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The Three Gorges - China | by John T Simm
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The Three Gorges - China

This view appears on the back side of the Chinese 10 Yuan Bank Note: See


The Three Gorges are three adjacent gorges along the middle reaches of the Yangtze River in the People's Republic of China. They span from the western (upriver) cities of Fengjie and Yichang in Chongqing Municipality eastward (downstream) to Hubei province. The Three Gorges region has a total length of approximately 120 miles and the Three Gorges occupy approximately 75 miles within this region. Although it is primarily famous for its scenery, the Three Gorges region is also a historically and culturally important location in China. Also, it now attracts global attention due to the Three Gorges Dam, which is firmly changing the culture and environment of the river and Three Gorges region. Many settlements and archeological sites now lie under the water of the Yangtze River, due to the water flow controls imposed by the Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges comprise:

A. Qutang Gorge from Baidicheng (Fengjie) to Daxi;

The Qutang Gorge, which is the shortest and most spectacular of China's Three Gorges, has also been known as the Kui Gorge. Early western travellers and missionaries at times also mistakenly referred to this gorge as the Bellows Gorge; however this name was meant by the Chinese to refer only to a specific part within the Qutang Gorge (see below).

Immediately downstream of the ancient village Baidicheng, (an ancient city on the northern shore of the Yangtze River where Liu Bei, first emperor of the Kingdom of Shu during the Three Kingdoms era, died. His a Memorial Temple is here and also that of Zhuge Liang), the Yangtze River passes between the Chijia Mountain on the north and the Baiyan Mountain on the south. The point where the river passes between these mountains is called the Kuimen Gate and it is the entrance to the Qutang Gorge - the first of the three Yangtze gorges. The Qutang Gorge is only 5 miles long, but it is also the narrowest of the Three Gorges. The widest point measures only 500 feet wide. The mountains on either side reach as high as 4,000 feet. This combination of narrow canyons among high mountains with several switchbacks creates spectacular vistas, and the Qutang Gorge is often considered the most beautiful of all the Three Gorges. It is located at 31.033826 °N, 109.540160 °E. Administratively, it is part of Fengjie County of the Chongqing Municipality.

Features of the Qutang Gorge are:

1.The Chalk Wall

The Chalk Wall is a white cliff face on the southern bank of the Yangtze River at the entrance to the Qutang Gorge (Kuimen Gate). The Chalk Wall can be easily recognized by the numerous characters carved into the rock, many of which were done by famous Chinese calligraphers. Nearly 1,000 characters in all are carved into the rock wall, with the oldest dating to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The wall has characters carved in many different styles of calligraphy and in various sizes. The largest characters are approximately 1.7 metres (6 ft) wide.

2.The Meng Liang Stairway

On the south side the river (Baiyan Mountain) there are a series of rectangular shaped holes carved into the cliff face. The holes are approximately 1 metre apart and 1 metre deep. The holes zig-zag up part of the cliff face in a Z-shape. These holes are known as the Meng Liang Stairway.

Legend has it that the holes were built by a Song Dynasty soldier named Meng Liang. Meng Liang served for a general named Yang Jiye who was buried at the top of the cliff. Meng Liang wanted to find the remains of General Yang and give him a proper burial back in his home town. During the night Meng Liang constructed the stairway. A monk at the top of the mountain saw him coming and crowed like a rooster. Meng Liang, thinking the morning had arrived, quickly abandoned his plan to avoid being caught.

Holes such as these are used as a walk-way several places in the Three Gorges region. Poles were inserted into the holes and then either a walkway could be constructed or a person could walk from pole to pole. Historians do not know why these particular holes were constructed, nor do they know why they only reach part of the way up the cliff face. Remains of city walls have been located at the top of the cliff, and some historians have theorized that the pathway might have been intended to enable a person to access the city from the river.

Another famous set of similar holes can be found near Wushan in the Little Three Gorges of the Daning River. The local tourism agency in Wushan has placed poles in some of these holes so that tourists can see how they were used in ancient times.

3.The Hanging Monk Rock

On the cliff face near Meng Liang's Staircase there is a rock shaped like an upside down person. This is the Hanging Monk Rock. According to legend, when Meng Liang discovered that the monk had feigned a rooster call, and frightened him off the mountain, he was so angry that he found the monk and hung him upside down from the cliff face.

4.The Drinking Phoenix Spring

Along the cliff face near the Chalk Wall and Meng Liang's Stairway there are a number of caves. Dripping water from natural springs within the caves have created many stalactites. One particular stalactite is approximately 33 feet high and it is shaped like a Phoenix displaying its tail feathers. Moss and bamboo growing next to the formation look like feathers on a bird. Water still drips from the head of the stalactite bird and hence the Chinese have dubbed it the Drinking Phoenix Spring. The formation is extremely difficult to see from the river, but there is a pathway that allows direct access to the caves.

5.The Ancient Pathway

These narrow footpaths were built starting in Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and continued to be maintained and improved until the middle of the 20th century. The original purpose was to provide a foot path for human haulers to pull boats upstream. Thus they were always alongside cliffs next to the river. Since the earliest days, boats going downstream used oars just to get steerage way. Going upstream, human powered oars were no match to the rapid current. Thus gangs of humans, harnessed to a tow rope, hauled the boats upstream. These haulers needed a path along the steep cliffs to walk on. Thus the Ancient Pathways were built. Even today haulers can be seen. Over the years, these paths were expanded and improved. In addition to paths for haulers, paths were built for hauling goods up mountains. The new higher paths are able to survive the flooding after the completion of the Three Gorges Dam .

6.The Seven Opening Cave


7.The Bellows Gorge


8.The Hanging Coffins

Hanging coffins are a method of ceremonially placing the corpses of the deceased upon cliff sides, an ancient funeral custom of some minority groups, especially the Bo people of southern China.

Coffins of various significant shapes were often carved out of a whole piece of wood. Hanging coffins either rest upon beams projecting outward from the cliff's vertical faces such as mountains, are placed in caves in the face of cliffs, or sit on natural rock projections on mountain faces.

9.The Rhinoceros Gazing at the Moon


10.Daxi Village

The Daxi settlement was the first discovered site of the Daxi culture.

Impact of the Three Gorges Dam on the Qutang Gorge

Although the Qutang Gorge is the furthest upstream of all the affected gorges, the impact of the Three Gorges Dam on the Qutang Gorge has been especially large. Many of the most famous and historically significant sites in the Qutang Gorge are located closer to the water level. In fact, even prior to the dam construction the water level would come close to many sites during the rainy season. The water has now effectively covered many of the most impressive and notable sites in the Gorge including the Ancient Pathway, Meng Liang's Staircase, the Chalk Wall, and the cave within the Bellows Gorge.


B. Wu Gorge from Wushan to Guandukou (Badong)

Wu Gorge’s Mt. Wushan is famous for its peaks of all shapes and the Twelve Peaks are the best examples of these. Located at the border between Sichuan and Hubei Provinces, Mt. Wushan joins Daba Mountain from the north. The main peak of Mt. Wushan, Wuyun Peak, has an elevation of 7,874 feet. Since it is made of limestone and in one of the areas that have the heaviest rains in China, Mt. Wushan has long been eroded by wind, rain and the Yangtze River. Therefore, a forest of peaks of piercing shapes has been formed in Mt. Wushan, and the Twelve Peaks are the highlights. The Twelve Peaks are located on the banks of Yangtze River between 6.2 to 18.6 miles away from the Wushan County. Six of them are on the northern bank: Denglong, Shengquan, Zhaoyun, Wangxia (Goddess Peak), Songluan, and Jixian. The other six peaks are on the southern bank: Jingtan, Qiyun, Shangsheng, Feifeng, Cuiping, and Juhe. Due to frequent rains and lack of sunshine, the Twelve Peaks are sometimes surrounded by mist and clouds. Cruising along the Twelve Peaks, you seem to "enter” into a fairyland.

Legend of Twelve Peaks

Once upon a time, there lived twelve evil dragons in the Wu Gorges of Yangtze River. One day, they ran out of their cave and brought storms, heavy rains and thunders to the Wu Gorge. People were blown by wind and villages and fields flooded. Yao Ji, the little daughter of the Heavenly Queen Mother, was passing by and saw what the dragons did. She was very angry and killed the evil dragons. The dragons’ bodies fell on the ground and turned into towering mountains which blocked the watercourse of the Yangtze River. The water rose and submerged the whole Sichuan area. Yao Ji asked her eleven sisters and Yu the Great (the hero who controlled floods) to help her split the mountains and dredge the river. Villages and people in Wu Gorge were saved at last.

After the flood was controlled, Yao Ji was going back to the Heavenly Palace with her sisters. When she saw that the dragons’ bodies in the Yangtze River formed hidden shoals and dangerous reefs which could sink many ships, she and her sisters decided to stay and navigate passing ships. After many years, the twelve fairies turned into twelve peaks standing on the banks of Wu Gorge, and Yao Ji was said to turn into the Goddess Peak.

The Goddess Peak stands on the northern bank of Yangtze River about 15 km away from Wushan County. Looking at it from a distance, it is just like a slim and graceful young lady, hence the name Goddess Peak. The peak is so high that it is the first peak that sees the rosy dawn, so it is also called Wangxia Peak (the peak watching the morning clouds); and


C. Xiling Gorge from Zigui to Nanjin Pass (Yichang).

The Three Gorges Dam was constructed at a place called Sāndòupíng in the middle of the Xiling Gorge. Adjacent to the dam is a five-step ship lock that allows ships to still move up river and down river. It takes approximately three hours to pass through these locks. The reservoir dam was completed in the summer of 2006 and the water level in the gorge rose by a maximum level of 360 feet above the downstream river. The project was completed by the end of 2008, although a ship lift is currently still in construction and is expected to be completed in 2015. The dam and Three Gorges Reservoir has had a massive impact upon the region's ecology and people, involving the mass relocation of towns and villages. The higher water level has changed the scenery of the Three Gorges, so that the river is wider and the mountains appear lower. However, the mountains still tower above the river and the gorges continue to offer spectacular views of the surrounding cliffs. The increased width and depth of the river permits larger ships through the gorges and there has been a significant increase of river traffic of all kinds, including tourist river boats and bulk cargo and container barges.

Together with the Lesser Three Gorges the gorges have have long been renowned for their spectacular scenery, and the "Three Gorges Scenic Area" is classified as a AAAAA scenic area (the highest level) by the China National Tourism Administration.


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Taken on October 4, 2016