Thursday, April 23
The pace of life on the ship is much slower than it was on land. Instead of three or four activities per day, we have one excursion. Today’s was a stop at the town of Shibaozhai, which boasts an extraordinary pagoda that is built into the side of a cliff.
Shibaozhai is one of many towns along the Yangtze that was relocated because of the Three Gorges Dam. We walked through the town on our way to the pagoda. Although the route to the pagoda was lined with stalls full of merchandise aimed at the many tourists, both Chinese and Western, who come here, the rest of the town seemed pretty dead. (There is a second part of the town, across a tributary of the Yangtze, that is more industrial.)
When Shibaozhai was relocated, local residents had high hopes that it would boom because of the tourist traffic, but that hasn’t happened. As a result, many people of working age have migrated to Chongqing and other cities to find employment, coming back on weekends or when they can. We saw a lot of shuttered stores and older people playing mahjong or cards, although we were told that many of the storefronts were restaurants that would open in the evening. We saw many women on the riverbank, washing their laundry.
The pagoda, built in in the 17th century, is quite well known in China. During the Nationalist era, it was on the back of the one-yuan note.
The pagoda was on a spit of land that jutted out into the river. Now it’s on an island surrounded by a retaining wall to keep the waters out. You reach it by crossing what’s called the Drunken Bridge. It’s a wooden suspension bridge that sways as you cross it, causing people to stagger as if they are drunk. Signs along the way say “No Rocking.”
The climb to the top of the 12-story pagoda is via some uneven wooden stairs. Some people decided to forgo the climb, but after the Potala Palace it didn’t seem like much of a challenge.
When you reach the top there is a courtyard and then a building that contains numerous artifacts, including Buddhas and statues of various gods. Because the pagoda is no longer in use for religious activities, photographs are permitted. One room had gods of the four seasons; another had statues of seven female gods, one of whom was said to have fallen in love with a mortal. We were asked to guess which one it was. (It was the one who was looking down.)
One room had a hole in the floor from which it is said that rice used to flow spontaneously. The legend is that a greedy monk wanted more rice, so he made the hole bigger and the rice stopped flowing. You could supposedly throw a duck into a hole in the courtyard and the duck would ultimately appear in the river. This is no longer done.
Tomorrow we sail into the first of the Three Gorges.