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Xiling Gorge is the last, downstream-wise – and also the longest – of the three gorges that make up the Three Gorges "corridor" of the Yangtze River. The western, or upstreams demarcation of Xiling Gorge is the city of Xiangxi Kou ("Fragrant Stream Gate"), Hubei Province, at the mouth of the Shennong River, where the Shennong River empties into the Yangtze River from the latter river's northern bank (the Yangtze River flows roughly west to east along the Three Gorges, while the Shennong River runs roughly north to south). Xiling Gorge ends about 75 kilometers farther downstream, at Nanjin Pass, near the city of Yichang, also in Hubei Province.
Xiling Gorge consists of four lesser gorges. These are, from west to east: Bingshu Baojian Xia ("Military Books & Precious Sword Gorge"); Niugan Mafei Xia ("Horse Lung & Ox Liver Gorge"); Kongling Xia ("Soundless Gong Gorge"); Huangniu Xia ("Yellow Ox Gorge"); and Dengying Xia ("Lantern Shadow Gorge"). Ever since ancient times, Xiling Gorge has been feared for its twisting turns, for its sudden bottleneck stretches, where the currents are swift and where jagged rock walls require a steady hand adept at maneuvering, for its treacherous eddies that can develop into full-blown whirlpools, and for its dangerous reefs and shoals where boats can run aground or, in the extreme, be smashed to matchsticks. Little wonder, then, that Xiling Gorge has historically been dubbed "death passage". Some of Xiling Gorge's former dangerous shoals (tan) were given names, such as Konglingtan, Qingtan, Xietan and Xintan.
Though the primary rationale for creating the Three Gorges Dam was in order to harness the river's energy-generating potential along this particular stretch of the Yangtze River, a secondary rationale for the project was that in damming the river through these treacherous gorges (and note that the Three Gorges stretch of the Yangtze River was (still is!) simply too vital a transportation link – both locally, regionally, and nationally – to relinquish it because of the risks it posed to rivercraft and their cargo, human or otherwise), the entire character of the river here would forever change, transforming what was formerly a potential deathtrap into a relatively placid body of water where shipping would be considerably safer, even though there would still be stretches of the river where the undercurrents, due to the river's underwater topography, would be unpredictably tricky to navigate, especially for smaller rivercraft, given that the river level, after the construction of the dam, constantly fluctuates.
The scenery along Xiling Gorge is as varied as it is spectacular. Several renowned natural features such as streams, springs, boulders and karst caves, to name the most prominent types, can be found along this section of the river. Famous historical personnages (members of the literati) such as Qu Yuan and Bai Juyi have visited Xiling Gorge and have composed verses in hommage to the the gorge's natural beauty, imparting a sense of history as well as culture to Xiling Gorge.
Beyond Xiling Gorge, the Yangtze River broadens out into a flat, gentle waterway that is easy to navigate, leaving behind the dangerous corridor known as the Three Gorges, but also leaving behind a richly varied, breathtakingly beautiful landscape in favor of a landscape here in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River that is as flat and featureless as the river itself.
There are numerous sights along Xiling Gorge, many of them associated with the lesser gorges that make up the larger gorge, therefore a description of each of these lesser gorges is in order.
Military Books & Precious Sword Gorge
The first of the lesser gorges of Xiling Gorge, Military Books & Precious Sword Gorge, is located just below the confluence of the Shennong and Yangtze Rivers, on the northern bank of the latter river. The origin of the name is as follows: there is a large boulder in the shape of a stack of books on a cliff about 100 meters above water level (Military Books Rock), while near the base of the cliff stands a huge boulder in the shape of a downward-pointing sword (Precious Sword Rock).
According to legend, the famous military strategist, Zhuge Liang – who served Liu Bei, the Emperor of the Kingdom of Shu (BCE 221-263) of the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period – kept his military manual and sword here, hence the name of this, the first of Xiling Gorge's lesser gorges (note that there are memorials to both these famous heroes – made even more famous by the 14th century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms – in Baidicheng Temple, now a museum, in the town of Baidicheng near the entrance to (western end of) Qutang Gorge, the westernmost of the Three Gorges).
Horse Lung & Ox Liver Gorge
This the second, downstream-wise, of the lesser gorges of Xiling Gorge is also situated on the northern bank of the river, where there are countless rivulets that pour down the slope, zigzagging their way among and over the stones, and ending up in the Yangtze. Two large, slightly overlapping limestones, somewhat eroded and each with its separate, ochreous discoloration due to the water that has poured over them down through the ages, resemble – according to the very vivid Chinese imagination – a horse's lung and an ox's liver laid side by side, hence the colorful, organic name.
Soundless Gong Gorge
The third in the series of lesser, downstream gorges of Xiling Gorge is Soundless Gong Gorge, lying at a bend in the river on its southern shore. In ancient times, there was a large shoal here known as Soundless Gong Shoal, with many larger and smaller boulders strewn about hither and thither, presenting a deadly danger to passing boats. Since Soundless Gong Shoal was the death knell to many a boat – and boatsman – in ancient times, it was also known as Gui Men, or Ghost City Pass. Most of these dangerous boulders are now safely far below water level and no longer pose a problem, while the ones that can be seen hug the banks of the river and thus pose little problem to today's rivercraft.
Yellow Ox Gorge
Yellow Ox Gorge is the fourth of the lesser gorges of Xiling Gorge. According to the vivid Chinese imagination, the shape of the walls of this lesser gorge is said to resemble that of a man riding an ox that will shortly (it is heading in that direction) sweep under the eaves of the ancient temple just upstreams of the gorge, Huangling Miao ("Yellow Crag Temple") that nestles among orange and pomelo orchards, the latter of which trees produces a large, yellow grapefruit-like fruit that is also edible. The gorge gets its name from the Yellow Ox in the legend of how the Three Gorges was created, which involves Yao Ji, the 23rd daughter of Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West, a pre-Taoist deity, Da Yu the Great, Keeper of the Yellow River and his superantural Yellow Ox that gorged out the gorge with his horn (for the details, see the Highlights section of the Wu Gorge article, the paragraph beginning with "The kneeling maiden... ").
China's premier poet, Du Fu (CE 712–770) of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty period, wrote the following lines in honor of Yellow Ox Gorge:
Three dawns shine upon the Yellow Ox,
Three sunsets – and we go so slowly,
Three dawns – again three sunsets –
And we do not notice that our hair is white as silk.
Lantern Shadow Gorge
The last of the lesser gorges of Xiling Gorge is Lantern Shadow Gorge, situated on the western bank of the river (the Yangtze runs north-south here), just before the river swings eastward again. The name of the gorge is related to the special lighting from Chinese shadow puppet theatre – here represented by the warm glow of the setting sun, under which four, side-by-side crags take on the silhouettes of what is likened to the four characters of the 16th century novel, Pilgrimage to the West (aka Journey to the West), namely, the characters:
Xuanzang – a helpless monk who sets out alone on a pilgrimmage to India, but who is helped by Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy, who finds him three helpers/ disciples – who here is seen standing on the edge of a precipice;
Sun Wukong, aka Monkey King, a fearless, powerful but enlightened monkey and devout Buddhist who caused a lot of stir in Heaven and who therefore was banished to earth... he is kept in check by a band around his head that he cannot himself remove;
Zhu Bajie ("Pig of the Eight Prohibitions") cum Zhu Wuneng ("Pig Awakened to Power"), aka Pig, a fallen immortal who was sent back to earth to be born into the human cycle again, but who accidentally ended up in the womb of a sow, hence his suggestive appearance; and
Sha Wujing ("Sand Awakened to Purity"), aka Sandy, another fallen immortal who was sent back to earth to be born as a monster because the clumsy oaf dropped one of the Heavenly Queen Mother's crystal goblets during the annual Peach Banquet, smashing it to bits.
(Methinks that both the makers of Star Wars (think Wookiee (Chewbacca)) and Shrek (Donkey, Puss in Boots) owe a debt of sorts to the author of Pilgrimage to the West, who is believed to have been the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty author, Wu Cheng'en, who presumably wrote the work during the 1590s.)
It is said that in the glow of the setting sun, these four crags really do take on the lifelike silhouettes of the aforementioned characters from Pilgrimage to the West. Monkey King is seen here peering into the distance, Sandy is bearing luggage, while Pig is seen riding a horse.
If your boat arrives after sunset, don't worry, for they say that Lantern Shadow Gorge is almost more beautiful and mysterious by night, with the craggy bluff silhouetted against either a moonlit or starry sky. By day, verdant Lantern Shadow Gorge, with its crystal-clear waterfalls, isn't such a bad sight either.
Also near Lantern Shadow Gorge is the Stone Stelae Tourist Zone, where one can see
many stelae bearing couplets written by famous Chinese poets, many unusually shaped rocks, caves, rapids, a sweet-tasting freshwater fountain and a secluded valley, as well as various miliary-historical sites related to China's wars with Japan, including the site of Shipai, where, in April of 1945, a battle was fought against Japanese forces that has been likened to the Battle of Stalingrad.
Other special sites along Xiling Gorge include:
Huangling ("Yellow Crag") Temple, where there is a statue of Da Yu the Great and various stelae with inscriptions. A natural spring that flows past the temple, named Yellow Ox Spring, is said (by legend) to have been dug by Zhuge Liang himself. According to the Tang Dynasty period work, Book of Teas, the waters of Yellow Ox Spring are claimed to be unsurpassed for the brewing of tea. The spring is considered by Buddhist to be the Fourth Spring under Heaven,
Qu Yuan Ancestral Hall, an ancestral temple built to honor the memory of the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period poet and patriot, Qu Yuan (BCE ca.340-278). The adjacent village is also the natal village of Wang Qiang, aka Wang Zhaojun, one of the Four Beauties of China who served, from around BCE 40, in the harem of Emperor Yuan Di of the Western Han (BCE 206 – CE 009) Dynasty, whose reign was from BCE 48-33,
Sanyou Dong ("Three Travelers Cave") near Nanjin Pass, is a limestone cave made famous first by the three Tang Dynasty poets, Bai Juyi, Bai Xingjian and Yuan Zhen, then, during the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty, by the three famous writers, Su Xun, Su Shi and Su Zhe, who toured the cave together and inscribed verses in it,
And lastly, don't forget to take a good look at Nanjin Pass itself as your boat slips the tortured waters of the Three Gorges, where you can still see traces of the dangerous, jagged, water-level cliffs and the shoals that were the bane of many a Yangtze River boatman.