The most interesting person I met on our trip down the Yangtze River was Zhuo de Li a 68-year-old boat tracker.
Two or three times a week he and his crew of six men paddle groups of visitors through the Bamboo Gorge. The narrow waterway is a branch of the Shenong River in China’s Hubei province. I was lucky enough to be a passenger on Mr. Zhou de Li’s boat. I say lucky because Mr. Li has been plying the sometimes-turbulent waters of the Bamboo Gorge for the last forty years. I couldn’t have been in the hands of a more experienced oarsman.
The vessels built by Zhou and his fellow Tujia tribesmen are called pea pod boats. Originally they were used to carry supplies, produce and local folks to and from their villages along the tributaries of the Yangtze River. Recently however they have also become available as a means of transportation for tourists who want to explore the narrower chasms in China’s scenic Three Gorges region.
The local interpreter who accompanied us obligingly relayed my questions to Mr. Li when I told her I wanted to interview the hardworking man maneuvering our boat. As the guide translated I found out boat tracking is a career that requires years of practice. Mr. Li learned how to build pea pod boats and their unique paddles from his father. Other Tujia tribesmen taught him to make the strong ropes that are used by the trackers to guide the boats when necessary. At certain spots where the Shenong River becomes just a narrow, shallow stream the trackers wrap the ropes around their bodies, jump overboard and head for the rocky shore. Here they pull the boat forward in a display of strength and endurance that is truly amazing. Just as Mr. Li learned to be a boat tracker from his father so he has taught his own three sons the skills required. They are now part of his crew.
Guiding a boat down the Bamboo Gorge is no easy task. The paddlers sing together as they work. Mr. Li said the songs help keep their oar strokes evenly matched and provide encouragement for the difficult task. He joked saying Tujia women find men who are good singers very attractive. According to Mr. Li, the best singers get the best wives.
It was very cold the day I traveled the Shenong Stream. Yet Mr. Li and his fellow trackers wore shorts. When they were required to jump into the water, bare legs were more convenient. Apparently, the trackers used to make these trips without any clothes on at all, but in deference to tourists have begun to wear them.
I was most intrigued by the Tujia men’s’ shoes. They are thin sandals of knotted rope, which protect their feet from the sharp rocks on the shoreline. Mr. Li said his wife makes his shoes. She also cares for their farm while her husband and sons are out on boat trips. The tourists provide a welcome addition to the Li family finances. The thirty men from Mr. Li’s village who work on the boats each make about $12 (Canadian) a week. This provides a real boost to the economy of the local Tujia tribes.
Before we left Shenong Stream I had the guide ask Mr. Li how long he thought he’d continue being a tracker. He laughed and said he knew of a man who had worked on the boats until age 78. Who knows? Maybe by now Mr. Li is not only paddling the Bamboo Gorge with his sons but with one of his grandsons as well.