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 Home >> Destinations >> Chongqing >> Gongtan

* Gongtan old town were under water from 2007. Below guide turned out to be a history record *

"When the whole river was swallowed up by darkness, fires appeared on the rafts, lights in the windows of the stilt-houses, and torches flickered as men made their way up the rocky cliff or down again to their boats. Voices could be heard ashore and in the boats; women sang by the dim lamps in the stilt-houses, and after each song laughter and shouts rang out."

- Shen Congwen, «Recollections of West Hunan» -

Gongtan seems suspended in time, an old street without electric lights, a place where doors need not be locked and reliable roads are few. Most surrounding villages can only be accessed by foot. A superhighway is the Wu Jiang (the River Wu) which forms dangerous rapids and shoals in front of Gongtan. It's still much quicker to go to other towns along the Wu Jiang by boat than by bus.

Set halfway in the deep Wu Jiang Gorges, at the west edge of Chongqing's remote Youyang County, this unique 1700-year-old town has a large number of well preserved wooden stilt houses, perched finely on steep slopes, overlooking the Wu Jiang. Most of them have survived for more than 100 years. Some of them were around 400 years old.

Enclosed by these beautiful traditional houses, the narrow old street, paved with stone slabs, connected by beautiful stone bridges, stretches over 1000 meters on the east bank of Wu Jiang. When Gongtan was the most prosperous wharf on the Wu Jiang Waterway a hundred years ago, this busy street received thousands of boatmen, porters and businessmen.

When transportation by water was gradually replaced by land from 1950, Gongtan went into decline. Today, around two hundred residents live in the old town. Neither electric streetlights nor modern bars or cafes have come out on the old street. In the night, illuminated by few beautiful lanterns under the eaves as well as dim lights diffused from stilt houses, the old street is permeated with a mysterious and nostalgic atmosphere.

During my four-day visit, I was quite surprised by the very small number of tourists I had met (maximum 30) and enjoyed a lot of contacts with local people. Each time I traversed the old street, I saw same faces smiling at me from their houses, their doors were always opened. Sometimes I stopped to chat with them on the street.

I ventured inside Ran Family House,and Xia Jia Courtyard. Not bothered by my visit, both hostesses received me warmly and showed me around their houses. I was then invited to drink a cup of tea with them in the courtyard with breathtaking views, and listened to the story of their life and families.

Rating: Gongtan is my favorite destination in Central China. It is an ideal place for those who yearn to walk away from modern life and cities, going back into the past and the wildness, looking for their own better selves. In Gongtan, you can admire an intact relic of traditional architecture set in a breathtaking landscape, remote enough to be uncrowded; explore the surrounding Wuling Mountains where Tujia Ethic Group has lived there for 2000 years. A number of easy and pleasant treks are the only way to access some scenic, undeveloped villages.

Gongtan has an easygoing charm. Clean and cheap accommodations can be found in many traditional riverside stilt houses run by friendly local families. I should have stayed there for a week rather than four days.

Tragedy: This magnificent town together with numerous pristine villages are going to be flooded latest by 2007 due to the construction of a dam on Wu Jiang, 40km downstream from Gongtan !!


GONGTAN: Traditional Houses Ran Family House, Xia Jia Courtyard , Zhinu Lou , Yang Jia Hang

Around Gongtan: Qingquan, Wu Jiang, Xiaba , Kuzhu , Tianshui Jie , Upper Zengtan , Lower Zengtan

Qingquan: Qingquan town, Ancient Bridge , Qingquan Market

Easy Treks: Walking Guide, Itinerary: Wuling Mountains.

A Thriving Past

“As we tacked upstream fearsome waves tried to snatch us off the deck. The current was racing. Often, just as we thought we had passed the worst stretch of a rapid, when the poles were raised to be plunged in once more the current would suddenly sweep us back again.

The river was like a fire, it was too ardent, trying every minute to carry us away, as if completely headstrong. The strange thing was that these boat men had artful dodges to escape currents and whirlpools. They demanded on the water for a living, knew the river and its dangers better than anyone else; but in order to survive they were ready at every second to jump into the water. Going through the rapids, forced to drive through the white waves, they had to know how to find a passage through them. ”

Shen Congwen, Recollections of West Hunan

efore modern roads were constructed, transportation in the sheer Wuling Mountains had been dependent on merchants' boats plying up and down the roaring rivers. While traveling upstream, boats often had to be towed by boatmen. A merchant boat fully loaded would weight 50 tons. In order to go through a big rapid, a number of 40 to 50 boatmen from different boats had to work together, towing up their boats one by one up through the rapid.

In 1573, part of the mountain on the opposite side of Gongtan collapsed, with a huge quantity of big and small rocks crashing into the Wu Jiang, forming dangerous shoals that cut the navigation. Only small crafts could be towed up. In the event of this natural barrier, goods coming from the northern Wu Jiang needed be discharged upon arriving at Gongtan's Downstream Wharf. They were then carried by men power to the Upstream Wharf, located 800 meters away in the south, and reloaded onto the boats heading upstream to Guizhou. Raw materials shipped from Guizhou were carried from the Upstream Wharf to the Downstream Wharf in order to continue their journey. Usually, most goods and materials were stored at Gongtan for several days while waiting for a boat for the next stage of journey.

Gongtan become one of the most important transit centers on the Wu Jiang Waterway and won much of its prosperity through a thriving trade and warehouse business. In the beginning of 20th century, Gongtan had hundreds of stores, shops, and business establishments involved in transportation, storage and trade. More than 6000 boatmen and porters had worked there.

Link: Sold down the river.
"Trackers who pulled boats upstream through the Three Gorges are losing their homes to the waters that they long defied By Peter Hessler."
(Time Traveler, Fall 2002)

Accommodations (Souvenir - It didn't exist anymore since 2007)

Many traditional houses in the old town offer simple accommodations. One bed per night varies from Y10 to Y20. Stay at the northern edge where you can find several clean and friendly guesthouses, like Yang Jia Hang Guesthouse 杨家行/杨家客栈

The old town streets are not lighted during the night. If you arrive at Gongtan in the night, you have to look for a hotel in the new town perched above the old town. I stayed at Shiji Hotel 世纪大酒店(Tel. 023 75678098).

Places to eat: Local people only take two meals a day, noodles in the morning at 10:00, a simple dinner at 16:00. Except the golden holiday weeks, few tourists stay overnight in Gongtan's old town. Local people go to the market everyday in the new town and buy fresh vegetables, meats for daily comsumption. You'd better tell the host in advance what you want for dinner, especially for a copious dinner so that he can buy them in advance. Otherwise, you can only eat noodles or fried rice with eggs.

Local Food

Ludou Noodles 绿豆粉 - Made with mung bean and rice. Good for cooking, stir-frying or serving in cold dishes.

Drying Noodles
Buckwheat noodles
Tofu for breakfast

Written by Suyun in 2005.

CBP Journey 2004
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