On the Wild Side of Wuxi

Written by Mar 10, 2006 06:03
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The wild ride

The temperature had been dropping for the past two days and now in the mountains it was surprisingly cool for late summer. Wuxi deep in the wild mountains north of the Yangtze on the Daning River, is home to the Lesser Three Gorges and the Lesser, Lesser Three Gorges. We arrived just before dark after another typically wild bus ride. A more comfortable way to travel to this remote location is of course along the Daning River itself but you will inevitably be told that you cannot do it. It is possible if you have some local knowledge although not being a local you will be charged at twice the going rate.

A boat leaves Wushan at the mouth of the Daning at 7.00am and 10.00am each day for the five to six hour journey, stopping to pick up and let down locals on the way. Downstream departures are the same times and the distance in usually covered in slightly less time. A light rain began to fall as we were greeted by our companion’s college classmate and taken to the hotel they had booked for us. Wuxi is a small compact town lining the eastern bank of the Daning River which still runs quite swiftly through here despite the rise in water levels further down stream. Many of the streets are closed to traffic and most places are an easy walk. By the time we were ready to eat it was hard to find an open restaurant although it wasn’t so late.

The wild river

A mini van had been hired for the next days sightseeing and our hosts made sure that every seat was occupied. This included the driver, the classmate and her student, an uncle and his daughter, and the four of us. Nine in all in an eight seat locally manufactured Chang’an van, notorious for leaking fumes into the interior and this one was living up to its reputation. Not the most comfortable transport but we had little choice. We grabbed a breakfast on the run, some more warm clothes and headed out along the picturesque Daning Valley. Debris hanging from fences and wires, some well above the road was stark testimony of the dangers of recurring floods on the river.

We followed the river for several kilometres along its narrow stony valley where many deserted and abandoned houses perched on the narrow banks, most of which have been stabilized by rock walls over the years. Our first stop was at a pretty yet half deserted village where a salt spring just above the river has been exploited for centuries. Like almost everything else the salt making factory is now abandoned and derelict but the salty spring still flows and a pipe feeds the mineral water to pools on the opposite bank where visitors can still take a therapeutic dip.

The wild luge

We then visited a limestone cave of some repute. An elevator takes visitors up the almost sheer valley wall to just below the entrance. A tour of the cave takes about an hour and well worth the visit. The valley is quite steep and spectacular and for those with a need for speed or adrenalin ‘rush’ there are a couple of options. While the river rushed by beneath us a cable car crossed from just above the cave entrance to another opening in the sheer valley wall opposite. The adventurous can take the ‘luge’ ride down a concrete chute that spirals its way downward to the valley floor. A small funicular carriers people to the top again. Not knowing how safe any of this would be we were relieved to know that it would not be operating that day because of the rain and thereby gave us no need for making our own excuses.

The wild wiper

Intermittent rain all morning required the use of the windscreen wipers but our van only had one rubber blade in the driver side wiper. This left the passenger side wiper to screech and score the windscreen with every wipe which seemed not to bother our driver in the least.

After changing seats so we would not be gassed, we watched on as ‘the uncle’s’ daughter sat leaning against the unlocked and sometimes difficult to close sliding door. We imagined it popping open with disastrous results as we swung back and forth through endless corners. After more than an hour we arrived in another small town and turned off the main road. We were ushered into a restaurant still being decorated but certainly open for business. As we had been climbing in altitude, the temperature was quite a lot cooler than we had been expecting so the heating in our detached private dining room was turned on for our comfort. The management of the local radio station in the district happened to be friends of ‘the uncle’ so they joined us for lunch or perhaps we joined them for lunch. We were never quite sure but were genuinely surprised by the quality of our meal which was sumptuously prepared and presented by a local lad who trained and worked in Shanghai.

The wild mountains

Had the weather been clear I’d have been interested in visiting Hong Chi Ba, a high mountain plateau at over 2000m and home to caves and cabbages, horses and a hardy bunch of locals. Our hosts gave us a choice here but not knowing the conditions or the distances we felt we could trust them to show us the best of their area so long as we were back in Wuxi before dark. Having spent too many days on the road after dark on wet, windy mountain roads and often in fog we did not want another one. Being assured – or so we thought – that we would be back in Wuxi before dark we began the ascent to the pass into the Hong Chi Ba plateau.

It continued to rain and the wiper continued to screech and score. The temperature continued to drop and so did the cloud. The scenery on the way is something else again, made all the more beautiful by the low clouds and fog that was hanging in the valley. The vista before us alternated between cloud shrouded mountains above the valley and zero visibility with the occasional glimpse of unusual flowering plants. There was little vehicular traffic on the road but farmers made good use of it. We couldn’t help wondering if this trip was worth the discomfort and cold but said nothing as the chill set in. We needed all the windows open for enough fresh air to circulate and keep us all awake.

The vista of the valley was green: of cabbage patches as far as the eye could see and down on the valley floor a small hamlet of houses with the odd backdrop of Tibetan Yurts – a hotel in the middle of nowhere. We pulled off the road into the yard of one of these traditional homes and everyone piled out. It seems we were the only ones who didn’t know that this was the grandparent’s home and we were had come to visit. Great! Thanks for telling us? It was still raining and we were all really cold by now. Despite being the middle of summer up here it felt and looked like the middle of winter. After being introduced I quickly found the kitchen hearth which was the only warm place in the house. We were encouraged to take a walk but the only thing to see in this vast valley was the hotel, a few locals and some horses. It was far too cold for walking in the rain.

A wild idea

It soon became apparent that a meal was being prepared. We had only just finished a wonderful but late lunch and it was only four o’clock. Again genuine hospitality was being offered but we were in no mood to accept it. A brazier was quickly set up in the main room of the house in the hope that we would warm up. If we stayed to enjoy these country folks generous hospitality it would certainly be dark by the time we got just part way down the mountain. None of us were happy that we had been used as an excuse to visit relatives and that we could end up driving back to town in the dark on yet another evening.

Having made it clear that we wanted to be back in town before dark we made it clear that we were upset with the situation and would not be staying for a meal and would like to leave as soon as possible. Refusing their hospitality was quite offensive behaviour on our part but there was little we could do given the circumstances. The cold up here is the kind that seeps in if you sit still and it’s hard to warm up especially when your shoes are wet through. We made to take our leave but the driver was nowhere to be seen. The uncle gave me permission to take the van to look for him. Where could he be?

We drove up the road with the sliding door open – having tried unsuccessfully to shut it. As we climbed the slope and turned the corner we heard a dreadful noise behind us. The silly door had fallen off and was now hanging from the van by the bottom roller ball. This took the cake. I stopped, got out and picked it up to reposition it – getting mud all over my pants - so my companion could sit in back and hold it while we drove back to the house. As this comic chain of events unfolded my mood also began to chill. Back at the farmhouse the two uncles repaired the door, while the young lad was dispatched in search of the driver who had taken a very long walk down the only other gravel road in the valley. On his return we made our apologies and left immediately, arriving back in Wuxi just before dark.

The wilds of Wuxi

It was still raining in the morning as we made our way down to the river bank near the centre of town. We had booked seats the night before to ensure that we would be on the early boat. We said our goodbyes and boarded. Just before leaving a group of doctors and their families from the local hospital came aboard, filling the remaining seats on the boat. They entertained us with singing and food for much of the journey. We stopped a few times for passengers or freight but as the boat was full many locals where left riverside waiting for the next boat later in the morning. After almost two hours on the river which was often shallow and wide with small rapids we arrived at the famous Lessor Three Gorges where water levels rose in June 2003 flooding much of the charm out of these lower reaches of the river.

There is nothing small about these gorges, even after the rise in water levels. They are still grand in scale and beauty and a worthwhile aside from the Three Gorges themselves. Wuxi offers a few surprises. At one time the lower reaches of the Daning sometimes offered an exciting ride through rapids and sand banks but this is only possible on the upper reaches and even further upstream out by the cave there’s that man made adrenalin pumping ‘luge’ ride in the wilds of Wuxi.

 More Yangtze River Travel Reviews
1. The River - Part Two - The Three Gorges MISHEN from NZ Feb 8, 2006 23:02
2. The River - Part One - Onto the Yangtze MISHEN from NZ Feb 8, 2006 05:02
3. <A> YANGTZE REFLECTIONS WOCCA from CN Oct 7, 2005 03:10
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