Day By Day

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

China Diary -- Part 21 A Trip to Hell

Our first shore excursion on the Yangtze was at Fengdu, the City of Ghosts. The town has had this name since it became the refuge during the Eastern Han Dynasty (about 1800 years ago) of two famous Taoist scholars, Yin Changsheng and Wang Fangping. When their names are combined they can be read as "King of the Underworld". Over time the legend arose that the King of Hell lived on Mingshang Hill, which towers above Fengdu and that the ghosts of the departed would come there to be judged. Over the centuries dozens of temples and shrines were located there, representing Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian faiths and people from throughout China came there to worship. Today, under a determinedly secular regime, it is first and foremost a tourist attraction.

There is another possible interpretation of the city's name. When the Three Gorges Dam was constructed it raised the water level to a point where much of the town was under water. Over time the government has moved the townspeople from one side of the river to higher elevation quarters on the other. So today, beneath the waters of the Yangtse, there is an abandoned ghost city, old Fengdu.

Our visit started with a climb up a steep stairway to a small village where vendors strenuously tried to get our attention. We passed through quickly with shouts of "hello, hello, hello, hello" ringing in our ears and ascended to a second set of shops, where the vendors were if anything more aggressive than in the first.

The beggars and trinket vendors -- they are everywhere -- points up a real problem for China today. Despite all the economic growth experienced in recent years there are hundreds of millions of desperately poor people in China. Their plight is pitiful, but it exists on such a large scale that it is hard to see what can be done. Despite frequent admonitions from our government handlers to ignore these people and to never purchase anything from them, many in our party were gradually worn down and started to buy things. "She Who Must Not Be Named" is now the proud possessor of a "Mao Watch" that is still running. I believe she also bought a couple of three-dollar Rolexes and a few other items. I didn't buy anything much, but I did tip generously.

The main temple complex is now located at the top of a seven-hundred step staircase. Fortunately for me, still nursing a sore ankle from my slip on the Great Wall, there was an alternative means of transportation.

We climbed the last few hundred steps and found ourselves in a marvelous complex of religious shrines and temples. We visited several if them and then climbed upwards toward the entrance to Hell.

As we climbed we were introduced to a series of trials all dead souls were supposed to face. The first was confrontation with demons. In the legend they would produce tremendous noise and wind that would blow evil souls away to wander the earth forever more with no hope for reincarnation. The demons are represented today by a series of impressive statues.

We were told that this was the "naughty demon". I will leave it to you to decide just what that means.

Now this one is scary. I asked about the provenance of the statues and was told that they are recent additions, carved by the faculty at a local art institute.

Here is another of the trials. Supposedly dead souls have to leap from bridge to bridge taking no more than three steps. Those who fail fall into the pools of water below and are destroyed. Today tourists are told to choose which bridge to cross. The middle one grants true love, the one on the left represents long life, the third represents great wealth. Couples are supposed to join hands and to cross the bridge of their choice in nine steps. "She Who Must Not Be Named" and I crossed the middle one, but then she ran back and crossed the other ones by herself. She is a modern woman and is determined to have it all.

The final test takes place in front of the hall of the King of Hell. Tourists are told to balance on one foot on top of a rock for three minutes. I didn't try. I just went inside and saw this guy.

That's the King of Hell himself. Souls who have lived virtuous lives and have passed the tests are allowed to pass out of his presence into the gorgeous gardens beyond. Those found wanting are sent down to experience torture. The torture exhibits are pretty graphic and I won't include pictures of them here. After all, this is a family blog [sorta].

After escaping from Hell we retraced our steps down the mountain and reboarded our boat to continue our trip down the Yangtze. Up next -- the Three Gorges.