A River Not Dammed

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– From Through the Yang-tse gorges, or, Trade and travel in western China (1888), by Archibald Little



Wednesday, May 2nd – The men rise at earliest dawn, now five o’clock, clear away the mats, which are stowed on the deck-houses aft, and are served with their hot breakfast before getting underway. Half an hour afterwards we entered on the Wentang Xia or “Warm Pool Gorge,” which opens on the long reach of Mutung. The river flows in a steep ravine and urges its way by numerous channels through a maze of rocks, now rising some fifteen feet above the water; but in summer entirely covered, at which time the navigation is attended with no little danger.


At this season the main channel is plainly marked, and is of ample width, nowhere less than a hundred yards; but seen end on from the low deck, and foreshortened, the maze appears at first sight impassable. This reach ends in the rapid of the Double Dragon, and brings us to the industrious mat-making village of Lo Chi, so named from a dangerous rock opposite, the Dripping Stone.


We passed Lo Chi at 8:30, and at 9:15 arrived in the Shanbeitou, or “Fan Back Reach,” having made, according to the native itinerary, thirty li, or eight miles in three quarters of an hour – the real distance being probably five miles. The Fan Back Reach is behind the Fan Rock, and facing it is the Fan Cliff, a nasty point for upward-bound junks to round; below this, on the south bank, is the Guanyin Miao, one of the numerous temples to the Goddess of Mercy that one finds scattered throughout the empire, and especially in the south; then past the race of three rivers, to the picturesque old city of Changshou (Longevity).


Here one of my companions, a native of Chongqing, informed me he had been two years at a boarding school, the first time I ever heard of the existence of such an institution in China. Changshou is said by the itinerary to be thirty li from Shanbeitou, a distance which occupies us exactly an hour. But if I proceed to enumerate all the rapids and rocks of the river, of which the “Gazeteer” gives over a thousand between Chongqing and Yichang, I shall never get to my journey’s end.


In fact we hurried past them at such a rate that it was quite impossible to keep pace with the numerous places of interest on either bank. Many spots that I had missed on the way up, displayed greater prominence on the downward voyage, and many a picturesque scene, that had become indelibly impressed on my memory in the tedious ascent, now escaped with a passing glance.


We no sooner arrived at a rapid than we were shot past it, and had no time to realize the danger, which, though apparently less than in the ascent, is in reality far more serious. At the rapid of Wangxiatan, just above Changshou, a big salt junk, which had sailed from Chongqing the morning previous to our departure, lay stranded on the boulders of a large cape of shingle, which extends along the south bank, and so narrows the channel as to form a small rapid: others come to grief on the rocks or in the whirlpools, and go down bodily.


With these lumbering craft a quick helm in perfect discipline are necessary, and above all taking the right channel in good time, so as to avoid the eddies, in which, if the junk is once caught, she becomes unmanageable. There is no anchoring anywhere, and no anchors are carried. As on the upward voyage, so now, everything possible to excite the crew was done; on approaching a rapid, four guns were fired out of a curious four-barreled piece, the tubes strengthened by iron rings welded on, and with a wooden handle by which the cabin-boy, upon whom devolved this duty, held it on the bulwarks.


The gang-master danced from oar to oar, his weight having apparently no effect whatever upon the huge tree –stems as he leaped from one to the other. Gesticulating and shouting at the top of his voice, he belabored the bare backs of the men with his rattan stick, and thus succeeded possibly bringing up our speed at the critical points to a knot an hour; then the skipper would take his turn in urging he unfortunate Tuizhatou (oarsmen) to exert themselves to the utmost; meanwhile the men themselves should like demons; and stamp on the loose deck boards as fast as they can move their feet.


An onlooker suddenly set down here would imagine pandemonium set loose. I went to the door of the foremost cabin, looking out on the deck, and gazed on the strange scene; my smiles, for they were of course all facing me, set the men off laughing and shouting still louder, when the surly skipper beckoned to me to go in again, and upon my afterwards demanding an explanation, told me that my presence disturbed the men.


I believe myself, however, that my being there cheered and amused them and made them work all the harder. Blakiton tells us, that he ill ever hold in pleasant memory the intrepid voyageurs, as he calls them, of the Upper Yangtze: most assuredly a more cruelly-worked or more poorly-paid, and withal a better-tempered set of fellows are not to be met with the whole world over. Dirty and ill-paid, mostly covered from head to foot with itch sores, and treated like dogs, they work with a will, and are always ready for a joke.


During the whole of my trip, I, in my ridiculous foreign dress, never heard an uncivil word from one of them, and, as I have related in my account of the upward journey, on more than one occasion, when rambling along the shore I found myself unexpectedly in a tight place, they came good-naturedly came to my assistance. With all this hurly-burly, the progress of the junk through the water could only be detected by throwing a biscuit over the side and carefully watching its slow recession. No wonder, then, as the Chinese say, one junk in ten gets stranded, and one in twenty totally lost each voyage.

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