Unsinkable Spirits in Shennong Xi

By Ms.Jabarootoo ( travelchinaguide.com )

Updated: 2012-05-22

Near naked bodies, taut tanned muscles, and skin glistening with sweat. No, this is not describing my local gym but a scene that greeted us on tour this summer. With infectious smiles and the buzz of industry they milled around - standing, crouching, but all working to ready their sleek craft for action.

It's barely ten years since these scantily clad men worked, stripped completely naked. It's around ten in the morning and already the temperature is high as are the spirits of these men as they wait to load their boats with today's cargo. The cargo may have changed but it is business as usual for these buoyant men, their pea boats - a nickname implied by their peapod shape - and their unusual way of life.

Since first reading accounts of early adventurers to China and their exciting journey up the Yangtze river, especially tackling the many dangerous rapids of the Three Gorges, I've been fascinated by the story of the men who risked their lives in the often harsh and torturous "tracking" trade. "Tracker" is a name given to a man who worked in a team hauling heavily laden boats when they could no longer sail upstream against rapids and strong currents. Naked, and shod only in woven grass sandals to protect their feet they toiled over slippery rocks, through strong currents and along tracks hewn in cliff-faces or plank roads overhanging the water. Many of southern China's big rivers still bare testimony to this era of boat trackers, but as more and more dams are built and water levels rise, this harsh evidence is being buried along with the men who trod them.

I was excited at the prospect of finally seeing trackers at work. While the experience is not as authentic or as dangerous as it may have been in the past, the trackers of Shennong stream are genuine in their effort to keep their craft alive. The beautiful Shennong Stream lays a little north of Badong at the entrance to Xiling Gorge within the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River. Earlier that morning we had travelled downstream from Chongqing by bus for over three hours to Wanzhou where we caught the last hydrofoil of the day leaving for Yichang at 1.30pm. Badong in Hubei Province is perched high up on the southern banks of the Yangtze and boasts a new bridge spanning the river to Xirangkou. Wandering the streets in the late afternoon it was soon apparent that there were more pedestrians than vehicles using the bridge, most of them enjoying the cool breeze blowing down the Yangtze valley. We joined the local residents promenading and taking in the great view of the river and the traffic from such a great vantage point.

From the docks in Badong it's a long climb up the stairs to the road where mini vans or motorbikes are the only available transport up to town. On this road which zigzags up the steep hillside it's name changes from 1st street, to 2nd street, to 3rd street at each new turn. We found the small and cheap Peace Hotel on 2nd street where we spent the night. A little further uptown we took our chances in a small diner which turned out to be a real family affair, the daughter home on holidays from University in Wuhan. We ordered what was being cooked for the family, a delicious beef and potato stir-fry, with a little less chili for us, and a dish of cucumber to which they generously added a few other complimentary dishes of condiments. We returned to eat again the following day.

At a small office across the street from our hotel we booked a tour the following morning for Y150 this being the simplest way of visiting the stream. An English-speaking guide met us early next morning at our hotel and after a quick bowl of rice porridge escorted us down the riverbank part way via the concrete stairs, from where we had to jump off and clamber beneath the stairs before walking along the bank to board one of the smaller tour boats. Here we waited, watching a cargo of cement being unloaded from a barge onto trucks that crawled laboriously up the greasy slope under their heavy load. Only after a group of Chinese tourists boarded did we cross the river to tie up along side one of the larger Three Gorges cruise ships moored on the northern bank.

By 8:00am all her passengers had boarded and we got underway. As we passed below the high cliffs on both sides of the gorge guarding the entrance of Shennong stream we were entertained with a tightrope walking display, obviously for the benefit of the larger cruise ship's passengers. Shennong, also boasting three gorges, the Mianzhu, Yingwu, and Longcheng, all once only a meter or so deep is now under more than fifteen meters of water. For more than an hour we cruised through the stunning narrow gorges with massive, almost sheer cliffs towering overhead, densely wooded bamboo groves and other vegetation overhanging the water, caves and the hanging coffins of the ancient Ba civilization and the added treat of seeing a group of macaques. Eventually the valley opened out and we approached a landing on the shore where men and boats and vendors waited.

As we disembarked we were instructed to follow a guide holding a numbered paddle along the shore passing the neat array of souvenir vendors who patiently waited for us to return in the hope that some of us would have long enough to stop and shop. The boatmen welcomed us enthusiastically as they swung into action, each familiar with his task and working efficiently as a team. At the sight of so many foreigners, canopies were hastily erected to protect us from the hot sun that was already burning through the thin cloud. Within minutes we were on our way to the rhythmic chanting of our crew and the creak of oar strokes.

Of course we were not the only foreigners that day but we were the only native English speakers on our pea boat. We had both English and German speaking guide sitting in the best two seats - up front of course. Each sampan holds from 10 to 15 passengers and has a crew of six - the captain in the stern on the helm, four oarsmen and a bowman. The sampans are double ended and the bowman has an oar of similar size to that of the helmsman to help steer the pea boat as it negotiates the rapids on its way downstream. Our crew continued chanting as they rowed across the large open basin near the landing, heading for the now narrower and shallower Shennong stream. The race was on with a little friendly competition amongst the crews.

These rugged Tujia boatmen are mostly small in stature. Friendly and good-natured they are both long on stamina and high in spirits. These tanned and near naked, wiry and well-muscled mountain men are not afraid of hard work. As we entered the rapids our four oarsmen quickly and silently slipped overboard, one taking the lead line, a plaited bamboo rope, which he fed out as he strode briskly along the stony bank. The other three, each with another short plaited bamboo rope then attached their lines at intervals using a short wooden handle pushed through the open weave of the lead rope. These four ‘trackers' wearing simple woven grass sandals now leaned their weight into pulling our heavily laden sampan up stream against the rapids.

At times we stood still but they held their ground. Never letting us slip backwards, they simply laid their bodies lower and continued to chant rhythmically until we began to inch forward again with the bowmen fending off as the rapids twisted and turned ahead of us. This simple yet effective method had been used for centuries on all of China's major rivers in the most inaccessible and inhospitable terrain and weather imaginable. It was a tenuous source of income as many lost their lives if not through accidents then ill health or deprivation. At the top of the rapids our men quickly stowed their lengths of bamboo ropes, the longest being carefully coiled so as not to tangle when put to use again, and they deftly turned our boat downstream. Before we knew it we were shooting the small but swift rapids, our helmsman skillfully directing his craft.

Our four trackers took a brief rest but they appeared not to need one. While the men toiled lightly our guide, also a Tujia lass entertained us with a song of welcome to friends both new and old and invited us to echo her greeting "Huo ji". She then explained another of the Tujia customs still practiced today in the mountain villages. This is the 15-day long pre wedding "weeping" with songs known as "Ku Jia Ge" which expresses the bride's sadness at leaving her family, includes songs of thanks to her parents and should also express her own virtue as a future loyal wife. Arranged marriages became popular under feudalism to secure a family's financial situation. While many of the traditional Tujia still submit to arranged marriages this younger generation is able to make their own choice of partner again and have their families blessings.

The Tujia people of Shennong and Badong are very proud of their heritage. Not willing to lose their livelihood to progress after another rise of twenty meters they are moving even deeper into their valley in search of new rapids where they will continue to pull in fascinated tourists by the boatload. They may have lost some of their natural heritage and history under the rising waters of the dammed Yangtze but they have inherited that tenacious, unsinkable spirit of their ancestors.

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