Yangtze River Cruise, China
Chongqing, sitting almost slap-bang in the centre of south-central China, is one of the biggest cities in the country (indeed there are none larger west of here) and one of the 4 designated Chinese direct-controlled Municipalities, highest-level cities with a status equal to that of the provinces (the other 3 being Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin). The city, a commercial centre for western China, is a transport hub and it is here that most people who embark on a Yangtze River cruise downstream begin the journey. I did.
My Yangtze Adventure
I arrived back in the city having completed my loop within a loop – my 1-week journey through the Sichuan highlights of Leshan, Emei Shan & Chengdu – & immediately began searching out ferry trips on the Yangtze. It wasn’t easy, but I eventually secured a basic berth in an even more basic 6-berth dorm on a public ferry that I shared with 5 Chinese travellers, none of which had so much as a word of English. It was an interesting time. The Yangtze River terminates in Shanghai, some 2,400 kilometres downstream from Chongqing, an enduring 6-day sail away. Thankfully I wasn’t going that far. I was heading for Yichang in Huebi Province, a 2-day, 3-night & 670-kilometre cruise way. I planned on getting off there to view the controversial Three Gorges Dam and to hop on the overnight train north to my next stop of Xi’an in Shaanix Province.
There’s not too much to report from my time on the boat. I spent most of it sitting on the forward deck with headphones on watching our progress, waving to passing ships, admiring the numerous new bridge construction projects spanning the river, and scouting various riverbank markers showing the expected level of the risen water once the dam is completed. Apart from a side trip to visit The Three Little Gorges of the larger Three Gorges, the definite highlight of any trip on the Yangtze, our progress was routinely halted as we’d stop to have a look around various towns and villages being demolished and, if they were lucky, being relocated to higher ground in preparation for the rising water levels. What follows is a pictorial recap of my trip from when we left port in Chongqing (on a Saturday evening) until disembarking in Yichang early Tuesday morning having passed through the massive locks of the still-under-construction Three Gorges Dam the previous evening. But first, a bit about the Yangtze itself.
The Yangtze River
At 6,300 kilometres long, the Yangtze River is Asia’s longest and the 3rd longest river in the world after the Nile in Africa and the Amazon in South American. Historically the river has been a political boundary between northern and southern China, due mainly to the difficulty in crossing it. From as early as the reign of the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC) the Yangtze region became crucial to China’s economy. The establishment of irrigation systems made agriculture very stable and productive, so much so that during a period of the early Qing dynasty (1636-1912), Jiangnan, lands immediately to the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, provided a third to a half of the nation’s revenues.
Day 1 || Abandoned Towns, River Traffic & Construction
Fengdu || The Ghost City
Located about 170 kilometres downstream of Chongqing on the north bank of the Yangtze, Fengdu is something of a tourist draw because if its reputation for being the home of devils, a reputation it received by being depicted as ‘The City of Ghosts’ in two ancient, classic Chinese novels. But its days are numbered – while it was the first such town I visited on the cruise, Fengdu is just one of many population centres along the Yangtze being dismantled ahead of being flooded and lost forever to the rising waters of the river due to the construction, some 500 kilometres upstream, of the Three Gorges Dam (more on that later).
Back on the river.
Day 2 || Gorges, Large & Small, & a Bloody Big Dam
The ferry spent the bulk of night 1 docked at the ancient village of Baidicheng – boats on the Yangtze, whatever their size, seem, whenever possible, to only navigate the river during daylight hours. Immediately downstream of here is the entrance to the famous Yangtze River Three Gorges, the advertised highlight of any trip on the river. We had covered about two-thirds of the distance between Chongqing and Yichang in 1 day, meaning the rest of my time on the cruise was to be spent travelling through the Three Gorges, taking a side trip up the so-called Three Little Gorges & passing through The Three Gorges Dam, 200 kilometres downstream of Baidicheng, before docking in Yichang, my final destination 230 kilometres downstream of Baidicheng. So with quite a bit to look forward to on day 2 an early start was called for & at first light we started our journey through the Three Gorges.
Qutang, Wu & Xiling || The Three Gorges
The famed Three Gorges of the Yangtze River – Qutang, Wu & Xiling Gorges – span a 200 kilometre stretch of the river, although the gorges themselves occupy a stretch of only 120 kilometres. The gorges, classified as a AAAAA scenic areas (the highest level) by the China National Tourism Administration, are characterised by sharp bends constricted between towering limestone cliffs. Although primarily famous for its scenery, the Three Gorges region is also an historically and culturally important location in China, & just like other areas of the Yangtze many settlements and archaeological sites within the gorges are to be lost forever as a result of the rising water levels following the construction of The Three Gorges Dam.
We exited Qutang Gorge and moored in Wushan later that morning, where we disembarked the ferry and boarded smaller, more navigable craft for a trip up the Daning River through the so-called Three Little Gorges.
The Three Little Gorges
The Three Little Gorges are a smaller version of the main Three Gorges, zigzagging for about 50 kilometres along the Daning River north of Wushan (). The lower reaches of the Daning River, the largest branch off of the Yangtze River, feature three (more) gorges, commonly known as The Three Little Gorges – Dragon Gate Gorge (Longmen Xia), Misty Gorge (Bawu Xia), and Emerald Gorge (Dicui Xia). Yes, three is certainly the magic number around here.
The Three Gorges Dam
Having returned to Wushan and re-boarded the ferry we resumed the trip down the Yangtze passing through the 45-kilometre long Wu Gorge before entering the final and longest of the Yangtze’s three gorges, the 66-kilometre long Xiling Gorge. Approximately half way through Xiling Gorge one’s progress is halted as spanning the middle of the gorge is none other than the biggest and most ambitious construction project on the planet – The Three Gorges Dam. And getting through it takes time. A lot of time.
The Dam Yangtze || The Three Gorges Dam
The Yangtze River is an important transport and shipping corridor, & has been for centuries. But today it is also a scene of controversy. Throughout history flooding along the river valley has caused great destruction of life and property. In November 1997 Chinese engineers, in a bid to control the flooding, diverted the main channel of the river, clearing the way for construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project.
Construction proper began in 2002 and is scheduled for completion in 2009. It is the biggest and most ambitious construction project on the planet; the dam will measure 186 metres high, 2 kilometres wide, & will measure 115–40 metres deep from bottom to top. All told it will cost in the region of RMB180 billion (€17 billion, USD$22.5 billion). It will create a reservoir stretching back from the dam measuring about 650 kilometres (400 miles) in length, permanently flooding many existing towns (including numerous ancient cultural relics), causing large-scale changes in the local ecology and forcing the relocation of an estimated 1.2 million people. Opponents of the dam point out that there are three different kinds of floods on the Yangtze River: floods which originate in the upper reaches, floods which originate in the lower reaches, and floods along the entire length of the river. They argue that the Three Gorges Dam will actually make flooding in the upper reaches worse and have little or no impact on floods which originate in the lower reaches.
Day 3 || Attempting To View The Three Gorges Dam
Having docked in Yichang during the early hours of day 3, I was allowed to stay on board, & thus in bed, before having to disembark the ferry at the more reasonable hour of 6 a.m., bringing an end to my Yangtze River cruise adventure. However, I felt I had unfinished business with the Three Gorges Dam, so having quickly secured onward train tickets for the overnight train that evening north to Xi’an in Shaanix province, I found myself en route to the dam site, about a 30 minute local minibus ride from Yichang. I had spent about 5 hours on the forward deck of the ferry last night watching as we passed through an endless expanse of hydraulic locks, one after another, after another, but needless to say I failed to get a good look at the dam itself. And unfortunately having made the effort to view it from the banks of the Yangtze River itself I still didn’t get a satisfactory view.
Yangtze River Cruise Interactive Highlights Map
From Yichang it was north to Xian, home to the famed Terracotta Army, one of China’s premier attractions.