China Geography

The 'Four Rivers' past, present and future

China Geography

David Crook lived in China since 1947 and was Professor Emeritus of Beijing Foreign Studies University. This article recounts a return journey to Sichuan (four rivers) Province. He died in Beijing in 2000. This article first appeared in China Now magazine in 1994.

How stupid to travel from Beijing to Chengdu and Chongqing for a holiday in the sticky summer heat. We had our reasons: my wife Isabel was born in Chengdu; so was her sister Julia who had come to China for the occasion with her husband Patrick (Paddy) O'Brien Baker. The rest of the party of 10 were less aged: our son and grandson, a niece and boyfriend, two nephews. We were going on a personal pilgrimage to the mountain a day's drive north-west of Chengdu, where in their youth, six decades ago, Isabel and Julia had spent their summer holidays with their missionary parents and friends.

Paddy is a railway buff and especially knowledgeable about that all but extinct species, the steam locomotive. So we left Beijing by train. Thirty-three hours later we reached Chengdu - not much of a train trip for this vast country.

Return to Chengdu

Having been to Chengdu a few times before and now in my ninth decade, I stayed in our air-conditioned guesthouse room reading travel books, while the rest went on a nostalgic sightseeing tour. Isabel and Julia visited the house where they were born, the Canadian School they had attended, the church where their father had preached, recently redecorated and spick-and-span. They also visited the usual local sights: the park dedicated to Zhuge Liang, strategist, statesman, wise man and selfless public servant and patriot of the Han dynasty, who 2,000 years ago 'bent his back to the task until his dying day'.

I emerged from my self-imposed solitude to plunge into a private Olympic-sized swimming pool kept uncrowded by an admission fee of 10 yuan, and to visit the mountain-top Daoist temple on Qingchengshan (Green City Mountain). When I first visited the temple in the 1940s it was a tranquil spot where one could stay overnight and the vegetarian monks would cook the hunk of meat you bought in Guanxian, the town below. Now the quiet and deserted hillside was as crowded and commercialized as Coney Island. Still it was charming and brought back memories of the time I cycled the 34 miles from Chengdu and climbed the mountain on my own two feet. This time I was carried up in a litter borne by a three-man team taking turns, two at a time. It was physically comfortable but spiritually painful to bear the heavy breathing and see the sweat pouring off the backs of the carriers. From Qingchengshan we went down to Dujiangyan (All Rivers Weir), the 2,000- year-old irrigation work which waters the whole of the Chengdu plain, China's most abundant ricefields.

Shouldering tree trunks

All this was merely the preamble to our focal point - Bailuding (White Deer Peak), one-time missionary summer hill station. First we drove in our hired minibus to Jiufeng (Nine Peaks), once so wild, remote and inaccessible that we were astonished to find a new, modern hotel at the foot of the mountain, close by beautiful wooded ravines. On the way there we had stopped to cross a narrow, rickety swinging plank bridge, high above a rushing torrent. I felt proud of myself for venturing across clinging to the side rails, until I saw loggers coming in the opposite direction carrying tree trunks on their shoulders. China has entered the atomic age and launches satellites but, in the outlying parts, still uses human labour for backbreaking burdens.

After staying a night at Nine Peaks we drove to the foot of White Deer Peak. It was pouring and the mountain path was thick with slippery mud. Even so, all but three elders made the arduous ascent, including Julia, the third oldest of our group. She recaptured the strength of her youth and came back soaked but beaming. Through the rain and mist she alone had been able to see - in her mind's eye - the peaks she and Isabel had climbed and the pools they had swum in 60 or 70 years ago.

Chaos in Chongqing

Next it was back to Chengdu and on by overnight train to Chongqing, a city of 14 million built on hills. Chongqing railway station lies at the foot of a slope and the parking lot was cluttered with countless vehicles delivering and picking up passengers and goods. This coming and going was complicated by a reluctance of drivers to give way in this crowded, competitive, overpopulated country. The scene on our arrival was one of chaos and cacophony. It was the same at the docks a day later when we boarded the down-river steamer.

Chongqing's traffic problem is the inevitable product of its topography combined with its rapid economic growth. It may be solved in the long run by the building of one-way ring roads, but this ongoing solution remains at the mercy of the insufficiently controlled construction industry in China's overheated socialist market economy. Meanwhile, crossing a main thoroughfare is a risky and nerve-racking business for the aged pedestrian.

So in sweltering Chongqing, despite wartime memories of its picturesque riverside stone stairways and less delightful recollections of Japanese air-raids, I once more stayed in the hotel room and read. The hotel itself was typical of Chongqing: an unprepossessing facade on a busy street; a busy and untidy vestibule, constantly crossed by sofa-toting porters. From there we went up flights of stairs and along murky corridors to a charming courtyard and into neat, functionally furnished, air-conditioned rooms. All in all, Chongqing is a composite of ancient and modern, of a frontier town and a modern metropolis.

Hanging coffins
Cliff coffins of Bo people at Matangba, Gongxian county, Sichuan.

Hanging coffins

But there was nothing ancient about the tourist cruise ship on to which we tottered precariously over shaky gangplanks. The air-conditioned cabins were spacious and light with no struts to block the view of the superb river scenery climaxed by the Three Gorges.

How much longer will they last, these gorgeous views lauded by poets and recorded by historians throughout the millennia? The projected dam, some 170 metres high, has been widely debated abroad and in China, where the National People's Congress vote resulted in an unprecedented one third not in favour (against, abstentions and absentees). The present plan, however, is to go ahead and build. I shall not delve into this problem here, nor shall I try to describe the dramatic scenery. Those who have done so better than I can hope to include John Hersey in his moving novel, 'A Single Pebble', about the trackers who hauled junks along the Yangzi; and Lyman Van Slyke in his study of 'the Long River' which combines science, history and biography. But I shall touch on some uncommon aspects of our voyage.

Our journey down the river from Chongqing was not just a transport operation but a tour cruise; so we stopped twice overnight to ensure daylight views, and three times we went ashore or on side-trips up tributaries. Most spectacular and intriguing of these was a trip up the Daning River, which boasts its own 'Lesser Three Gorges'. Proving that 'small is beautiful', the Daning's most fascinating features are the vestiges of its riverside plank road and its hanging coffins.

The plank road was constructed 2,000 years ago and stretches 300 kilometres. Nothing of it remains except the six-inch square sockets which held the props supporting the plank road above the dangerous rapids. This catwalk once served as a military and trade route. Elsewhere, high up above precipices, are natural openings leading to large caves. These were used by the Ba people 2,400 years ago as aerial vaults for coffins lowered from the tops of cliffs. Such are the subjects on which tourists may speculate as they shoot the rapids of the Daning River.

Mao's poetic dream

Returning to the Long River - the Daning is a mere 600 kilometres in length - and leaving the small sightseeing launch for our big tourist boat, we sailed downstream to Yichang to board the train back to Beijing, now a 24-hour journey on a direct line. Before the founding of the People's Republic, Yichang was the most westerly port on the Yangzi for ocean-going vessels. Dredging and blasting of obstructive rocks upstream have long rendered that claim out of date. The building of the new dam would make our starting point, Chongqing, accessible to ocean-going ships and realize Mao Zedong's poetic dream:

The bridge soars from north to south and
Nature's moat becomes a thoroughfare
Still to come is the western river's wall of stone,
Cutting through the mists and rain of Witches Gorge
And raising calm lakes in steep ravines.
If the Goddess were still alive
She'd be amazed at how the world has changed.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 148, Page 20, March 1994

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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