Sail one hundred and seven miles downstream from Chongqing, and on the north bank of the Yangtze you’ll find Fengdu, a city founded over 2,300 years ago. Slog five hundred and some steps up Minshan, the mountain rising above it, and you’ll see a site begun a few hundred years later, one that gives Fengdu its best-known name: Ghost City.
Combined and spoken rapidly, the surnames Yin and Wang sound in Chinese like “King of Hell.” Which, according to tour guides and brochures, is why Fengdu became known throughout the Middle Kingdom as “Ghost City.” Though, to my ear, neither yinwang nor wangyin sound anything like Fengdu or Ghost City, no matter how rapidly you mumble. Be that as it may, for centuries ever since, the Chinese have come by the billions to Ghost City, believing that when they die this is where their souls will gather to be judged. Also to find out whether they will be sentenced to a lifetime in Heaven or to eternity in Hell. Or so the guidebooks and tourist brochures would have us believe. Mostly, Fengdu is Disney World for the morbidly curious.
At present, Ghost City contains 27 temples. The first, though renovated several times, dates from 618AD. In and outside the temples are dozens of paintings and statues of Buddhas (Past, Present, and Future plus the ubiquitous Buddha of Compassion); also demons, devils and ogres, some of which bear a striking resemblance to characters created by Lon Chaney, and one appears to have been posed for by Peter Lorre. There is a new purple and puce pagoda, and landmarks with blood-chilling names such as Gateways to Hell, Tower of Last Glance at Home, Ghost Torturing Pass, River of Blood and, crossing over it, the Bridge of Last Hope -- right next to another bridge named No Way Out. Near the exit is a barred dungeon filled with torture scenes to appall Torquemada. In one diorama a man is being sawed in half – lengthwise! Always on hand is a palmist (who told a fellow traveling companion that he must not so much as leave the house from next September to December) and, of course, the omnipresent gift shop. In addition to the de rigueur T-shirts, this one had the only cheerful display on the whole mountain top: a panoply of silk parasols.
More superstitions are found in Fengdu than amidst a coven of Wiccans. For example there is a stele with Chinese characters. You close your eyes and spin around three times then place your hand on one of the characters. The meaning of the character describes you and/or what others think of you. Unlike Rodney Dangerfield, I got “respect.” There is also a place with three adjoining inclines. Walk up the stairs on the left if in the next lifetime you wish health. Hike the stairs on the right if you seek wealth. The center ramp is reserved for couples. Tread this hand in hand, men leading with their left foot and women leading with their right, if in your next incarnation you want to come back together. As in this present life, you can’t have all three.
Ways exist to avoid the tortures of Hell, several physical tests one can take before death. If the trials are successfully completed, salvation is assured. (Or, if you’re a foreigner, a few dollars toward the building fund should do the trick.) One ordeal involves running up a long flight of stairs while holding your breath. Another requires you to lift a 100-pound boulder and place it on a smaller stone. Yet another is to balance for several seconds on one foot atop a round stone while staring at a statue of Buddha.
Fengdu’s remaining days are short. In 2003, a reservoir created as part of the Three Gorges Dam Project will completely engulf this ancient city. Residents already are being moved to new homes high on the opposite shore. From there they’ll have a grand view of Ghost City and the hotel built next to it in the shape of a god. Fear not, the Ghost City itself is in no danger of immersion. Soon, however, I suspect that sampans will likely replace the chair lift and stairs. And if the Chinese are even half as clever as I think they are, there will be a new concession in Fengdu: scuba gear.