Wu ("Witches") Gorge, the second, downstream-wise (proceeding from west to east), or middle gorge of the Three Gorges, begins in the west at the seat of Wushan County, Chongqing Municipality (one of three such jumbo-sized urbanized areas, the other two being Beijing and Shanghai), and ends near the village of Guandukouzhen (Guan du kou zhen, or "Official ferry gate town", though the town is generally written simply as Guandukou) in Badong County, Hubei Province, a stretch of about 44 kilometers. It is said of Wu Gorge – which is situated about 500 kilometers down the Yangtze River from Chongqing City itself – that it is a veritable gallery of beautiful sights, including the verdant, forest-clad slopes that enclose it on either side as well as the "witches' brew" (mystical mists), with their ever-changing shapes, that hover overhead, trapped in this narrow, steep-walled canyon, where the sun only shines directly for a short period each day.
Wu Gorge is comprised of Golden Helmet (Jin kui), Silver Armor (Yin jia) Gorge (Xia)
and Iron Coffin (Tie guan) Gorge. The appearance of the former has been likened to a medieval knight's silver-plated body armor, crowned with a round, gold-plated helmet. In ancient times, the gorge was known as Ba Gorge, a reference to the Ba people who populate the region (they are most populous today in the towns and villages along the Little Three Gorges, whose water source, the Daning River, empties into the Yangtze River from the latter's northern bank near the western end of Wu Gorge (in fact, one of the gorges of the Little Three Gorges is called Bawu Gorge). Yet another name for Wu Gorge is Da ("Large") Gorge.
Formerly, Wu Gorge's "walls" rose about 1080 meters above the river's surface, but since the daming of the river, the water level has risen about 80 meters, but still leaving a 1000-meter clearance between the new normal water level and the upper rim of the gorge. Though the raised water level has inundated certain of the gorge's historical relics, such as numerous cliff inscriptions from China's dynastic past as well as the ancient pathway that was cut into the cliffs of the gorge's "walls" all along both Qutang and Wu Gorges, the elevated water level does not destroy the graceful, majestic beauty of Wu Gorge – in fact, quite possibly just the opposite, since the elevation in the water level has broadened the river here, while the added depth has made navigation less treacherous and has made the use of larger, more comfortable cruise boats possible.
Wu Gorge is considered the most enchanting of the three gorges that make up this famous stretch of the Yangtze River. It has also traditionally been the favorite among Chinese poets, who have vied with each other in praising this stunningly beautiful – and in some places in former times, terrifyingly dangerous – nature's work of art. The mystical, ever-changing mists that hover over the river are sometimes accompanied by a strange luminescence referred to as Buddha's Light, an optical phenomenon (but believed by devout Buddhists to be associated with divinity, or the presence of the Buddha, of course) that can also be observed surrounding the mist-enshrouded peaks of high mountains.
In former times, Wu Gorge was a much more dangerous place than it is today, partly because the lower water level made the river shallower and narrower, and thus more turbulent, which was a challenge to all of the vessels that plied these waters, and partly due to the presence of large, jagged limestone boulders that protruded out into the river at a site known as Flint Rapids (Huoyan Shi). These dangerously sharp (to the boats) projections cost many human lives and resulted in the loss of huge amounts of tonnage, as well as damaged or destroyed boats, so in the 1950s, the government of the PRC undertook to dynamite these hazardous projections, and ever since, the boatmen of the Yangtze River have lost their fear of Flint Rapids.
However, there were other places along the gorge where there were terrifyingly dangerous quicksand shoals. As well, the river, due to its enormous depth and due to the many large boulders strewn along its bottom – to which can be added a ferociously powerful current – means that strange and unpredictable eddies, whirlpools and cross-currents, to this very day, seemingly appear "out of nowhere" here, so although the Yangtze River boatman's fear of Flint Rapids may have diminished, his respect for the unpredictability of the roiling waters of Wu Gorge has decidedly not diminished.
The most prominent scenic site along Wu Gorge is Shi'er Feng, or the Twelve Peaks of Mount Wu. Sailing through the 12 peaks stretch of Wu Gorge, you could be forgiven for imagining that you were sailing down the half-submerged tail of a gargantuan saltwater crocodile, with its neat rows of horny plates jutting up on either side. There are 6 peaks ranged along either side of the gorge along this particular stretch of the Yangtze River.
The six peaks on the northern bank are: Denglong ("Climbing Dragon"); Shengquan ("Sage Spring"); Zhaoyun ("Facing Clouds"); Shennu ("Goddess"); Songluan ("Fir Tree Cone"); and Jixian ("Congregated Immortals"), of which Goddess Peak is the most famous. The six peaks on the southern bank are: Feifeng ("Flying Phoenix"); Cuiping ("Misty Screen"); Juhe ("Assembled Cranes"); Jingtan ("Clean Altar"); Qiyun ("Rising Cloud"); and Shangsheng ("Rising"), though the last three peaks are not situated directly alongside the river.
Another noteworthy peak on the northern bank of the Twelve Peaks stretch of Wu Gorge is Jinxian Peak, made famous for the Kongming Stele at its base, whose shape some viewers have likened to the image of a large pair of scissors pointing skyward. On the squarish, whitish base of Jinxian Peak can be seen six Chinese characters carved into the stone, presumably representing the essence of the alliance that was once struck between the Shu (BCE 221-263) and Wu (BCE 229-280) Kingdoms of the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period.
Legend has it that these huge characters are the handwriting of none other than Zhuge Liang, the loyal military strategist of Liu Bei, Emperor of the Kingdom of Shu who died in the village of Baidicheng near the western end of neighboring Qutang Gorge, though in truth the characters are believed to have been inscribed in the stone at the base of Jinxian Peak during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty by villagers sympathetic to the memory of Zhuge Liang. There are memorial halls to both these legendary but real-life heroes – made even more famous by the 14th century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms – in Baidicheng Temple, now a museum dedicated to the memory of these famous heroes, the Liu Bei memorial being situated in Mengliang Hall while the Zhuge Liang memorial is situated in Wuhou Pavilion.
Goddess Peak, also called "Observing the Clouds" Peak has two physically distinguishing features and one mythologically distinguishing feature: it is the highest of the twelve peaks, resembling the over-dimensional but lifelike, slim and graceful figure of a maiden kneeling in front of a pillar; it can easily be identified by its gracefully flowing waterfall; and it is associated with an ancient myth, or legend, one of which versions goes like this...
The kneeling maiden is said to be the embodiment of Yao Ji, the 23rd daughter of Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West, a deity typically associated with Taoism but which in fact predates Taoism, as there exist ancient oracle-bone references to Xi Wang Mu. At the age of 18, Yao Ji, accompanied by 11 fairy maidens, was sent to oversee the Jade Poo1 of the Western Heaven (note that Chinese deities had weighty duties, not unlike their earthly subjects). Bored in this cold, god-forsaken place, Yao Ji began to wander about among the mountains and rivers of the mortals' world, where she established an abode, or palace.
While travelling between her palace and the Eastern Sea, Yao Ji came upon twelve mischievous dragons who were playing havoc with the forces of nature, causing flooding and much attendant human grief. Taking pity upon the humans, Yao Ji called upon Da Yu the Great, who was busy attending to the Yellow River farther south, endowed him with supernatural powers and asked him to command his supernatural oxen to slash a path through the mountains to direct the flow of the flooding water, which the twelve mischievous dragons had caused, to the Eastern Sea, and thus was created Wu Gorge (which also explains why all oxen ever since have bent horns).
Like the caring and dutiful maiden she was, Yao Ji remained with her 11 fairy maidens alongside the gorge to make sure that boats could safely traverse its length, that there was adequate – but no more – water for the peasants' crops, and that there was ample water to grow the fungus of longevity that would heal the sick, etc. The 12 dutiful maidens were eventually transformed into the Twelve Peaks of Wu Gorge that one sees today.
Since Goddess Peak is the tallest of the twelve peaks and since it faces east, it is the first peak to welcome the sunrise (the "morning glow") and the last peak to see off the setting sun (the "evening glow"), therefore, it is also called Wangxia Peak ("Viewing the Morning and the Evening Glow" Peak).
1) The best way to see the beauty and wonder of Wu Gorge is inarguably via a Yangtze River Cruise.
2) The best time of year to visit the Wu Gorge 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 make adjustments to 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.