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Three Gorges Truly Gorgeous
Despite making several visits to the Three Gorges on boats along the Yangtze River, I have never felt that I had really discovered the essence of the fantastic scenery until I trekked it recently.

The Three Gorges, or Sanxia in Chinese, was named after the Qutang, Wuxia and Xiling gorges. It stretches 192 kilometers - from Baidicheng (White Emperor City) in Chongqing in the west to Yichang in Hubei Province in the east.

It has been a source of inspiration for poets and artists and one of the hottest tourism destinations in the country for years.

Far away from the clamor of tourists, I particularly enjoyed the unique beauty of the Three Gorges as I trekked along ancient footways over the cliffs, the marvelous landscapes and ancient tranquil towns continuously rushing into my camera lens as well as my heart.

Qutang: Heroes on Cliffs

The 8-kilometre Qutang is the shortest among the three gorges. At the western entrance to the gorge, the sharp cliffs rise hundreds of metres on both sides of the river, appearing like a mighty door opening just 100 metres wide.

An ancient narrow footway that rises over the steep cliffs goes all the way through the gorge, and it was here that my hiking trip began.

The amazing path was built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), all by ancient tools such as hammers, chisels and awls. Its width ranges from 0.4 to 1.5 metres with a height of 2 to 3 metres.

When hiking on the footway, I had to keep looking forward, since there was only steep cliffs above me and turbulent rapids below, both of which made me feel rather dizzy.

The footway is the only road path connecting the counties of Fengjie and Daxi for business and trade. It used to be a popular path for bulky sedan-chairs carrying inperial court officials in the Qing Dynasty. No one ever knew how the bearers could balance the sedan-chairs while walking fast and vigorously in such a limited space.

I could feel the dexterity of the ancient sedan-chair bearers when I met some porters shouldering fertilizers with carrying poles.

"How heavy?"

"40 kilograms."

"Where to go?"

"Daxi, 20 kilometres away."

"How long will it take?"

"About five to six hours."

They told me that the footway was important to them, especially when the water rises since smaller boats would stop shipping business on safety grounds and larger boats would not stop at Daxi. So they had to buy fertilizer from Fengjie and shoulder it back to Daxi.

"The crops cannot wait until the water drops, so this is the only option we have," one porter said.

However, the bearers were not the only "heroes" on the cliffs.

On the side of the footway near the river, I found dozens of rock pillars on which irregular grooves were clearly seen.

In the Qing Dynasty, boats that sailed against the current were pulled by boat trackers. At each turn, the pillars were built as the axes for the turning of tow ropes. That was how the grooves came about.

No boat trackers are found in Qutang Gorge now - only the pillars quietly record their stories.

1,700-year-old Town

I am one of the lucky ones who will see Dachang, an amazing town before it is submerged when the Three Gorges Dam is completed.

Located in the middle of Wushan County and on the side of Daning River, the town was built 1,700 years ago as a transportation and trade hub. Later, it became the most prosperous place in the area.

Only 300 metres in length and 200 metres in width, the town's ancient scenes have been well preserved over past centuries.

Two main streets connect the four gates of the town with only the northern gate falling into ruin.

Single-floor buildings along the streets still keep the features of the Qing Dynasty. The walls were built with planks of woods, but only the side facing the street had a dark wood wall. The other three sides were enclosed by brick walls, which worked to prevent fires.

Local people said the living area and the business area were strictly separated, the latter, called chang in Chinese, was set up outside the town gates.

There, craftsmen were busy taking care of their stands while making extra goods. Laughs, bargains and quarrels rose one after another.

Farmers living nearby came to sell their goods. Tobacco, fresh fruit, vegetables and piglets made a dazzling array of beautiful exhibits. But the only thing that struck me was the several pairs of straw sandals hanging on the door of an unnoticeable stand in a corner.

I'd worn them in my childhood and hadn't seen them for years after I moved to northern China.

It cost me only 1 yuan (12 US cents) to buy four pairs. While I was still immersed in the happiness of finding such "old friends," I found local people staring at me. Maybe, hanging both the straw sandals and the camera lens on my chest was strange for them.

Wuxia: Fairy Peak

Many tourists believe Wuxia Gorge to be the most remarkable. It boasts the most beautiful and spectacular scenery.

Stretching 40 kilometres from the mouth of the Daning River to Badong County in the east, this section passes through green mountains with precipices and peaks where the water zigzags forward and gives way to some attractive scenery on both sides.

Magnificent Twelve Peaks stand still along the banks of the gorge. Among them, the Fairy (Shennu) Peak is regarded as the most fantastic. People said the peak was produced by a fairy and a natural rock sculpture was located on the peak top to commemorate this.

But it was not easy to meet the magic "fairy." It took nearly five hours to get there, climbing over two ridges.

I nearly gave up as I made my way along the final 500 metres to the peak since there seemed no ready-made way to go. A kind farmer whose surname was Liu volunteered to be my guide. He led me into the dense forest and pushed ahead through the tiny branches.

Twenty minutes later, the "fairy" finally appeared in front of me. It was about 6.5 metres high and 5 metres wide. Standing beside her, I was astonished to see the shining ripples of the river and another six beautiful peaks on the southern bank, making a world as gorgeous as a wonderland.

Shennong River

Located on the southern bank of the Yangtze River and 530 kilometres from Chongqing, Badong County is one of the oldest counties in the area whose history may date back to the Warring States Period (BC 403-221). The Shennong River is famous there.

Originating in the Shennongjia Primitive Forest Zone of western Hubei Province, the 60-kilometre Shennong River is a quiet brook meandering through Badong County and joining the Yangtze River at western Badong.

The unique service there is to travel along the river by a tiny arched boat, called wandoujiao by local people.

The brook is just 30 to 80 centimetres in depth. So the clanking between the bottom of the boats and stone is often heard.

In some places, the boatmen even had to jump out of the boat and move some stones in the brook so the boat could move ahead.

When even this failed, the boatmen would take off their clothes, become totally naked, and become boat trackers. It was an old local tradition and a rare scene that could be only seen in summer, a local man told me.

When the boat stopped, I took off my shoes and trousers to have a walk along brook. It was not as interesting as I imagined. The stones rubbed against my feet and were too slippery to be walked upon.

It was the straw sandals that saved me. Wearing them, walking on the stones in the brook became much easier and it was just like walking on the common road.

From the distance, the songs by the boatmen hovered over the cliffs, I kept on walking in the cold clear water, totally intoxicated with the fascinating surroundings.

The author is a professional photographer whose story first appeared in 2003's third issue of Photo-China, a monthly magazine.

(China Daily March 10, 2003)

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