While being claimed as a worldwide famous "golden channel, " the Three Gorges area actually was once a dangerous waterway. Its 311 shoals and reefs -- with a reef in every 3.3 kilometers on average -- threatened the ships and everyone traveling on the river .
Among the many dangerous shoals in the area there are such ones named as Konglingtan, Xintan, Xietan and Xinglongtan. Before powerboat was introduced to China, all the boats sailing on the Yangtze River had to be dragged by boat trackers when they passed this section of the waterway. A heavily-loaded boat might need as many as hundreds of boat trackers to drag it on. The boat trackers, who made a living by selling their labor, had to face the dangers everyday. A little carelessness might cause the boat turn over and threaten the boat trackers' lives.
The thrilling Three Gorges have attracted many travelers, but the tough sailing conditions had delayed the rise of the people's living standard and economic development of the area. In ancient times, when the simple and primeval ships were the only means of transportation, they brought prosperity to the towns on the banks. The dangerous shoals and reefs fostered the courageousness and optimism of the dwellers on the banks. After the Three Gorges reservoir began to store water, though, the dangerous channel has become a safe and real "golden channel".
Archibald John Little, an Englishman, took a steamer to sail along the Three Gorges in 1899. He wrote a book entitled Through the Yangtze Gorges, or Trade and Travel in Western China, in which he described the scaring and legendary waterway, the beautiful and primitive scenery and the lifestyle of the local people.
Wang Gang, chief mate of S. S. Hongwang, who has five years of experience sailing on the river, hopes to do better business following the completion of the Three Gorges Dam Project. "The channel will be safer and faster," he said.
Sailing upstream for about half an hour from Maoping ferry, you will reach Xintan town, which is also called Qingtan, a name from the most dangerous shoal in the Yangtze River. Landslides took place frequently in the area too. Each of them put the town of Xintan in an even more dangerous situation. According to Commentary on the Waterways Classic, Xintan had been attacked by landslides twice, in the year of 100 and 377 respectively, which blocked the river and caused backwash.
The new town is built on the slope 100 meters higher than the old one. At its central square stands the Plant Monument, which was moved here from its old site. The monument was built with donation from the offspring of S. C. Plant, an English seaman and navigator. Plant played an important role in the voyage history of the Three Gorges area. He was the first river inspector assigned to investigate and supervise navigations and maintenance of the voyage-assisting equipment on the Yangtze River.
Plant came to China in 1900. He served as captain of both a British merchant ship and two Chinese ships. He even built a wood ship and ran his freight business between Yichang and Chongqing on the Yangtze River for 15 years. Plant was very familiar with the shoals and channel conditions of the river. After he became the river inspector, Plant placed a series of light buoys and markers along the channel. He wrote Handbook for the Guidance of Shipmasters on the lchang-Chungking Section of the Yangtze River and trained the first-generation navigators in the Three Gorges area. He stayed in China for 21 years, of which six years were spent in Xintan. He died on his way returning home.
There are always two sides of a story, so is the Plant legend. When Plant sailed to Sichuan in1900, he shot down one of the "lungs of horse" while passing through the Niugan Mafei (meaning liver of cow and lungs of horse) Gorge. He even knocked down two Chinese wooden boats and caused two casualties when he passed the Xietan shoal.
When Western powerboats entered the Three Gorges, they also deprived the local people of business, causing many bloody fights.
Zheng Kebin and Zheng Bishan, both having voyage experience of over 40 years, know the terrain of Xintan like the back of their hands. According to Zheng Kebin, the Xintan shoals include three parts from west to east. The first part has many reefs. When boats passed there, they had to sail carefully, following a zigzag course on the river. It was even worse in spring and winter, when the water was shallow and only the lightly-loaded boats could pass. Very often, the boats had to be unloaded in order to pass through this section. Since the freight had to be discharged there, Xintan ferry became the busiest on the Three Gorges channel. So, for several generations, most local people made their livings either in shipping or in ferry-related jobs.
"Many boatmen couldn't control their boats which were turned over by the rapids, causing the loss of many lives. And sometimes the boat trackers were also entangled into the river," Zheng Kebin recalled. On the north bank of Xintan shoals there is a "white bone tower", which is said to have been formed by the dead in the river.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the government invested 200 million yuan (about US$24.2 million) to remove the most dangerous reefs in the Yangtze River. After the Gezhouba reservoir began to store water, the Xintan shoals disappeared.
Lin Wenhu, a leader of the Xintan town, said that Xintan was thriving before June 1985, when a large-scale landslide happened. In the tragedy, nearly 1,000 houses were destroyed and pushed into the river. A greater part of the ancient town disappeared after the tragedy. Only several dozens of the old houses were left on the south bank of the river to shelter several hundred people.
Now with the Three Gorges reservoir having already stored water, the town of Xintan was submerged in the reservoir. The residents were already moved to Fenghuangling (Phoenix Hill) of the new Zigui County seat. Xintan town was also renamed Quyuan town. Gone with the name is the thousand-year-long Xintan voyage culture.
(China.org.cn by Chen Lin February 14, 2004)