A Tale of Two Prisons

Tucked away deep into a wild and densely forrested slope of Gele Mountain, lies a pair of revolutionary era prisons called Baigong Guan白公馆 and Zhazidong渣滓洞.

Geles Mountain, or Geleshan 歌乐山 forms one section of the insanely long Dabashan Ridge that stretches 500 miles over three provinces, so as you could imagine, the two prisons that feature in my blog post today are only a small fraction of the Geleshan tourist trail, but I will cover these at some point in the future.

Out of all my years in Chongqing, I must admit today was my first visit to the prisons, but not without reasonable excuse.

Since my schedule was free this day, I drove my Chinese lady to Three Gorges Square for her to see to a little business. While she was busy over the morning, I took the opportunity to drive westwards a few kilometres, before taking the narrow road that winds its way up the slopes of Geleshan, all the way to Zhazidong.

Even though today was an out of season, drizzly midweek day, there were still many coaches filling up the carpark, where armies of middle aged to elderly descended to check out the historical attractions here to be uncovered.

Just before the entrance, I followed the instructions on a sign to reserve an entrance ticket on the official Wechat portal, only to find the doors wind open and nobody caring to check. I suppose they only use this in peak season when they need to control visitor numbers. The same was also the case for Baigong Guan not far away.

Walking through the entrance, the barbed wire and small sentry points gave me the distinct feeling I was entering a former prison site. Also, the dense and wild vegetation around us made me understand why the Kuomintang国民党 (National Party) chose this location to detain and interrogate revolutionaries. Whilst retaining its undeniable natural beauty, an escape would definitely require the survival know-how of Bear Grylls or Ash Dykes.

The compound is actually quite small, so you can easily see all the rooms and exhibits within twenty minutes. When you go inside, you can see the warden offices, living quarters, prison cells, interrogation rooms, and even a mining shaft below from which Zhazidong takes its name.

Zhazi渣子 means dregs or sediment, and dong洞 is cave, so you could think of the prison name as ‘Sediment’ or ‘Dregs Cave.’ The reason is that although they used to dig for coal in the pits, there’s actually more in the way of sediment than the resource itself.

Back outside, there is a line of souvenir shops selling revolution style memorabilia, such as the obligatory Mao Tsetung portraits on everything from T-shirts to dishware, or portables bearing the emblem of 为人们服务, to serve the people.

Like Baigong Guan a kilometre or two down the mountain, the buildings are in great condition, the whole area steeps in wartime history, the natural settings are lovely. The one thing both attractions lack are actual exhibits from the era. Apart from the torture chambers, most rooms are quite empty, and tourists huddle round wall mounted accounts of former wardens and prisoners. From the few I read, most detainees met a sticky end, while a lucky few either defected or were released because of illness.

Down the road at Baigong Guan, the experience is very similar, except for the very considerable number of steps you have to ascend. While the prison is a relatively short climb, there are more exhibits a few hundred metres uphill. Despite the autumn chill in the air, I finally regretted not wearing shorts and T-shirt, as I was dripping in sweat by the time I reached the House of Dai Li, and past many an elderly visitor who had to stop regularly to catch their breath.

Since I could drive around by car, the whole visit took less than two hours. The feeling as I left was that a visit is worthwhile, but is better suited for people with more time on their hands, like foreigners living in Chongqing, or those on an extended stay.

For independent visitors who wish to avoid being led by the nose in tourist groups, my suggestion would be taking a taxi all the way to zhazidong at the top, then following the path through Songlinpo松林坡, the ‘Pine Forest Slope’ natural area that takes you down to Baigong Guan. All of these areas are linked by footpaths.

This way, you can avoid having to climb the insane number of steps, then when you’re done, just take the 120 public bus that leaves right outside the entrance, and goes to Caiyuanba Station via central Shapingba. There are unregistered ‘black car黑车’ drivers who will offer to take you, but you’ll need a good command of Chinese and some bargaining skills beforehand.

Zhazi渣子 means dregs or sediment, and dong洞 is cave, so you could think of the prison name as 'Sediment' or 'Dregs Cave.' The reason is that although they used to dig for coal in the pits, there's actually more in the way of sediment than the resource… Click To Tweet

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