians, looking a little bored and "lost". Yet, here I was in the heart of the Three Kingdom story and trying to connect places and sites to the history I once read about. So...I approached them and asked them if they knew the significance and a little history of the area we are in. Their reply," NOPE ! No idea whatsoever ! " I was quite shocked. Perhaps, they thought they were just seeing the New Dam and a little of the scenery. They wouldn''t have known that out of the 120 chapters in the book on the 3 Kingdoms...72 actually took place here in Hubei Province.
I asked Shirley, our Wuhan guide, to tell them about the history of this place during the Three Kingdom period. She started, they listened and D2 added interesting bits here and there. Then the History teacher in me could not resist and I began to tell them relevant stories from the 3 Kingdom chronicles which took place right where we were! "Here....there....and earlier where we passed through and later we'll be seeing Liu Bei's temple...". They were truly engrossed by the stories of Zhuge Liang, Kuan Yu and Zhang Fei....and more importantly why they meant so much to not only me but to millions around the world as well, over the last 1700 years or so. Why indeed?
It wasn't only about the 3 blood brothers. I mentioned the other warlords too Liu Bei, Cao Cao and Sun Quan and their military advisers and generals. The clever tricks and strategy employed by Zhuge Liang, the Battle of Red Cliff, etc..etc..
At the end of my "Live History lesson" they asked where they could find or read more information about such interesting stories. D2 took a paper and wrote down the title for them..." The Romance of the Three Kingdoms"
After that, I could see that they were looking at everything with a new zest and viguour.
I guessed we had done our job well as the family kept close to us after that!
Top pic: " No,no these are not fictional characters...they are even worshipped in homes around the world....." me as History guide.
Center pic: Illustration of Liu Bei, Kuan Yu and Zhang Fei making that famous blood brother oath in the Peach Garden at Zhang Fei's home.

"And you know how Zhuge Liang solved that tricky problem? Today, his strategies on the art of war and on governing a state and its people ...are compulsory study material for war colleges, think-tanks, military commanders ...."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In the Heart of 3 Kingdoms !

From my childhood says, before Singapore had a TV network, there was only radio stations and our local Rediffusion....and books, particularly Chinese comic books with rough English translations, that opened the world to my young mind. Nevertheless, it was a very good start to learning about history, geography, culture, places through these stories and legends.
I love the comics which were mostly printed in black and white. They were easy to obtain either by borrowing, loaning or exchange with others.
Rediffusion played a big an important part in my growing up years. Almost all homes had one installed and it was hardly ever switched off....week in and week out.
I remember being enraptured by the daily stories of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms that was superbly told by the Grandfather of all Singapore story tellers.....Lee Tai Soh . He spoke in own dialect.,and so I could follow each story-telling episode. If I missed an episode or two, I felt frustrated as there was no repeat and I was always at a loss at what happened in between. Thus in my twenties, I managed to own a copy of the entire 3 Kingdom story and enjoyed reading it from cover to cover. There were 120 chapters in the book.
The story of the 3 Kingdoms has been made into TV serials and movies. The latest being shown now in our cinemas is " RED CLIFF " [ I shall comment on this most significant battle later here].

The steeply angled peak is known as Jixian Peak [ peak of Congregated Immortals ].
The next photo shows part of the Shengguang Peak. To the right is a pavillion in red.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Cruising Down the River...,

The journey continued. We reboarded our luxury cruise ship at Badong which looked just like this ship passing by us. There were quite a number of such luxury ships plying the Yangtze River as it is a very longand big river.

More beautiful views of the gorges as we sailed down river.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Shennong Hall...Performance.

After the Shennong river excursion, we were brought to this place called Shennong Hall.

It appeared to be built to cater to the increasing number of tourists visiting this area. We had to climb some very steep steps to reach the hall where a 20 minute cultural performance was scheduled. The items performed included a dangerous juggling act with weapons, a magic act, Song items and a special " Bashan native" dance. We had time to view their shopping display hall which had exotic medicinal items from the surrounding mountains, both plant and animal.
There were lots of ginseng on display too. Handicrafts and souvenirs were also available.
Top pic:
An interesting sign I saw attached to the railing there.
Next 2 pics:
Showed the jetty and approach to this place.

Shirley..our Tujia Guide

Shirley made an impression on both of us with her friendliness, likeable personality, her sincerity, openess and her very good the short space of this Shennong River excursion.
Her determination and doggedness in pursuing a better life for herself and family led her to concentrate on learning English. That was until her Senior Middle 3 year.
She was only one of two, from her workplace, who could speak passable English.
Both D2 and I will always remember this Shirley of Tujia country.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The turnaround at Shennong Riverlet

As I said...the current going downstream was very strong. This was our boat being pushed by the rushing waters.

All attention shifted to the front of the sampan...the lookout...keeping a sharp eyes on the waters ahead as our boat moved swiftly downstream.

Our boat captain...that's him with the tilted hat, could now afford to relax and smile. The hard and difficult part was over. So, he broke into a huge smile. Then....he too started singing!
It was truly magical...his voice and the song that he sang reverberating beautifully in the narrow confines of the river.
I wished I had a sound recorder with me.
This serves to remind myself that I must have a recording device on my next trip.
I have missed numerous opportunities to record exotic songs, sounds, tunes and chatter on all my previous travels. One big miss I won't forget easily was how the Mongolians sing and make music with their noses[ nasal passage]....when we were last in Mongolia.

More on the "Boat Trackers "

A close up view of how the trackers do their job. The end of the pulling rope is attached to a piece of thick cloth slung over the shoulder and back.

This boat had successfully been pulled over the shallows and made the turn around trip, now heading down river. It was much easier down stream as we travelled with the current. But steering is now more tricky. Both the bow and stern requires good control otherwise the boat may capsize.
These men were frantically reattaching a rope that had snapped.
It was truly heartbreaking work!
They fully deserve my respect and admiration.

Our boat too had turned around and this was the view of the upper reaches of the stream.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sampans pulled by "Trackers".

Before long, Shirley our "Tujia" guide entertained us by singing a traditional love song in her native dialect. It was an interesting kind of song as we, the travellers, were involved too by echoing certain parts of the chorus that she had taught us.
It had a nice rhythmic melody and was perfect as we cruised along.

This is the tough part of the boat journey....hitting the shallows. It was a rock-strewn river bed that was so shallow that at some parts less than a foot of water was the depth! Naturally, the boat can still be pulled over a foot of water. And naturally too a boat fully loaded with about 12 persons will get bogged down in the rock and mud! It was at this point where we witnessed the age-old legends of the "boat trackers" at work.
The boatmen kept their paddles and brought out coiled ropes made from a kind sturdy rolled up bamboo vine...not the usual manila hawser type. They attached one end to the sampan and the other coiled round their shoulder. And using their body weight and sheer muscle power began to pull the fully loaded sampan inch by inch over that stretch of bedrock. I watched them closely, their teamwork and their unique spiritedness. Then of those pulling our boat...his rope snapped and he fell into the mud and water. I felt very, very guilty seeing all this!! I was certain many others must have felt the same way too. Here we were, all cosy, comfortable and dry and all being deadweight on the boat posing a huge weight problem to these boatmen who were huffing and puffing and heaving drag us over the shallows.

I really felt the urge to jump over to help them out. [ See my Gunung Tahan posts where we were in similar situations in 1969 at the Tahan River. We all came out to help push the boat over the shallow rapids.]

But we were expressly told not to worry and to sit tight. Just let them do their job.
And that was what they did....excellently! When one other boat fully loaded with bigger sized caucasians got fully stuck and no amount of pulling could budge it, instant help came from the boatmen of other sampans. With additional manpower....the job was done.

I understand that " trackers" only earn about 3 or 4 $ US a day. !!!
All of them deserve our RESPECT for the way they continue to work to preserve their age-old tradition of boat tracking.

Life-vests are Mandatory!

As we boarded the sampan, we sat on a simple plank seat placed across its beam. Then well-used life-vests were issued to every single traveller and the wearing of it was compulsory before setting off. Only the boatmen themselves do not put on as for them it would hinder their paddling movements. This was the basin steps from where we set off.

Heading up river, the many boats loaded with visitors make a beeline for the gorge. Meanwhile, our chirpy "Tujia" guide Shirley, gave us a running commentary in passable English about the history, geography and culture of this place.

A boat soon overtook us to our left. I captured this shot quickly. You can see clearly 5 boatmen [without lifevests ] . And also a female guide in
blue dress.

This was our boat. Judging from the flow of the water and the current in the was very tough work for the boatmen !

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Excursion by Sampan to River's end

Soon, our cruiser arrived at the heart of "Tujiaren"..that is, the native people who have lived here from ancient days. They are mostly farmers and they live along the slopes of the mountains or along the river banks. The menfolk are also good fishermen in their sampans. The waters of the Shennong and its tributaries teem with fishes.

But the most famous thing about this place and their culture were the legendary " trackers" in the past. These were men who literally used their full body and muscle power to pull ships of all sizes in the more dangerous and upper reaches of the river.
The upper reaches are usually very shallow and the land around there is very rocky, flat and muddy.
These "trackers" use long ropes attached to the ship and coiled over their upper back....and it would require many, many men working together as a team, on both sides, to pull it off.

Each of the sampan is manned by about 4 Tujia men. In addition, on our boat, we have a young and pretty Tujia girl who was assigned to us as guide since she was able to speak rudimentary English ! Her name is also "Shirley".
Here you can see "Shirley" facing us standing up, describing the history and culture of her people and place.

Shirley surprised all the 12 of us in the boat when she started singing a love song in her native" Tujia" dialect.
When she was singing, her sweet and melodious voice echoed through the gorge as the menfolk paddled the sampan with the big, single oars.
It was really good...her singing!
And was a perfect setting in that place.

This is the point where we alight from our cruiser and board the sampans.

More Scenic views of the Gorge

It was a perfect morning, with good weather and much sunshine as our Chinese cruiser moved silently over the gentle waters of the Shennong. Everything seemed quiet. Only the chatter and slight noise from our boat broke the eerie quietness of that place. Part of it, as I look back, seemed frozen in time....the peace and tranquility of the area we passed through, I mean. It is hard to imagine that once upon a time, especially during the 3 Kingdom period, fierce battles were fought here at the Shennong River.

Journey up the Shennong River

Slowly, our launch cruiser sailed into the mouth of the Shennong River and continued up stream.
There was so much to see...even hear, on both sides of the river as we moved along....closer and closer to where we would get off and move into the traditional Chinese sampan for a very exceptional experience up the last 1 km plus of the river.

A passing sampan. It required 2 men to steer and navigate it as currents are strong here.

Craggy slabs such as these and other rock features are a common sight here....worthy of some Geological studies.

A limestone cave that was once high above the water line, in the upper reaches of the rockface. But as you can see, the present water line has risen to its level already.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Transfer from Ship to cruiser

This was taken on board our cruiser for the trip to Shennong River.

Another view on board the Cruiser which is a stylish River boat decorated in the traditional style with Chinese roof.

That ship in the background was the actual Cruise Ship...the Dragon., our own Ship. Our room was # 310. It was berthed opposite to Badong City.

Taking in the beautiful views of the surrounding area around Badong.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hanging Coffins !

As we journeyed up the Shennong River, points of interest were constantly pointed out on both sides of the limestone cliff face. A "must-see" is some of these ancient hanging coffins that were placed in the rock clefts of these vertical cliffs...usually 70 to 150 metres below the top. It was a big puzzle to those who were studying them. Who were theses people in the coffins? How long ago did they settle here? How did they carry,lift, move a very heavy wooden coffin into such clefts? Many of these coffins have now been forever lost as the water level rose upto 150 metres from the previous bank ...after the construction of the 3 Gorges Dam project.
But I manage to see one such coffin that was retrieved with all the remains inside, intact. That post will follow soon, with pics.

Moving up and along the Shennong River.

Many vertical limestone cliffs and caves can be seen .

The present water mark is now about 150 metres over the old level.
That is a height that will even rise further come 2009!