The Qutang Gorge is the shortest and most spectacular of China's Three Gorges
Immediately downstream of the ancient village Baidicheng the Yangtze Rive 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 8 kilometres (5 miles) long, but it is also the narrowest of the Three Gorges. The widest point measures only 150 metres (500 feet) wide. The mountains on either side reach as high as 1,200 metres (4,000 feet). This combination of narrow canyons among high mountains with several switchbacks in only 8 kilometres creates spectacular vistas, and the Qutang Gorge is often considered the most beautiful of all the Three Gorges. The coordinate of Qutang Gorge is 31.033826 north, 109.540160 eas
Immediately below Baidi City is Kui Men, the entrance to the first of the three gorges of the Yangtze River-the eight--kilometre (five-mile) long Qutang Gorge (also known by early Western travellers as the Wind Box Gorge). The shortest but grandest of them all, the gorge's widest point is only 150 metres (500 feet). Mists frequently swirl around the mysterious Iimestone peaks, some nearly 1,200 metres (4,000 feet) high, and the river rushes swift as an arrow through the narrow entrance, pounding the perpendicular cliff faces on either side of the gorge.
This gorge was a particularly dangerous stretch during high-water seasons and has been known to rise to 50 metres (165 feet). An upper Yangtze steamboat captain recalled how in September l929 the level of water was 75 metres (246 feet), and likened the passage to a trough, with the water banked up on both sides. His ship became quite unmanageable, and was carried down, broadside on, only coming under control again at the lower end. He would never, he vowed, try to negotiate it again at such a level.
Two mountains--Red Passage Mountain (Chijia Shan) to the north, once compared to a celestial peach, and White Salt Mountain (Baiyan Shan) to the south form the Kui Men entrance, their steep precipices like the wings of a giant door guarding the tumultuous waters.
In the Tang dynasty (618--907) chains were strung across the river as an 'iron lock' to prevent passage of enemy boats. ln the Song dynasty (960--l279) two iron pillars nearly two metres (six feet) tall were erected on the north side, and seven chains, some 250 metres (820 feet) long, were used to block the river passage. Although the original purpose was defensive, the chain locks were later used to enable local authorities to gather taxes from all boats travelling downriver. This system continued until the middle Qing dynasty (1644--1911). The iron pillars are only visible at low water.
On the precipice of Bai Yan Shan (south side) are a series of holes nearly a metre (three feet) apart and about one-third of a metre (one foot) deep, forming a 'Z' shape. These are known as the Meng Liang Stairway. According to legend, YangJiye, a Song-dynasty general, was buried on a terrace high up on the mountain. His loyal comrade--in-arms, Meng Liang, decided secretly to take the bones back for burial in Yang's home town. In the dead of night he took a small boat into the gorge and began to hack out a pathway to the terrace. Halfway up the rock face he was discovered by a monk who began crowing like a cock. Meng Liang, thinking that dawn was reaking and fearing discovery, abandoned his task. When he later discovered the monk's mischief, he was so provoked that he hung the monk upside down over a precipice. The rock below Meng Liang Stairway is known as Hanging Monk Rock (Daodiao Heshangshi). History records, however, that General Yang was not buried here and the steps are probably the remains of an ancient river pathway. Sections of a city wall, 1,400 years old, have been found on top of Bai Yan Shan so it is possible that the pathway led to this early settlement. Another theory about the stairway suggests that it was built to provide access to the rare medicinal herbs which grow high on the cliff faces.
At the highest point above Hanging Monk Rock one can see Armour Cave (Kuanaiia Dong) where it is said a Song-dynasty woman general hid her weapons. In 1958 the cave was explored and found to contain three 2,000-year-old wooden coffins from the Kingdom of Ba, in which were bronze swords and lacquered wooden combs.
Near the Meng Liang Stairway is the Drinking Phocnix Spring, a stalagmite in the shape of a phoenix drinking the sweet spring--water. Nearby is the Chalk Wall (Fengbi Tang) where 900 characters, dating from the Song dynasty, have been carved by famous calligraphers on the rock face. The site derives its name from the limestone powder which was used to smooth rock surfaces before being carved.
On the north side of the river, opposite Meng Liang Stairway, is a coffee-coloured precipice called Bellows Gorge Fengxiang Xia). The name refers to some square configurations in the rock face, which were supposed to be bellows used by Lu Ban, the god of carpenters. In 1971 the secret of Bellows Gorge was revealed, when ancient suspended wooden coffins, similar to those found in the Armour Cave, were discovered in the caves of the precipice. Some of these have been moved to museums, but three remain and can be seen from the river.
Wise Grandmother's Spring (Shenglao Quan) in a rock crevice on the southern bank was, according to legend, created by an immortal grandmother from heaven for thirsty travellers. They had only to call out to the spring 'Worthy Grandmother, a drink!' and water would gush for a moment from the rock.
East of Armour Cave (on the south side), on the top of a black rock, is a huge stone which the Chinese say resembles the body of a rhinoceros looking westwards as if forever enjoying 'the autumn moon over the gorge gate'. They call this rock Rhinoceros Looking at the Moon.
From Baidi Cheng to Daixi through the whole length of Qutang Gorge, visitors may see, high up on the northern face, the old towpath, hand-hewn in 1889 by the local people. Prior to this there existed a smaller towpath which was often submerged at high water. Remnants of this path can still be seen below Bellows Gorge. Travellers had to abandon their boats and climb over the peaks, a dangerous and time-wasting detour. Boats going upstream had to wait for a favourable east wind, if the wind was in the wrong quarter, boats could be stranded in the water for ten days or more.
The sandstone walls of the gorges have become pitted by natural erosion, causing lines of holes, some of which are several metres deep. The town of Daixi, at the mouth of a stream bearing the same name, marks the eastern end of Qutang Gorge. Over 200 burial sites have been found here, and excavations have revealed a rich collection of bone, stone and jade artifacts and pottery, as well as various burial forms of the middle and late New Stone Age period.
Below Daixi the river widens out. About five kilometres (three miles) downstream,on the south bank, are two sharp, black peaks Which form the Unlocked Gates Gorge (Suokai Xia). On the west side of the gorge, midway up the mountain, is a semi- circular stone shaped roughly like a drum-this is the Beheading Dragon Platform (Zhanglong Tai). Facing this on the opposite side of the gorge is a thick, round stone pillar, the Binding Dragon Pillar (Suolong Zhu). Once upon a time, the Jade Dragon, a son of the Dragon of the Eastern Sea, lived in a cave on the upper reaches of the DaixiStream. One season he decided to visit his family by way of the Yangtze, but shortly afterwards found himself lost Changing into the form of an old man, he asked his way of a herds boy. The boy pointed north with his sickle. The dragon rushed off in that direction but again got lost, whereupon he flew into a mighty rage and rushed at the mountains, causing them to crumble and dam up the river; farmlands were flooded, earthquakes toppled houses, and men and animals perished. At this moment the Goddess Yao Ji rushed to the spot on a cloud. She rebuked Jade Dragon, but he was unrepentant. She flung a string of pearls into the air, it changed into a rope that bound the dragon to the stone pillar. Yao Ji then ordered the great Da Yu,controller of rivers, to behead the murderous dragon on the nearby platform. He then diverted the river by cutting the gorge. The people of this valley have lived happily ever since.
Two kilometres (1.2 miles) further, the Baozi Tan (a triple rapid) and the XiamaTan used to be serious dangers to shipping at low-water level. A traveller on one of the Yangtze steamships in the 1930s remarked : Only the throbbing of the engines as the bow entered the most turbulent part of the rapid, and buried its nose deep in the boiling water, revealed its presence to the uninitiated. But on looking back one could see that there had been a drop of two or three feet in the water where the rapid was most violent. Above it was a series of whirlpools and races.
After the water level was raised, the scenery in the Qutang Gorge was changed once more. On the south bank, the Phoenix-drinking Spring, the Whitewashed Wall with carved insc riptions-and the Upside Down Monk were all submerged On the north bank, most of the Ancient Plank Roads were under the water, too. The famous Yanyu Rock, the last witness of the sorrow shipping history in the Yangtze Three Gorges for thousands of years, has been sunk into the river forever.