<A>Travelling the Yangtze

Written by Apr 23, 2007 18:04
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Planning the Trip

Of all the factors that have worked together to fashion China into a huge land of mystery and intrigue, the tremendous influence of the Yangtze River upon the people and their culture is beyond dispute. Holding distinction as one of the nation’s two “Mother Rivers”, the Yangtze bisects the country to provide an important geographical and cultural boundary between northern and southern peoples. The third longest waterway in the world, it slices through an area inhabited by about a third of the country’s population while making its dramatic 6,000 kilometer journey eastward. Those who choose to take a trip on this vital transportation network are carried through some of the most economically important areas in China. With high expectations of a remarkable expedition through the heartland of China, I set out to plan my Yangtze River cruise on the “Golden Waterway”.

Looking into possible Yangtze River cruises I quickly found that there are many options to choose from related to price, trip length and the type of ship one travels on. Beautiful cruise ships equipped with the latest luxuries and entertainment ply the river particularly during the peak season from April to October. Since I was traveling in the off-season when the water level is a little too low for large cruise ships as well as wanting to experience the river journey through the eyes of the people, I chose to book my fare on a regular Chinese passenger ship heading upriver from Yichang to Chongqing. This particular section of waterway is known as the most scenic as it passes through the legendary Three Gorges of incredible breathtaking natural beauty. Traveling upriver takes slightly longer as the ship must steam against the current, but it is also cheaper than most downriver cruises. Depending on the comfort and privacy level one desires during the trip, there are a variety of ticket classifications available. I purchased a second class ticket which provided me with a small cabin on the port side containing four comfortable bunk beds and a shared bathroom.

Underway on the ship

The adventure actually began upon my arrival by train in the busy city of Yichang which serves as an important transportation hub at the point where the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze River divide. Yichang lies about 1,600 kilometers inland from the Yangtze’s final meeting with the East China Sea and is a major center of navigation for river steamers. Walking down to the riverfront it is quite easy to purchase tickets from any of the travel booths for the four day upriver journey to Chongching or any intermediary stop in between. The recommended embarkation time is about four hours before departure, so once my ticket was purchased I used my remaining moments to visit a local market and stock up on fruit and snacks for the trip. The ship itself looked like a typical Chinese riverboat on the exterior and had recently been refurbished on the inside. A shallow draft vessel designed for river cruising, it contained three public decks with narrow, steep stairwells connecting them. There were open rails along the port and starboard sides on each deck allowing passengers to appreciate the sights along the way, and a rear deck with a few benches.

With the ship sounding a series of short horn blasts, we got underway from the moorings as friends and family members lined the shore to wave goodbye. Almost as soon as Yichang fell out of sight into the misty background the ship was already making its approach to GeZhou Dam, the first dam and water conservation project on the Yangtze undertaken by the Chinese government. Beyond this dam the famous Three Gorges Area extends 193 kilometers along the waterway with craggy, sheer mountain peaks rising up to 1,000 meters above the river. By the time we were safely through GeZhou Dam most of the passengers had settled into their berths for the slow journey upriver and I had familiarized myself with the ships layout and stretched out to relax with a good book. I was surprised to find that throughout the trip I would be sharing the cabin not only with three other passengers, but with their friends and family members as well. In view of the Chinese tendency toward hospitality where “personal space” is not a consideration, my cabin mates were naturally quite willing to share our limited space rather than allow their friends to sleep on the common deck. At one point I actually counted nine people piled into our small room, contentedly tripled up in the bunks and chatting happily. One benefit of the close quarters and amiable attitude of the people was that they were very willing to share what they had, so I was allowed to taste all kinds of special homemade goodies which they had packed and brought along for snacking.

As the ship journeyed westward the first gorge we passed through was Xiling Gorge and begins upon entering Nanjin Pass. Xiling Gorge is 66 kilometers long and during certain times of the year orange-colored orchards can be viewed along its banks. Steaming upriver through the treacherous rapids, whirlpools, rocks and shoals clearly evident by the turbulent water, I was reminded that years ago this stretch of river was particularly dangerous for ships and used to require the assistance of “river trackers”. This able-bodied group of men would literally pull boats through the rapids and shoal water by their own brute strength to keep ships from running aground. Today the helmsmen have to remain alert and steer carefully, but most of the dangers have largely been eliminated with a wider and deeper channel where travel is much less treacherous. The engines humming steadily against the swift current, our first view of the massive Three Gorges Dam was the next major sight to come into view. Stretching more than two kilometers across and towering 185 meters high, the dam is an overwhelming sight looking at it from aboard ship.

Since the Three Gorges Dam Project has been so controversial and attracted an amazing amount of world-wide publicity, I was anxious to see the site for myself to judge the impact that the dramatic changes have had upon the river. The dam is an incredible feat of engineering with its enormous powerhouse and spillway where the water cascades through to produce an impressive misty spray. There is also a second powerhouse and cofferdam which is visible from the scenic lookout point above the dam. The dam supplies hydraulic power to major Chinese cities like Shanghai and Suzhou and provides additional power for the rapidly developing country in its ever-growing demand for energy. As China’s largest engineering project the dam is also designed to help control seasonal flooding which has threatened communities downriver for centuries. The dam itself creates a reservoir that extends all the way upstream almost to the city of Chongqing and required the relocation of entire towns and historic sights. The change to the width and depth of the waterway has greatly increased commercial shipping access by allowing large freighters to enter China’s interior and all ships traversing the river travel through a series of five locks so they can be raised/lowered to the appropriate water level. As my ship passed through this multiple-hour locking process I watched in fascination at the procedure as we gradually moved up step by step. Not only were the decks of the ship full of curious onlookers, but the observation areas on the dam were also crowded with people onshore watching as boats of all sizes made their way through the locks. Though some people ardently proclaimed that the soul of the river would be forever lost by the building of the Three Gorges Dam, my general impression was that the beauty of the Gorges and towering hillsides has not been diminished by the changes to the contour of the river. In addition, the vast scope of the dam across such a mighty river is an engineering marvel which will remain a major symbol of national pride for years to come.

Experiencing the Three Gorges

Traveling on upstream we stopped briefly in the town of Zigui which holds a tomb and memorial pavilion for one of China’s well-known poets and is famous for its dragon boat racing during festival times. One of the main benefits of traveling by slow boat across China is having time available to lounge on the deck, contemplate the beauty of the scenery passing by, and meet new friends from all walks of life. At mealtimes in the dining room everyone sat together at tables and discussed not only the quality of the Chinese food being served, but ideas on issues that affect people everywhere. Afterwards the inevitable game of cards or chess would begin under the watchful eyes of an interested audience. Each time we pulled into a port along the way, merchants would scramble to sell their hot meals of rice and fish quickly ladled into styrofoam trays and passed into outstretched arms holding out money. This routine was repeated countless times at all hours of the day and night as passengers and cargo were shuttled across the main deck in each small town.

The middle gorge, Wuxia Gorge, extends for 44 kilometers through deep valleys and forest covered mountains, though during our transit a heavy mist dropped in which served to intensify a sense of closeness to the gorge walls. This section is full of zigzags making the route appear completely blocked by mountains until the ship makes a sharp turn and the river opens up ahead. Voyaging through this narrow section of the Yangtze an interesting way to spend some time is to stand on the deck and watch other river barges pass on their journey downriver loaded with all kinds of different cargo. At the western edge of the gorge the Twelve Peaks of Mt. Wu can be seen on a clear day and add a completely different panorama of beauty. Here our ship made a quick stop at Wushan where some passengers disembarked to take side trips to see the Three Small Gorges on the Daning River.

The final gorge, Qutang Gorge, is the shortest at just 8 kilometers in length but boasts the grandest and most dramatic sights. Looking out at the sheer, steep cliffs one can view Meng Liang Staircase which dates back to the Song Dynasty on the south bank just before arriving at Baidi City otherwise known as the White Emperor City where the river rolls and surges along. Another important city, Yunyang located on the north bank is famous for its salt industry. On the opposite side sitting on top of Flying Phoenix Hill is Zhangfei Temple with glazed tile and red walls. The ship made another stop at Wanxian which is an important port for the textile industry with its bustling market selling bamboo handicrafts, local food specialties like bean curd milk and spicy noodles, and a wide variety of fresh fruit. Ships traveling downstream generally drop anchor here around midnight in order to be ready to go through the gorges with the first shaft of dawn’s daylight.

Shibaozhai, a very picturesque 12-story red wooden pagoda situated on the north bank, has long stood as a gem of Chinese architecture. Literally called “Stone Treasure Fortress”, the facility dates back to the Qing Dynasty with stairs running to the top for a nice view of the river. Built high upon a rectangular sheer cliff rock, the temple now sits close to the waters edge with the rest of the bluff underwater. Each floor of the wooden structure contains interesting artifacts, paintings and sculptures and is certainly worth a brief visit. Our final stop was at the city of Fengdu, located on the north bank and known as the “Ghost City” to most Chinese people, a reputation it earned during the Eastern Han Dynasty. Here on Mingshan Hill there are fantastic temples of underworld gods constructed, according to tradition, as a place for punishing the devil and awarding good.

Thus the journey came to an end as we neared Chongqing, a bustling city in the southeast part of the Sichuan Basin located where the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers meet. As the largest industrial and commercial city for southwest China this major economic trade center was established more than 3,000 years ago. The inland port was opened to foreign trade in 1890 and the city has played a key role in the growing economy of the southwest region ever since. Surrounded by mountains on all sides Chongqing is known for its humid and cloudy climate suitably demonstrated the day we arrived with clouds and rain showers. Getting off the boat, passengers are faced with a significant climb up a well-worn flight of stairs or a quick ride on a cable tram. The city was built on the edge of the bluffs and is quite mountainous with some neighborhoods hanging suspended against the sheer rock. Once the capital city of China, the city boasts an interesting history and is where the U.S. Flying Tigers successfully helped to defend the skies from daily Japanese air raids.

My Yangtze River travel now at an end I took a moment to gaze back down the river in the direction the ship had just traversed and review all the good memories and beautiful sights along the way. The Yangtze River has done much to nourish China’s long and splendid culture and remains one of China’s most revered attractions. A cruise along the Yangtze with its varied cultural heritage and scenic views is a wonderful way to experience inland China at her best.

 More Yangtze River Travel Reviews
1. Three Days Yangtze River Cruise CONNY129 from CN Sep 1, 2006 01:09
2. On the Wild Side of Wuxi JABAROOTOO from CN Mar 10, 2006 06:03
3. The River - Part Two - The Three Gorges MISHEN from NZ Feb 8, 2006 23:02
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