When you visit a new place, it’s often the more unusual sights you encounter in your journey that sticks in your mind. In China, you might gush at the sight of the Forbidden Palace, the Great Wall (which is beautiful in winter) or Xian’s Terracotta Warriors. But it’s the quirky things that you will remember long after your visit. For me, one of those things was a day trip along the Shennong stream while on a Yangtze River cruise excursion.
There was a time when hundreds strong local men were used to pull ships and junks through shallow sections of the Yangtze River.
The men were strong and athletic and had muscles sculpted through years of hard labour.
They were known as the Tujia boatmen and would strip naked while working.
With ropes tied around the shoulders and waists, they would use manpower to heave these ships along the river.
It was a dangerous job and one misstep could mean being swept away by a swirling current.
Yangtze River Cruise Excursion
To put this in perspective, the Shennong stream is a trickle when compared to the mighty Yangtze River, which winds its way 6300km from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea.
Most cruise ships travel between Chongqing and Yichang. Highlights of a typical cruise might include a few hours exploring Fengdu, a complex of temples in the Mingshan Mountain, and the Three Gorges Dam site at Yichang.
The dam was the biggest infrastructure project attempted in China since the Great Wall of China. It’s five times bigger than the Hoover Dam.
The Three Gorges is a highlight. In the Wu Gorge deep valleys and misty tree-covered mountains are scenes from classical Chinese paintings. But one of the most fascinating sections of the Yangtze River is the Shennong stream.
The Shennong Stream, which is a tributary of the Yangtze, joins the main river at Xirangkou in Badong, Hubei.
A rowboat tour is a fun way to explore this part of the river and to learn about the culture.
We boarded a ferry at Badong and cruised along the tree-lined tributary of the Yangtze River. The was plenty see along the way, such as cliffs overgrown with lush foliage and bat-filled caverns.
Hanging high above the river were wooden boxes wedged into small holes in the cliffs. These boxes are coffins of the Ba elders, a minority group who lived in these mountains for thousands of years.
The ferry dropped us off at a jetty, where there were rows of long timber skiffs (known as peapod boats).
These hand-crafted vessels were built by local craftsmen; a skill passed on from generation to generation. The boats looked sturdy enough to withstand the surging river currents.
The Tujia boatman weren’t exactly naked. They were wearing shorts, shirts and straw sandals.
We climbed into the peapod boats and there was a shout from the main boatman and we pushed off – an armada of tourists seeking adventure along a shallow tributary of the Yangtze River.
We glided past cliffs that reached towards the sky. The water was still and the reflections of the trees in the forest was calming.
My boatman steered with a long bamboo pole. He was lean and wiry from years of labour. His skin was leathery. In the past, he used to earn a living as one of the men who would strip naked to pull those big ships along the river.
The reason they worked without clothes was the fabrics chafed their skin and wet clothes could cause chills.
Working the tourist beat is a lot easier and far less dangerous.
He steered the boat towards a ledge and three men leapt out. They scrambled along the rocky ledge, walking along the tow path with bamboo ropes around their waists and shoulders.
They ran until the ropes took up the slack, pulling us through the shallows.
The tributary was indeed shallow. The pebbles on the riverbed were so close to the surface I could reach down and touch them.
In the past, peapod boat captains were highly respected and the position was fiercely contested among the men.
Potential captains had to prove they were worthy of the task by navigating dangerous rapids and most captains would have ad at least 10 years as a crew member.
At the end of our journey, our boatmen broke out into a haunting melody. Listening to them sing lifted my heart.