An eerie chill pervaded the dark, dank streets and derelict buildings surrounding a shrivelled old man as he tended three bubbling cauldrons that sent steam spiralling up into unearthly shapes.
All was as it should be in the City of Ghosts.
Fengdu, a spectral town on the northern bank of the Yangtze River in southern China between Qutang Gorge and Chongqing city has been one of the major tourist stops on Yangtze River cruise itineraries attracting up to a million visitors a year.
It lies below the Gate of Hell, a soaring temple complex and shrine to the King of the Underworld that has graced the mountain, Mingshan, since 265 AD when two Han Dynasty officials tired of politics and fled there to practise Tao religious teachings achieving, as the story goes, immortality.
They combined their surnames, Yin and Wang, which sounded like “King of Hell” in Chinese and led the superstitious to regard Fengdu as a mystical, terrible place of malevolent spirits and eternal ghosts. But when I was there in 2008, China’s only City of Ghosts was living on borrowed time.
After the massive Three Gorges Dam was built downstream, Fengdu sank under waters rising to 175 metres above sea level drowning most of the old city and 2,000 years of Chinese history. All that remained above the waterline was the Kingdom of the Underworld.
The Yangtze River runs 6,380km from Qinghai Province near Tibet to the East China Sea near Shanghai and lies at the heart of Chinese civilisation yielding some of the country’s earliest evidence of human occupation.
The scenery, especially around the Three Gorges, is some of China’s most magnificent but it had changed noticeably since my previous visit in 2001. The mountains had shrunk as the waters already dammed had risen. But the expanding waters had also made previously inaccessible tributaries navigable revealing an entirely new landscape.
Sliding silently between the vertical riverbanks, steering gingerly around shoal waters and twisting around hairpin bends, it somehow seemed almost as spectacular as it had appeared in so many of those ancient watercolour paintings.
But things weren’t so pretty in places like old Fengdu. As it faced a slow and inevitable death, New Fengdu had arisen across the river on much higher ground where most of the 760,000 former residents had been resettled; only a few remained in the City of Ghosts to squeeze a few yuan from tourists still arriving on the fleet of luxury cruise ships passing through the dramatically scenic Three Gorges.
It was a smog-ridden, drizzly day when I caught a minibus into the moribund heart of the doomed city. The once vibrant downtown had been reduced almost to rubble with just a few areas of activity, mostly around old shops and houses, where lingering residents were clinging stubbornly to their ancestral roots for as long as they could get away with it.
Women formed queues at the only remaining noodle factory in town. Elderly men played Chinese chess on a deserted street corner pausing only to glance up at me with the wan smiles of those facing an uncertain future.
Neatly dressed children with rosy cheeks, curious and curiously happy in this forlorn place, followed me through the drab, spooky streets laughing, teasing and posing for photographs.
Things brightened up a little when I arrived at the marketplace despite a sudden cloudburst. Vendors snoozed inside open shops and squatted outside under multi-coloured umbrellas that punctuated the murk trying to sell their wares to just a handful of people.
On the streets, a few souls wandered around peering at the wreckage of their heritage as if trying to make sense of it all, yet I saw not a single beggar, just a dignified air of quiet resignation.
The rain intensified but it didn’t stop the staccato cacophony of jackhammers boring on with the relentless municipal carnage.
Down a dismal, soggy side street there were signs of activity and I found three cauldron-sized woks simmering above charcoal fires on the footpath.
A very old man, bent in the middle and wearing plastic imitation cowboy boots and a beanie, hovered over his improvised alfresco kitchen stirring thick chunks of pork in a fragrant stock as six others watched and threw in bits and pieces of herbs and spices at critical moments.
The aroma was so tantalising it could have been issuing from a swanky restaurant as the bent old man added a fistful of noodles from the only noodle shop in town.
Come midday they would offer their morning’s work to help make ends meet because many of these elderly stragglers had stayed behind in the expanding urban wilderness unable, or unwilling, to pay the higher rents being charged across the river in New Fengdu.
Up on Mingshan beyond the Gate of Hell, the Kingdom of the Underworld was buzzing by comparison to the old town. In swirling mists that muffled the already eerie silence monks and pilgrims mixed with cruise passengers amid dozens of gaudy, curly-roofed pagodas, pavilions, pathways and elaborate arched bridges with names like Hell Temple, River of Blood, Ghost Torturing Pass and Living Death Border.
This was the place where the spirits of all who died assembled for judgment day but there was no smiling Saint Peter to greet them. Hideous statues of bug-eyed, fiendish monsters torturing sinners served as a foretaste to the ill-behaved of what to expect in the afterlife.
And the afterlife was no shoe-in; to gain entry the dead were required to pass three tests at the Nothing-To-Be-Done-Bridge, an examination place for good and evil, Ghost Torturing Pass where they faced judgment by Yama, the King of Hell and the Tianzi (son of heaven) Palace where the lifeless candidate had to stand on one foot on a large stone for three minutes, much like a driver’s sobriety test before breathalysers. Topple and you were off to hell.
In the dusky gloom settling on the Yangtze River, cruise ships lit up like Christmas trees and I reboarded the Victoria Katarina. Still disturbed by the stark, lingering images ashore I knocked back a couple of surprisingly good Great Wall red wines at the bar of the upper deck Yangtze Lounge awaiting a performance of cultural dancing staged by members of the ship’s multi-talented crew.
I glanced up through picture windows at the soulless New Fengdu rising high into the clouds above the Yangtze where Old Fengdu’s resurrection was rapidly taking shape and as Victoria Katarina set sail for Chongqing I revisited my notes for something I’d found in a library book.
Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai observed: “It is interesting that all the people will be a citizen of Fengdu one day”. Perhaps, but it won’t be by the old City of Ghosts Li Bai would have known nor the soaring mountaintop and its Gate of Hell, now a hill beside a swollen river.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited)