In the 7th century, Du Fu, a prominent Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty, depicted the gateway to the gorge around the Yangtze River as the haven where all the water bodies of Sichuan province combated to gain entrance. The water simmers and surges as the river connects the narrow channel – less than 320ft (97m) wide – between sheet limestone ridges twofold the altitude of the Eiffel Tower.
During the monsoon, the Yangtze river course at 18mph (29km/h), and the water rises by 160ft (47m). Qutang Gorge, 4 miles (7.5km) long, is the shortest of the three gorges in the region. They extend for about 118 miles (187km) between Yichang to Fengjie – about midway along the river’s 3914-mile (6398km) flows from Tibet to the sea.
Yangtze River, also known as Chang Jiang (‘Long River), is the world’s third longest and China’s longest river. The name ‘Yangtze’ refers only to the delta near Shanghai, but overseas travellers have applied the name ‘Yangtze’ to the whole river.’
The three gorges were sculpted by the river’s assertive torrent as it carved its way through the footing of the cliff to form China’s great Sichuan Basin. Many ridges form bizarre shapes bearing names such as ‘Wise Grandmother’s Feet ‘ and ‘Rhinoceros basking in the Sun. On each flank of the Qutang Gorge, there are 900-year-old iron pillars entrenched in the stone from which chains were thrown across the river – first as a shield, later as a toll post for collecting fees from vessels and boats crossing by.
The Meng Liang Stairway, a succession of small holes creating a Z shape, is observable on the flank of Bai Yan Shan (White Salt Mountain). The small holes were back in the time utilised to place in rungs for a cliff ladder, maybe for gathering rare therapeutic herbs. Soldiers were buried in caverns near the top; some antique coffins are still lodged in crevices.
Scenic Wu Gorge, 24 miles (39km) long, is overlooked by the twelve Fairy Heavenly Peaks. According to a Chinese fable, they were the Goddess’s daughters, sent by the Queen of Heaven to help form the majestic gorges. Some verdant hillsides have farmed terraces, where fruit and grain such as peaches, apples, persimmons, apricots, and Chinese chestnuts are cultivated.
A British explorer depicted similar farming in Xiling Gorge, the last and the third gorge, which meanders for 46 miles (74km). The explorer documented some carefully cultivated patches, some no longer than a bath towel, to which the farmers descended on ropes. Even to date, you can find many farmhouses nestled in a dramatic fashion on rocky ridges amid the wilderness of green and golden bamboo, and mauve primulas blossoming amid the abundance of maidenhair fern.