Is cruising one of the longest rivers of the world on your bucket list?
Cruising the Yangtze river in China is an unforgettable experience. Here’s why it should be on your travel to-do list!
At 6300 kilometres the Yangtze is the third longest river in the world and most impressively, it’s navigable by large ocean-going vessels for more than 1600 kilometres from the sea.
The Yangtze changed dramatically when the Three Gorges Dam was built in the 1990s. And it will change more in the future with the corridor slated for a network of roads, railways and airports along the river.
- Ready to join the cruise revolution?
- The crème de la crème in world travel
- Trawling Thailand's best cooking schools
Discovering ‘new China’
The river town of Chongqing was China’s capital during WWII and, along with Kunming, was a base for the Flying Tigers escorting war supplies between India and China over the ‘hump’ of the Himalayas. For those who cling to romanticised images of drifting past quaint farms before workers topped in bamboo conical hats tow your vessel through ancient locks, the start of the downstream voyage will be an awakening.
The bridge near the Three Gorges Dam
“Welcome to Chongqing,” our guide declared. “We have a population of 33 million people and the city is growing so fast we issue new electronic street directories every three months.” It is amazing how this area has changed. I discovered Gucci, Ermenegildo Zegna, Salvatore Ferragamo and Louis Vuitton shops and instead of muddy laneways there are freeways full of Audis and BMWs.
The disconnect between romanticised old Cathay and modern China extends to cruising the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges. Some days the pollution makes it hard to see the scenery but at night the lights of unrecognised cities provide unexpected beauty as we cruised past.
The view at night on the cruise is spectacular
Cruising the Yangtze’s Three Gorges
We were on a three-night Victoria Cruises voyage from Chongqing to Yichang, boarding the 264-passenger Victoria Katarina on Thursday evening and disembarking downstream of the Three Gorges on Sunday afternoon. Our cruise was part of a Helen Wong tour. Helen has been taking Australians to all parts of China for more than 25 years.
The Victoria Katarina cruise has great on-board facilities a fitness centre
On board it was obvious why the Victoria fleet is rated five star by the China National Tourism Administration. The Victoria Katarina was recently renovated. The ship’s facilities include: fitness centre, beauty salon and massage, restaurant and bar, executive lounge, reading room, laundry, ship doctor, souvenir shopping, in-room films, lectures, and, best of all, extensive outdoor areas which are fantastic for photo opportunities.
The lounge area of the Victoria Katarina cruise
Amazing photo opportunities
We boarded at 6pm and left the dock around 10pm, passing the brightly illuminated city before heading into darkness punctuated by the navigation lights of many vessels.
As you leave the dock you are welcomed by shimmering night lights
It’s estimated that 80 per cent of China’s navigation is along the mighty Yangtze, navigable for vessels of 3000 tons or less from the coast at Shanghai to Yibin, Sichuan 2800 km upstream.
The Three Gorges Dam began in 1994 and finished in 2012 and has been a massive exercise in structural and social engineering. The official figure says some 1.3 million people have been relocated and we visited one of these villages near Fengdu.
The Three Gorges Dam is one of the world's largest power stations
Our local guide was universally upbeat and repeated how much more everyone was enjoying the new houses. It was the only sign of the old-style propaganda that we saw in modern China. Our afternoon excursion to the 500 year-old Shibaozai Pagoda and Temple was more rewarding. The temple resembles a bonsai garden contained within a cofferdam to stop flooding by the rising waters of the dam.
Shibaozai means 'Precious Stone Fortress'
There were three significant highlights on our last full day on the river. In the morning we passed through the first and most spectacular of the Three Gorges – the Qutang Gorge then the Wu Gorge.
The spectacular gorges will leave you breathless
Old tales of navigating the Three Gorges tell of rapids, shoals and whirlpools. And there were the trackers – the naked locals who manhauled the boats up and down the river from narrow walkways.
Trackers are waiting to take passengers in ‘pea pod’ boats through narrow gorges.
Modern engines did much to make the trackers redundant then the dam was finished and calmed the waters. A side trip through the Lesser Gorges on the Shennong Stream from Bandong gives modern travellers a chance to relive the past.
Trackers rowing upstream
This really is a unique travel experience. Ready to discover it for yourself?
What's a favourite cruise that you've been on? Join the conversation below.