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Lesser Three Gorges
The Lesser Three Gorges, considered by many as the true pearl of the Three Gorges area (an ancient Chinese saying claims that 'the Lesser Three Gorges of the Daning River are not as beautiful as the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, they are more beautiful'), are situated along a 50 kilometer stretch of the lower reaches of the Daning River, just beyond the point where the Daning River begins to swing southward enroute to its juncture with the west-east oriented Three Gorges stretch of the Yangtze River near the city of Wushan, Chongqing Municipality, which city also marks the western end of, or upstreams entrance to, Wu Gorge. The Daning River is also the largest tributary along the 192-kilometer, Three Gorges stretch of the Yangtze River.
The beauty of the Lesser Three Gorges area derives from a number of superior qualities that the swath of land located between Daba Mountain and the Yangtze River to the south – a stretch of some 100 kilometers, as the crow flies – enjoys over the Three Gorges area, though, if sheer scale is the criteria for "superior quality", then the Three Gorges comes out on top. Here, between Daba Mountain and the Yangtze River, sheer cliffs and steep mountains rise on either side of the Daming River, creating one of nature's finest landscape galleries, as near-tropical wonders envelope both banks of this majestically scenic river.
The superior qualities that the Daning River drainage offers stem from the drainage's pristine terrain that is both secluded (it is far removed from the noise of the Yangtze), rocky (hence the lack of a significanly muddied river), densely forested, and with high cliff walls that box in a much narrower river, creating an even greater sense of canyon depth. The pristine terrain means that the forests of the Daning River drainage are home to a bountiful flora and fauna, the latter of which includes the Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) monkey, once also found along the Yangtze River itself, and the Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata), as well as a great variety of other birds, including water birds, and in the pure waters of the Daning River itself abound a variety of fishes.
The difference in appearance between the waters of the Daning River and the waters of the Yangtze River is striking: whereas the waters of the Yangtze River are at best light green (when there is no runoff) and at worst café-au-lait brown (when the runoff muddies the river considerably), the waters of the Daning River seldom vary from a bright, emerald green color.
The flora of the Daning River drainage includes a large number of broadleaf (deciduous) and coniferous trees, as well as a special variety of tea plant. The mist-enshrouded mountains along the Daning River are namely covered with lush green vegetation, much of which is in the form of the Cloud & Mist Tea plant, one of the specialties of Wushan County. This particular type of tea plant requires a moist, misty, but not too humid environment, precisely as that found on the cliffs along the Daning River.
The Daning River drainage has become one of the prized nature reserves in this part of China, and is quickly becoming a popular tourist destination among foreign visitors as well, who cherish the area's unspoiled, Shangri-La like enchantment.
The highlights of the Lesser Three Gorges are principally the gorges themselves, including an additional set of yet smaller gorges, the Mini Three Gorges that belong to a short tributary to the Daning River, namely, the Madu River. However, there are also a few sites along the Lesser Three Gorges that are of historical interest and which should not be missed. These include the so-called Hanging Coffins of the Ba people and a plank road (a pathway built along the cliff wall by means of holes bored into the cliff face, into which were inserted beams which were then "clothed" with planks).
The Lesser Three Gorges are, proceeding upstreams from the juncture with the Yangtze River: Longmen ("Dragon Gate") Gorge; Dawu ("Misty") Gorge; and Dicui ("Emerald") Gorge. The Mini Three Gorges belong, as indicated, to the short tributary to the Daning River, the Madu, which empties into the Daning River from the river's eastern bank (the Daning, as indicated, flows from north to south here, while the Madu flows roughly from northeast to southwest) along the Dicui Gorge stretch.
Dragon Gate Gorge
Dragon Gate Gorge is only 3 kilometers long, but offers a spectacular vista, since the mountains on either side of the river here are extremely high, walling in the narrow canyon so snugly that the strip of sky above seems far, far away. Remains of an ancient plank road – the longest extant walkway of its kind in China, in fact – can be seen along the cliff. Some of the rock formations and other sights here have been given special names, such as Dragon Gate Spring, Gate Guarded by Lion, Nine Dragons Pillar, and Shooting the Rapids of Silver Nest, where the boats shoot like flying arrows, so swift is the current.
Just before one leaves Dragon Gate Gorge for Misty Gorge, one passes a string of three other natural sites known, in upstreams order, as Panda Cave, Nameless Gorge and Pipazhou. The only thing that could possibly mar the idyllic scenery of Dragon Gate Gorge is the sight of the motorboats that ply the river during tea picking season, otherwise the imagery is as frozen in time.
Misty Gorge, the middle gorge of the Lesser Three Gorges, is also the middle-sized gorge, length-wise, at 10 kilometers, beginning at Tortoise Shoal and ending at the village of Double-Dragon. Misty Gorge is renowned for its many caves with Hanging Coffins, which contain the skeletons of members of the ancient Ba minority group. The Hanging Coffins of the middle reaches of the Yangtze River area, namely, those from around the Three Gorges region, were for the most part made from a single piece of wood, i.e., carved from a tree trunk. No one knows exactly why these ancient peoples practiced this form of burial, whether it was reserved for "royalty" only or whether it was the custom to bury every dead person this way.
Strangely shaped stalactites can be seen suspended below the roofs of caves. Many have formed into grotesque shapes. These and other strange rock formations have traditionally been given names. One therefore passes such sites as Dragon In & Tiger Out, Dragon- Returning Cave, Fairy Peach Peak, Fairy Throwing a Silk Ball, Goddess of Mercy Seated on Lotus Platform, Horse Returning to Mountain, Monkey Fishing in the Air, Piggy Worshipping the Goddess of Mercy, and Suspended Coffin, all of which require a good imagination – which the Chinese apparently have in large measure! – in order to visualize them, though once you "get the picture", you can easily see it again and again. Many of these names refer to fairy tales and to other, ancient Chinese fables.
Emerald Gorge is the final and the longest (12 kilometers) of the Lesser Three Gorges, proceeding in an upstreams fashion. Though the name dicui is generally translated as "emerald", it can also mean "verdant", which is a very apt term to describe Emerald Gorge, the lushest and most open (less boxed in) of the Lesser Three Gorges. Since the slopes of Emerald Gorge are less steep, they have trapped and retained soil, and, being open to more sunlight, have thereby become a hotbed of vegetation, and since vegetation has a tendency to smooth the otherwise sharp contours of mountains, Emerald Gorge has the most graceful appearance of all three of the Lesser Three Gorges.
Here the visitor will see pairs of Mandarin ducks swimming along the river banks, rows and groves of delicate bamboo lining the shores, and slightly farther up the mountain, larger, leafier trees in which cavort the tireless Rhesus monkey. Here too, some of the natural rock formations have names, such as Boat Coffin, Dancing Rain from Heavenly Spring, Flying Clouds Cave, Imitation Plank Paths, Sheep Cliff, Sky-Scraping Red Wall, Stalactitic Buddha on Cliff, Steel Rope Bridge, Two Eagles Playing on Screen, and Water Curtain Cave.
Mini Three Gorges
Located at the northern end of Emerald Gorge is the small, northeast-southwest oriented branch river, the Madu River, that leads to the Mini Three Gorges. Just as the size of the boat "shrinks" with the transition from the Three Gorges to the Lesser Three Gorges (from large cruise boats to junks), the boat size "shrinks" again from the Lesser Three Gorges to the Mini Three Gorges (from junks to long, light and slender, canoe-like, mat-covered wooden boats equipped with guard rails for safety).
If the Lesser Three Gorges seem to lie in a deeper canyon than the Three Gorges, due in large part to perceptions, given the narrowness of the Daning River compared to the Yangtze River, then the effect of being in the Mini Three Gorges is like being in an even deeper canyon, since the river here is even narrower and the cliffs on either side appear even higher, again, perhaps due to perceptions. Here is truly quiet, except for the stretches where there are rapids. If the beach in the movie of the same name was a tranquil paradise (before it got too populated, that is), then the river of the Mini Three Gorges is similarly an even more tranquil paradise.
The only thing that could possibly mar the beauty and serenity of the Mini Three Gorges is the fact that the tour companies are now beginning to use rubber rafts on the river for the downstream trip, mainly because rubber rafts are more stable through rapids, but these craft seem to induce an atmosphere of excessive joviality, of whooping and hollering, which destroys the very reason for being there in the first place: the tranquility. The long, slender, mat-covered boats are pulled upstream by haulers – the men of olden time who used the plank walkways along all of the gorges here in the Three Gorges region of the Yangtze River – adding a quaint touch of the ancient to a modern tourist experience.
The three gorges of the Mini Three Gorges are (in upstreams order): Sancheng Gorge, Qinwang Gorge and Changtan Gorge. Here, the visitor will see numerous stalactites in various bizarre shapes from which trickle and drip water, and which are sheathed in verdant foliage. Refreshingly, there are no place names associated with Mini Three Gorges, mainly because the Madu, unlike the Daning and the Yangtze, saw little traffic, comparatively speaking.
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Downstream: Chongqing-Yichang, Chongqing-Shanghai, Chongqing-Jingzhou
Upstream: Yichang-Chongqing, Shanghai-Chongqing, Jingzhou-Chongqing