A Chinese Ghost Town, Resurrected

China’s Three Gorges Dam forced sections of the mighty Yangtze to rise, leaving cities like Fengdu underwater and drastically reshaping lives – largely for the better. Daniel Allen reports

It’s judgement day in Fengdu’s Ghost City – just as it is every day. At the Nothing To Be Done Bridge a group of Western tourists wait patiently to have their virtue tested as they cross the narrow stone expanse. If legend is to be believed, those of dubious character may be destined for a dunking in the pool below. But today the young guardians of the bridge, costumed in old-style Chinese tunics and carrying prop axes, seem in lenient mood.

Fengdu is situated beside the Yangtze River, around 170 kilometres downstream from the shiny skyscrapers of Chongqing. Built with scores of temples, its quirky necropolis is said to be home to spirits and devils, but what visitors experience is something of a colourful theme park based on the concept of hell in Chinese Taoist mythology.

‘Fengdu’s Ghost City got its reputation during the Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), when two imperial court officials – surnamed Yin and Wang – came here to teach Taoism and supposedly became immortal,’ says local tour guide Tu Weiwei. ‘Taken together their names sound like ‘King of Hell’ in Chinese, and so the supernatural story started.’

Fengdu’s towering King of Hell statue may have sat in judgment on the souls of the deceased for centuries, but the city’s own day of reckoning came far more recently. Just over a decade ago, the waters of the Yangtze rose tens of metres behind the newly completed Three Gorges Dam, located downriver in Hubei province. A giant reservoir was created and now stretches all the way to Chongqing. As waters flooded their homes, the residents of Fengdu had no choice but to move to a completely new city, perched higher up on the opposite bank of the river. ‘It was a difficult time for many Fengdu residents,’ says Tu. ‘Especially the older ones, such as my parents. The dam has changed our lives in a big way, and is still changing them.’

China Yangtze Fengdu
Credit: Walter Bibikow/Photolibrary RM/Getty Images; Quanjing. Incense: Panoramic Images/Getty Images

Yet, much of the Ghost City was high enough in the hills to survive. More than 10 years after the waters of the Yangtze first began backing up, many of the residents of new Fengdu still joke darkly about their city’s longstanding connection with the afterlife. Who else but aquatic ghosts can inhabit their former houses now?

Construction of new Fengdu began in 1999, and three years later it was a fully functioning metropolis. The city now boasts well-stocked supermarkets, car dealers, cafes and other consumer outlets, and a burgeoning population of nearly a million. ‘People say that new Fengdu is already five times the size of the old city,’ says Tu. ‘Many of my friends were happy to move to bigger and better homes. There are new parks and hospitals, too. Many Chinese visitors who come here say we are lucky to have benefited from the dam in such a way.’

Many of the transitioning cities and towns behind the Three Gorges Dam have received billions of renminbi in so-called relocation funds. This top-down largesse has underpinned a dramatic change of fortune for many local economies.

In Fengdu, which was already a popular stopping-off point for passengers on Yangtze riverboats, tourism is now booming. While ferries still disgorge crowds of tourists on their way to the city’s ghoulish shrines and pagodas, other visitors arrive via a newly completed high-speed rail link to Chongqing. Below Ghost City an ever-growing array of snack stalls, souvenir shops and electric taxis caters to the influx. 

Today more and more Yangtze towns and cities are turning to tourism as their pillar industry, investing huge sums on developing infrastructure and riverside attractions. Fengdu’s Ghost City complex has spent years restoring its shrines and temples. The new Jade Emperor Hall, for example, was finished in 2008, complete with ornate statues of the Jade Emperor (the supreme heavenly ruler of Chinese mythology), intricate door carvings and pillars in vivid red, blue and gold. Another gigantic statue of the deity, which is also a half-finished hotel, dominates the side of Ming Mountain.

China Yangtze Fengdu
Credit: Andrew Dutton / Alamy / Argusphoto

‘Fengdu has become a real weekend attraction for my friends and me,’ says Chen Xi, a businessman from Chongqing visiting Ghost City for a fourth time. ‘It’s easy to get to by rail and the local hotels and restaurants are now a good standard. The temple festival in early March seems to get busier every year.’

For Tu, more tourists means a better income. ‘If you ask me whether I miss old Fengdu, the answer is yes,’ says the bilingual, 30-something tour guide. ‘But better facilities and commercially developed cultural attractions are good for my work.’

‘Anyway,’ she adds fatalistically, ‘what can we do but make the best of things?’

Thanks to the taming of the Yangtze’s once perilous white waters, visitors can now enjoy – in far greater safety and comfort – areas of the river that were once strictly off-limits. The soaring cliffs and mist-wrapped peaks of the Three Gorges have had their grandeur dimmed by the creation of a giant reservoir but are now accessible to all. The Three Gorges Dam itself has become a major attraction.

Some tourist sites have wisely been protected from the rising waters, such as the 12-storey pagoda-fortress of Shibaozhai. Thanks to the protection of a cofferdam, this ancient structure and its environs now sit on an island in the middle of the river, likened by many to a giant bonsai surrounded by water.

China Yangtze Fengdu
Credit: Walter Bibikow/Photolibrary RM/Getty Images; Bob Sacha/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Other attractions in the area are far more contemporary. The Three-Gorges Tribe Scenic Spot in Dengying Gorge is a recently built complex of wooden buildings and walkways that offer cultural entertainment to river-borne passengers, while the nearby city of Yichang indulges modern pursuits like bungee jumping and speedboat rides.

The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest hydropower project to date and has seen entire cities, ecosystems and sites of major cultural significance drowned beneath the waters of the Yangtze. But the dam’s construction is also driving, for better or worse, the development of the region as a major tourist attraction.

‘It’s a tale of two rivers and two lives,’ says Tu. ‘After the waters rose, there were more jobs and wages were better. On the other hand, some local people don’t want to visit the gentrified temples of Ghost City any more.’

‘My father is philosophical about the change,’ she continues. ‘He says that home is in your head. Our old houses are flooded, but the memory of where we grew up cannot be wiped out so easily.’   

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