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Qutang Gorge, whose westward demarcation (note that the Yangtze River, of which the 192 kilometer Three Gorges stretch forms a part, flows from west to east here) is the town of Baidicheng, is the shortest of the three gorges that make up the monumental Three Gorges Dam project (the other two gorges, in downstream order (i.e., from west to east), are Wu Gorge and Xiling Gorge). From Baidicheng, Qutang Gorge continues roughly eastward in a snaking fashion for the next 8 kilometers to the town of Daixi, along a path dictated by nature, i.e., determined by mountain peaks and by the valleys/ ravines that separate them.
Qutang Gorge marks the western, upstreams entrance to the famous Three Gorges stretch of the Yangtze River. Qutang is not only the shortest, but also the narrowest and deepest of the three gorges, a feature that is most prominent at the bottleneck called Kiu Gate (Kiumen), where twin bluffs (Mount Baiyan ("White Salt" Mountain) on the south bank and Mount Chijia on the north bank) reaching a height of over 1300 meters on either side of the Yangtze River constrict the flow of the river considerably, creating what is arguably the most turbulent and terrifyingly impressive (legend has it that even ghosts are frightened of Qutang Gorge) section of the entire Three Gorges stretch of the Yangtze River.
The best way to describe Qutang Gorge is to simply describe its highlights, i.e., the topological features of the gorge, many of which have a legend attached to them, starting with the ancient village of Baidicheng that marks the beginning of the gorge, then proceeding downstreams.
The Gu Zhandao ("Ancient Pathways")
On the northern bank of the Yangtze River, all along Qutang Gorge from Baidicheng to Daixi, can be found traces of the ancient footpath, carved into the gorge's cliff face, that was used by laborers – called "haulers", but in essence, boat tuggers, as in "human tug boats" – whose job it was to pull the watercraft that plied the Yangtze River upstreams through passages where the current was too strong to navigate any other way. The first haulers – from the time of the Xia (BCE ca.2000-1500) and Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasties, but also from subsequent dynastic periods – were of course slaves, and accompanying the haulers was an overseer with a whip whose job it was to discourage "slacker" behavior.
But whether the haulers were slaves or free men, the job of a hauler was inevitably gruelling, as the size of the boats as well as the amount and weight of their cargo continually increased, "at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil" one is tempted to say, to borrow an apt phrase from Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, even if the number of haulers on each boat was accordingly increased. On some stretches of some rivers in China, they still make use of haulers, though the plight of today's hauler is much less miserable than it was in former times.
With the construction of the Three Gorges Dam project, i.e., as a result of the significant rise in the water level through these nature-made sluices, most of the pathways of the haulers are now underwater. However, similar footpaths – designed for bearers, or porters – were carved into mountainsides in many places for the purpose of transporting goods by foot, and the traces of these footpaths can still be seen.
Baidicheng – In the footsteps of Liu Bei & Zhuge Liang
Baidicheng (Baidi Cheng, or Baidi "Town", aka "White Emperor Town") is an ancient village on the northern bank of the Yangtze River near the present-day seat of Fengjie County. The main thing that distinguishes Baidicheng (now a major tourist stopover on most Yangtse River Cruises), apart from its close proximity to Qutang Gorge, is that it is the place where the famous Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period leader (and self-pronounced Emperor of the Kingdom of Shu), Liu Bei, who had long been engaged toward the end of his life in decimating battles against first Cao Cao (King of Wei and posthumously awarded the title of Emperor Wu of Wei), then Liu's former ally (against Cao Cao), Sun Quan (King, then Emperor Da, of Wu), finally died – on the run, in fact – from the superior forces of Sun Quan. Baidicheng boasts not only a memorial building site to the memory of Liu Bei, it also has a memorial site dedicated to the memory of Liu Bei's famous military strategist, Zhuge Liang.
Moreover, given the historical prominence of these two famous figures (made even more famous in the 14th century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms), many members of the literati of successive Chinese dynasties have visited Baidicheng and have composed a couplet or a short piece of prose in praise of the ancient city where the great Three Kingdoms leader finally met his end.
These include such notable personnages as: the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty poet who has been called China's Poet-Historian and Poet-Sage by Chinese admirers, and China's Baudelaire, Béranger, Burns, Horace, Hugo, Milton, Ovid, Shakespeare, Virgil, or Wordsworth by various Western admirers, Du Fu (CE 712–770); another Tang Dynasty poet whose works have been revered in the West ever since they were rediscovered in the mid-19th century, Li Bai (CE 701-762... aka Li Po or Li Bo); yet another Tang Dynasty poet, and a provincial governor, revered in neighboring Japan as well in his homeland, Bai Juyi (CE 772–846); and the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty poet, writer, scholar, and statesman, Su Shi (CE 1037-1101). Du Fu spent a considerable amount of time in Baidicheng, where he composed numerous longer and shorter poems.
Kuimen (Kui Gate)
Kuimen has not been called the iconic "Symbol of the Three Gorges" (aka "Gateway to the Three Gorges") for no good reason – Kuimen was praised as 'the most magnificent scenery in the world' by ancient Chinese writers who weren't given to hyperbole and who, back then, believed the world essentially to consist of highly developed (culturally, intellectually, scientifically, you-name-it) China, surrounded by nomadic barbarian tribes. Kuimen is formed by the two bluffs belonging to the Baiyan and Chijia Mountains on the southern and northern banks, respectively, of the Yangtze River at this point. Moreover, since Qutang Gorge has always been defined by Kui Gate, the gorge has also always been referred to as Kui Gorge.
With its narrow passage (only 50 meters at its narrowest point) and with its towering cliffs, Kuimen is as cleaved out rock, and since this is the Mighty Yangtze River, whose cubic meter flow is the largest in all of China (and one of the largest such flows in the world, in fact), forcing a body of water of this magnitude through such a narrow canyon can't but produce a dramatic sight to behold.
After the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the water level at Kuimen rose about 130 meters, which is of course a staggeringly high rise in water level for any river, but since the peaks that form Kui Gate were at 1230 meters above the river's water level before the construction of the dam, they are still are about 1100 meters above water level, and thus still present a dramatic sight to behold.
Fen Bi Tang ("Chalk Wall")
The Chalk Wall is a stretch of white cliff on the northern, or Mount Chijia, side of Kuimen. Just as today's graffiti artists can't resist a large white surface (they will whiten it themselves if it is of an appropriate type), the famous calligraphers of China, dating as far back as the Song Dynasty, couldn't resist leaving their mark on the Chalk Wall. There are about a thousand characters, representing a variety of calligraphic styles and periods, carved into the Chalk Wall, the largest of which – obviously designed to be read from the southern, or Mount Baiyan, side of Kuimen – measure approximately 1.7 meters in width.
Meng Liang Ti (Meng Liang "Ladder")
On the opposite, or Mount Baiyan, side of Kuimen from the Chalk Wall is a vertical, zig-zag series of roughly rectangular, meter-deep holes "punched" into the cliff face, and situated about a meter apart, known as the Meng Liang Ladder after a legendary Song Dynasty soldier of the same name. According to the legend, Meng Liang served a general by the name of Yang Jiye who had been buried in haste at the top of Mount Baiyan. Wishing to give his commander a proper burial, Meng Liang, during the cover of darkness, constructed the ladder (out of what and how he did it is left for petty minds, incapable of appreciating the power of the Dao, to question :)) as he made his way up the cliff face. Nearing the top, Meng Liang heard the crowing of a rooster, or so he thought, so gave up the plan to bury his commander.
There is a sequel to the story below... and for Doubting Thomases/ petty minds, it turns out that there are several places along the Three Gorges stretch of the river where this type of pattern of zig-zag holes is present, suggesting that whatever the purpose of the holes, either Meng Liang wasn't the only individual to make use of them, or he was something of a busy bee. In addition, similar holes can be seen along the Little Three Gorges Dam, near the city of Wushan, where the local tourism board has inserted beams into the holes, thus making it easier to see how the arrangement might have been used to scale a steep wall.
Daodiao Heshangshi ("Hanging Monk Rock")
Just downstream from the Meng Liang Ladder, and on the same side of the gorge, is a section of cliff face with the odd-shaped impression of a figure that looks as if it could almost have been chiseled into the rock. The odd-shaped, upside-down (hanging) figure looks uncannily like a monk hanging upside-down. Yeps, you guessed it! This is the monk who, for God knows what reason, foolishly got it in his head to crow like a rooster (in the hope of scaring away the "monster" in the dark that was scaling the cliff face, punching meter-deep holes in said cliff face??), causing Meng Liang to abandon his otherwise erstwhile project. Angry (when he found out he had been duped, though for what reason one can only guess), the loyal soldier seized the monk and hung him upside-down from the cliff face, as a lesson to all future would-be cock-crowing monks, I presume.
Fenghuang Yinquan ("Drinking Phoenix Spring")
A little farther beyond Hanging Monk Rock is a section of cliff face with numerous caves. Aeons of dripping water from the ceiling of the caves has produced a stalactite-stalagmite effect. One of these stalactites – a particularly large one measuring roughly 10 meters in height, with a secondary stalactite attached to it that looks like a bird's head with beak, and whose dripping can be clearly seen (the dripping of the larger stalactite is concealed) – is surrounded by Moss-covered stalactites and bamboo trees, creating the impression of a majestic Phoenix with its beautiful tail feathers splayed, hence the name.
Alas, Drinking Phoenix Spring cannot be viewed well from the river, but there is a pathway that offers access to the caves, such that one can get a closer look at Drinking Phoenix Spring, even if the micro view loses some of its effect in translation – proof, perhaps, that the Chinese imagination is rich!
Xiniu Wangyue ("Rhinoceros Viewing the Moon")
A good distance beyond Drinking Phoenix Spring is a large boulder in the shape of a rhinoceros facing eastward atop a mountain ridge. The rhinoceros shape of the boulder, like the cliff face impression of the upside-down hanging monk, looks uncannily realistic, or "life-like". The phenomenon is best viewed during a full-moon, with the moon in the west, when the impression is one of a rhinocerous gazing up at the moon, hence the name of this peculiar phenomenon. Of course, Rhinoceros Viewing the Moon can easily be viewed in daylight, even if the moon is often absent at that time of day.
Tips ("Some Useful Things to Know" :)
1) Many, if not most, Yangtze River Cruises include an excursion to the village of Baidicheng ("White Emperor City").
2) Since Qutang Gorge is a relatively short stretch, it passes by quickly, so be ready to take your snapshots as the above-highlighted "sights" come into view, especially since most of them are clumped quite close together. However, don't let yourself get so lost in the details that you therewith lose sight of "the big picture" (don't fail to see the forest for all those darn trees that get in your way). If you already know where to point the "eye" of your camera in order to snap the above-highlighted sights, then you will have more time at your disposal to take in the supreme majesty of Qutang Gorge through your own eyes (if you want to reduce your snapshots of "sights" to a minimum, then at least point your camera at Kui Gate and at Rhinoceros Viewing the Moon).
3) The best way to see the sights that the Three Gorges have to offer is clearly via a Yangtze River Cruise. The best time of year to visit the Three Gorges area is A) when you have the time, and B) when the Yangtze River Cruises are operating. If your visit is flexible, meaning that you are in the area at a time when the cruises are operating and you can tinker with your itinerary, then consider it good advice to consult the local weather forecast before you book your cruise, since photography and inclement weather rarely mix well.