Cruising down
China's Yangtze River

The legendary Three Gorges of China’s Yangtze River may no longer be brimming with rapids and whirlpools, but their spectacular sights still have the power to bewitch waterborne travellers.


Text and photos Daniel Allen.

Less than two days downstream from the skyscrapers and urban sprawl of Chongqing and the scenery beside the Yangtze River begins to change. Limestone cliffs rear up beside the river’s swollen, chocolate waters, topped with dense green vegetation and cloaked in serpentine tendrils of mist. Higher up, naked peaks can be glimpsed through a swirling blanket of low-lying cloud. The wild wonders of Qutang Xia, the first of China’s fabled Three Gorges (San Xia), are about to reveal themselves.

Looking out from his bridge, Xie Shou Gui surveys the spectacular scenery with a steady eye. The captain of the Victoria Katarina, a 100-metre long, multi-deck luxury cruise ship, is part romantic, part realist.

Captain Xie Shou Gui surveys the scenery of the Yangtze River as his ship approaches the city of Fengdu.

“This is the mother waterway of China,” says Xie, putting down a cup of green tea. “I’ve worked on the Yangtze for 30 years and it’s still a joy to contemplate the ever-changing views.”

The world’s third longest river, the Yangtze rises in the icy wastes of the Tibetan Plateau before flowing over 6,000 kilometres eastward to the East China Sea. Today Yangtze cruises typically start in the megalopolis of Chongqing, with voyages downstream passing through the Three Gorges – a succession of three spectacular canyons – before ending in the city of Yichang in Hubei Province, or at the river mouth in Shanghai.

A Yangtze cruise ship moored at the city of Fengdu.

The Chinese are a nation fond of their idioms. “If you haven’t travelled the Yangtze, you haven’t been anywhere,” runs one well-known saying.

“I know some people in Beijing and Shanghai who might disagree,” says Michael Darby, the Victoria Katarina’s American cruise director, with a laugh. “Still, a cruise on the Yangtze is a voyage through the very heartland of China.”

A tale of two rivers

In addition to their varied landscapes of epic beauty, the middle reaches of the Yangtze are also the location for one of mankind’s most ambitious and controversial projects – the Three Gorges Dam – a concrete leviathan whose completion in 2009 created a reservoir over 600 kilometres long.

With water levels rising above 100 metres in places, the creation of the Three Gorges reservoir behind the dam forced 1.3 million people from their homes. It also allowed supersized tour boats such as the Victoria Katrina to travel farther upstream than they ever could in the days of Mao Zedong.

“People often ask me whether the Three Gorges Dam was a good idea,” says captain Xie Shou Gui. “To be honest it has brought mixed blessings to the Yangtze and the people who live along it. Navigation is certainly simpler. We can sail at night, for a start.”

Most Yangtze cruise ships provide a colourful programme of evening entertainment. Passengers disembark the Victoria Katarina en route to Fengdu.

The spectacular crimson pagoda at Shibaozhai.

With the mountainous peaks of western Hubei Province constricting the Yangtze’s powerful flow, this stretch of China’s longest river was both famed and feared for its savage splendour.

A treacherous succession of whirlpools and rapids, shoals and reefs, for centuries the Three Gorges presented a formidable obstacle: there were days when one in 20 ships navigating here were lost to the Yangtze’s boiling waters.

Indeed, in the days of sail, teams of “trackers” – who frequently operated naked to avoid friction burns – would haul junks and other vessels upstream by hand, circumventing the worst of the white water.

The Yangtze’s trackers have long since disappeared, and the roar of the Three Gorges has been silenced by the dam. Yet despite the diminished danger, the beauty and drama of the Three Gorges thankfully remains undimmed.

“This part of the Yangtze is still wild enough for most,” says Darby with a smile.

Taking the plunge near the city of Yichang, where many Yangtze cruises begin or end.

Deathly delights

Some 170 kilometres downstream from Chongqing, the ship passes the Ghost City of Fengdu. At the Nothing-To-Be-Done-Bridge a group of tourists patiently wait to see whether they are virtuous enough to pass over the narrow stone span. Those of poor character may be destined for a soaking in the pool below, although the guardians of the bridge seem in a particularly lenient mood.

Sitting beside the Yangtze, the whimsically macabre city of Fengdu is a colourful complex of Buddhist and Taoist temples perched on a hill known as Ming Mountain. The place received its reputation as a “ghost city” during the Han Dynasty (25–220 CE), when two imperial court officials – surnamed Yin and Wang – settled here to teach Taoism and supposedly became immortal. Taken together their names sound like “King of Hell” in Chinese, and so the ghoulish connection began.

“To the Chinese, the King of Hell was more like the Greek god Hades,” explains local tour guide Tu Wei Wei. “It was widely believed that in his kingdom good people would be treated well in the afterlife, while the bad would be punished. This is why the entire complex is covered in demonic images and instruments of torture.”

“Until the 1960s boats on the Yangtze would often moor in the middle of the river to avoid getting too close to Fengdu’s ghosts,” adds captain Xie.

Nowadays the only ghosts inhabiting Fengdu appear to be temple workers in costume or children in gruesome face masks. “I think we can manage to repel both if necessary,” says captain Xie with a smile.

A card game in the village of Shibaozhai, close to the pagoda of the same name.

Fantastic fortress

Today the Yangtze is an eclectic mix of the low and high-tech. A little farther downstream from Fengdu is an architectural marvel that stands in stark contrast to the Three Gorges Dam. Built without the use of a single nail, Shibaozhai is a vermilion, 12-storey pagoda-fortress that leans against the side of a huge rock, now an island thanks to the rising waters of the Yangtze.

The Three Gorges Dam is China’s largest infrastructure project since the Great Wall.

Known across China as the “Pearl of the Yangtze,” Shibaozhai dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE), with each of its 12 storeys dedicated to a famous general, poet or scholar. Sitting on the top of the rock is a Buddhist temple which offers spectacular panoramic views over the river and attendant cargo ships.

“Prior to the construction of the pagoda, visitors to the temple were hoisted to the top of the rock using a system of chains,” explains tour guide Tu. “Not the ideal method of transport for worshippers afflicted with vertigo.”

Tour guide Tu Wei Wei looks across the Yangtze toward her home in the new city of Fengdu.

Gorgeous passage

Of the Three Gorges – Qutang, Wu and Xiling – which in their entirety stretch for nearly 200 kilometres – the former is said to be the most dramatic and the latter the most dangerous. Wu is considered the most beautiful.

As the cruise ship sweeps into Qutang Gorge, passengers gather on deck to admire the spectacle. Shortest of the gorges at just eight kilometres long and the farthest upstream of the three, Qutang’s entrance is guarded by the twin sentinels of Mount Chijia and Mount Baiyuan, towering to heights of over 1,000 metres. This is the Kui Gate, once famed as the “most dangerous pass in the world” and still awe-inspiring with its vertiginous rock faces hewn from the native limestone.

Half an hour later and the ship sails past a colourful array of mountaintop temples, pagodas and towns into the next of China’s grand canyons.

Wu Gorge is another world – expansive yet still dramatic. Nearly six times the length of Qutang, it takes 90 photogenic minutes to traverse. The highlight of the gorge are the Twelve Peaks of Mount Wu (Shi’er Feng) – a series of cloud-covered mountains of which nine are visible from the water. Look out for Shennü Peak (Goddess Peak), which is said to resemble a graceful maiden shrouded in fog.

Damned impressive

At the eastern end of the Xiling Gorge lies the Three Gorges Dam, China’s largest infrastructure project since the Great Wall and potent symbol of China’s rising economic might. More than 40,000 workers toiled for over 13 years to build it, at a cost of around 27 billion euros. However you feel about its massive social and environmental impact, its awe-inspiring scale is simply breathtaking.

To pass through the dam, all ships must rise or fall over 100 metres. A five-stage ship lock acts as a massive elevator, allowing vessels to make the transit in about three hours.

“When those gargantuan lock gates clang shut and the water drains away, you feel like you’re in the belly of a whale,” says Michael Darby. “Underneath the huge spotlights, hemmed in by the naked walls of the lock, it’s a surreal environment.”

For many passengers, soon to disembark in nearby Yichang, it’s a chance to reflect on a voyage of discovery that speaks volumes about China, both new and old.

Record-breaking river

Around 6,300 kilometres long, the Yangtze is the world’s third longest river (after the Nile and Amazon). It is the longest river in the world to flow entirely within one country, draining one-fifth of the land area of China. Its basin is home to one-third of the Chinese population.

Traditional Chinese cuisine aboard the Victoria Katarina cruise ship.

Cruise low-down

Cruises on the Yangtze travel upstream and downstream. Travelling downstream, most begin in the city of Chongqing and either end in Yichang, just below the Three Gorges Dam (four days), or Shanghai (seven days). Major cities along the route include Wuhan and Nanjing.

While some companies operate cruises all year round, spring and autumn are the best time for making the trip due to weather conditions. Passengers typically sleep (and dine) on the boat, with cabins of various sizes and comfort levels offered.

On Victoria Cruises, the cheapest price for a four-day trip between Chongqing and Yichang is around €420 (low season). The most expensive seven-day trip between Chongqing and Shanghai costs €3,500 (high season). These prices include all meals, but not shore excursions.

This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.