Seng, our local guide, was saying good-bye.
“Thank you for visiting Ghost City,” she said. “Perhaps you will come again, but next time I may greet you by saying, ‘Welcome to Ghost Island!”’
She smiled prettily as she emphasized the last word, but it was a hollow joke. We had been visiting Fengdu, known as the City of Ghosts. Fengdu will gradually begin to disappear perhaps as early as November, when the Yangtze river begins to rise slightly as the first phase of the world’s largest dam project goes into operation.
Seng explained that the full effect of the Three Gorges Dam on the middle section of the Yangtze will not be felt until it is fully completed in 2009. By then whole farms, villages, towns, and cities - the homes of more than a million Chinese - will be submerged along with a number of ancient temples, pagodas and other cultural sites. The water level is expected to rise as high as 300 feet in some areas.
Some claim with reason that the dam will be an environmental catastrophe, that it won’t work as planned, and that many ancient treasures will be lost. Boosters counter that the often disastrous annual flooding of the Yangtze will become a thing of the past. (One flood killed 33,000 in 1954.)
Moreover, a large section of the interior of China will be blessed with a tremendous increase in electrical power, and navigational hazards on the river will be reduced.
The mountain at Fengdu that we had just ascended, with its depiction of a Tang Dynasty version of Hell, will survive the coming deluge. But the lower levels of Ghost City will become merely a memory, devoured not by the demons depicted on the hill, but permanently inundated by the muddy waters of the Yangtze.
We could see through the fog that across the river, on higher ground, the new city of Fengdu was already under construction.
Like many towns in the interior of China, without air service or good roads, Fengdu is seldom experienced by westerners. There is enough here to keep the curious busy for a day or two, but those who arrive via the river have to be content with an excursion of about two hours. The menacing mountain is capped by an old religious complex of palaces, temples, pavilions, and torture chambers exhibiting the horrors that await in the afterlife for those who have not behaved themselves on earth.
Centuries of fertile imaginations have created colorful statues of devilish monsters, many with nonstandard features and extra appendages. These creatures apparently take delight in torturing hapless victims who, presumably, have no one to blame but themselves for being sent to Hell at Fengdu.
Seen in the modern day, many of the fanciful excesses seem merely amusing - such as a yellow-skinned creature with eyes scattered over every part of its body like a score of wide-awake warts, and another who apparently takes delight in munching on children and babies.
Along with about 250 passengers, we were sailing the Yangtze between Chongqing (Chungking) to Wuhan aboard the Regal China Cruises ship, Princess Elaine. This is the excursion through the famous “Three Gorges” section of the river.
The Three Gorges are the center of considerable history and mythology. They are also the subject of countless works of poetry and art still being created on parchment, canvas, or woven into rugs. More often than not, the 2,000- to 4,000-foot-high cliffs of the gorges remain shrouded in mist and mystery.
For thousands of years, emperors and peasants have traveled the notoriously treacherous river, either on the difficult waters, or along precarious paths sometimes chiseled directly into the vertical sides of solid limestone.
The river begins with melted snow in the mountains of Tibet and then twists and turns for 3,400 miles until it pours into the East China Sea at Shanghai. Countless lives have been lost in the more violent sections, where the raging waters pass through narrow canyons and over potentially death-dealing rocks.
On the Princess Elaine and its two sister ships, the Princess Sheena and the Princess Jeannie, the captain is not the social butterfly evident on ocean cruises. Seldom seen by the passengers, he is busy on the bridge, keeping an experienced eye on the sometimes unpredictable course.
Cruises on the Yangtze began in earnest in 1979, but the first craft used were generally disappointing to western visitors. One entry we saw seemed to be made up as a musical comedy version of imperial China. With its gold roofs, red columns, and green dragons, it seemed rather like an ungainly floating temple.
The first ship ever used for the Yangtze cruises was the Kun Lun, which previously had been Mao Zedong’s personal yacht, and which was once used to entertain visiting foreign dignitaries. No longer seaworthy, the rusting hulk serves today as a floating dock at one of the river ports. Passengers were generally unaware that we were tied up to a craft which, in its glory days, had sailed with many of the world’s rich and powerful.
Other points of interest on our own three-day cruise included a side trip up a tiny tributary, the Daning River, through what are laconically named the Three Little Gorges.
Transferring onto a fleet of small and rather dirty sampans, we left the brown Yangtze behind and sped through waters that were almost blue.
A motor and traditional helm is not enough to guide these boats. They depend as much on the skill of the boatmen to wield a special bow rudder plus a long bamboo pole to keep us away from threatening rocks and other boats in the heavy current.
Passengers admired the dramatic mountain scenery, which included stalactite formations and an occasional hanging coffin, secured high on a edge of a cliff a thousand years ago or more. We also passed a colony of wild monkeys.
Later, a pleasant picnic on the shore was marred by locals who either begged for money or who tried over and over again to sell colored stones or cheap trinkets. Most spoke only the local dialect, except one boy of about 12. He looked at me with a sad face and summed up courage to hesitantly speak a few times just one English word: “Chic-ken? Chicken?”
I rewarded this scholar by handing over my drumstick and he ran happily up the hill. His presence was a kind of reality check, reminding us that for all its industrial progress, there is considerable poverty in China that will take a lot of highways, bridges, dams and electricity before it can be erased.
On the return to our ship, having succeeded in keeping us safely out of danger, our head boatman relaxed and became a natural comedian. He enjoyed a gift cigar with exaggerated flourishes and then treated us to a series of somewhat out-of-tune Chinese folk songs.
Another port of call was the workaday town of Shashi, which served as a port for the old city of Jingzhou, the self-described cultural center of this part of the country. We climbed the ancient 30-foot-high wall that surrounds the center of town. Not the Great Wall, of course, it was pronounced by wags among the passengers as “a pretty good wall” nonetheless.
We also saw an unusual exhibit - the almost perfectly formed body of a Han dynasty official who died 2,000 years ago. He was accidentally preserved when his coffin, made of an especially hard and now extinct wood, was buried in a bog. In the museum, you can buy inexpensive small statues of traditional local heroes recently carved from this same kind of ancient wood, all of it cannibalized from ancient coffins.
At first light on the following day, we passed a modern construction site. Most passengers were asleep, but a few came on deck to peer through the morning mist at some bright lights on the bank. An occasional loudspeaker warning was followed by a whistle, and then a blast of TNT echoed off the nearby marble cliffs.
Here was the site destined to make history in the next century. Juggernaut or godsend, the dam is on the way.
2 Maps: 1. Map of China 2. Dam would wipe out 12 cities
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO The best time of year for a Yangtze River cruise is either spring or fall. The water is too low in the winter, and the area is uncomfortably hot in the summer. May, June, September and October are ideal, although fares may be somewhat higher during those months. Two companies with American connections offer cruises on the river, Regal China Cruises and Victoria Cruises. The newer ships are offered by Regal China. Its three vessels were built by a German company for the U.S.S.R., but they were not delivered before the Soviet break up. They were then bought by a ship brokerage firm owned by a ChineseAmerican family from New York. Two years ago, they decided to put them into service on the Yangtze, going into competition with Victoria, which had launched its own operation a year previous. The multinational history of the Regal vessels is reflected in various signs and notices posted around the decks, written in German, Russian, Chinese or English. The ships themselves were named after the daughters of the owners. Victoria’s two ships, both somewhat smaller, were built in China and designed for operation on the Yangtze. Regal China Cruises is at 57 West 38th St., New York, NY 10018, and may be phoned at (800) 808-3388. Per person fares run from around $850 up. Victoria Cruises is headquartered at 5708 39th Ave., Woodside, NY 11377, (800) 348-8084. Fares begin there at about $600. For advance reading, look for “The Yangzi River,” a paperback by Judy Bonavia, revised by Madeleine Lynn, available for about $20 in the travel sections of some bookstores.