Margaret Mendel (Guest Blogger)
About a year and a half ago I began writing a novel based in Asia. The ideas started to bubble up. I had no idea what the Orient was like. An aspect of my novel takes place in southern China and an area along the Yangtze River. So, my husband and I decided to take a look at this part of the world.
One of the side trips we took while traveling the Yangtze River was to the Shennong Stream. I had no idea what to expect when we got there. A sampan ride through a minor gorge was all that we had been told.
So, after breakfast we disembarked from our cruise ship, clambered onto a ferry and headed down a rather large stream at the mouth of the Wu Gorge and away from the Yangtze River. Though the water voyage so far had been quiet and peaceful we soon entered another level of silence. The limestone cliffs shot up higher and the river became narrow. The soft, almost furry looking hills soon became craggy mountains with huge fields of thick brush that looked sharp and unfriendly.
The journey to a place called Dadong took about an hour. Our ferry glided up to a wooden shack moored on the riverbank. We stepped out onto a rickety old dock. We were herded through a gift shop and out a door to where 20 or 30 sampans were waiting.
The men waiting in the sampans were farmers who had been displaced by the rising water of the Three Gorges Dam. Now they are ‘boat trackers’ and they take tourists on rides up the Shennong Stream. Once everyone had settled into a sampan and life jackets were securely fastened, we set off up stream. As we glided along the water was so clear at times that I could count the pebbles passing under the sampan.
These riverbanks have been inhabited since the Han Dynasty and the primary ethnic group of this river valley has always been the Thuja people. But much of this area is soon going to disappear. Since the beginning of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the water level has risen approximately 155 meters at the mouth of the Shennong Stream. Much of the previously scenic vertical gorge is now submerged. By the completion of the dam construction in 2009, a further 20 meters of the gorge will be under water.
When we arrived at a small rapid the boat trackers jumped into the water. Each man threw a harness like contraption over his shoulder and they began to pull the sampan through the quickly moving water.
It was all a bit thrilling but not dangerous. They hauled us through the water until we reached a section of the stream that was too shallow for a boat to go any further. It was time for lunch. Most of us shared our food with the boat trackers who had brought nothing to eat. We sat in the middle of this very ancient place in the wilds of China eating boiled eggs and fresh fruit.
Told that we could not get out of the boats, we were treated to gifts of pebbles that the boat trackers gathered from the stream bottom. Then as abruptly as we had stopped for lunch the boatmen grabbed up their harnesses and pulled us back out into the deeper water.
Headed back to the tour boat our guide pointed out ‘hanging coffins’. These coffins stowed in caves and crevices on the high vertical limestone cliffs are evidence of the early settlements in this area.
The coffins were carved from a single section of a tree trunk, with some coffins measuring 90 centimeters in diameter. The coffins are typically located 30 to 150 meters from the top of the bluff and 25 to 70 meters above the river surface. Most commonly a coffin is placed on two sturdy hewn poles that have been wedged within the limestone cleft or cave to form a level platform for the coffin to rest.
The Three Gorges Dam construction has destroyed many of these coffins, though some are being retrieved for cultural presentation and archeological study. One such coffin has been preserved and now sits on display at the White Emperor’s Palace, within an historical Taoist Temple situated high above the inundated level along the Yangtze River.
The Three Gorges Dam has covered countless acres of farmland and has displaced millions of families forcing them to find new ways of earning a living. I still have my pebble from the Shennong Stream, a simple white stone with black spots. I remember the man who gave it to me. His hands were coarse and weather worn. They were farmer’s hands.
Margaret Mendel has a Masters in Psychology and an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She has published stories in Global City Review, ReflectionsEdge.com, and the anthology MURDER NEW YORK STYLE. She has won two awards from the Bronx Council on the Arts.