Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
A Yangtze River cruise was never high on my list of travel options, but it should have been. China in my mind’s eye was distant, elusive and ancient – yes – but also under-developed and an emerging second world country. Oh, how wrong I was. After a few days on the Yangtze River with my wife and our travel companions, my incredible ignorance was corrected.
Chongqing: Our cruise ship left from the historic city of Chongqing. Dating from the 4th century (Qin and Han dynasties) the city took its present name in the 11th century (Song dynasty). The vast present day modern industrial city boasts that two out of every three laptop computers are born in its factory workshops. Its large municipal area is also home to car factories (Ford, Mazda); banks (HSBC, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Scotiabank); Wal-Mart; and other multi-national corporations.
Our luxurious cruise ship awaited us at Chaotianmen Dock. Home for the next four days, the Yangtze Gold-6 (150m long x 25m wide; 150 crew members) was an amazing construction of steel, glass and gilt work. More like a floating Las Vegas hotel than cruise ship, our room on deck-3 was just a short walk up to the 6th floor sun view deck.
Cruise Itinerary: Traveling most nights while we slept, our ship pulled into ports along the river each morning to allow shore excursions: i.e., at Fuling-Wanzhou (White Crane Ridge), Fengjie to visit Baidi City (Baidicheng; White Emperor City); and Wushan for a tour of the Small Three Gorges on the Madu River ( a tributary of the Daning River that flows into the Yangtze River).
Afternoons, as we traveled through the gorges and the surrounding towering mountains, we contemplated both the natural beauty of the scenery and the urban and rural life on the river. Our cruise passed through all of the Three Gorges cut through Mount Wushan by the Yangtze River: Qutang Gorge; then Wu Gorge; finally Xiling Gorge (site of the Three Gorges Dam).
Life on the Yangtze River: All along the ancient river modern cities are sprouting like mushrooms. High rise apartment and industrial buildings dominate the skyline. Modern highways and high speed trains traverse long mountain tunnels to connect cities. Suspension bridges over the Yangtze River connect regions previously only accessible by boat. China is ancient, Yes, but emerging, No – it has emerged – one look at the modern new buildings, roads, bridges and rail lines is sufficient to inspire envy.
On the river, ships carry sand, gravel and cement building materials; on the river banks, everywhere there is massive building activity; but, then round a bend in the river and into view come traditional fishing sampans, peasant homes and subsistence farming. It is abundantly clear that, as the Chinese ship of state races forward, some of its inhabitants are being left behind.
Our guides explained that children leave the rural villages to succeed in city factories and their efforts provide a monetary lifeline. On the Yangtze River, rural China with it’s traditional ways was on view but around the next bend in the river was modern day urban life. My view of China -old and new- was profoundly altered. I was ready to enjoy the unique travel experience and beauties to behold on this long mighty historic river.
Fuling-Wanzhou – White Crane Ridge: Our first shore excursion took us to an underwater museum. Dropping from the shore down a long tube escalator, we arrived in a submarine-like enclosure – unbeknownst to us at the time, it was 124 ft. (38 m) below the surface of the water. Flooding from the Three Gorges Dam, (the last stop on our cruise), submerged a major archeologic site – so the Chinese constructed an underwater viewing platform. Baiheliang (White Crane Ridge) was a limestone ridge in the river that recorded the dry season water level with stone carvings in the shape of fish. The ridge also contained calligraphy and poems attributed to hundreds of famous scholars dating back 1,200 years. Observations marked on the mile long ridge (1600 m) were used to establish weather patterns for predicting shipping routes and farming prospects.
“White crane sings and stone fish portends auspiciousness”, read one of the inscriptions underwater, but personally I found it most portentous and auspicious to be back out of the stone fish submarine onto dry land.
Fengjie dock to visit Baidi City (Baidicheng; White Emperor City): Cruising overnight, our second morning on the river found us approaching Fengjie dock for our next shore excursion. After a quick breakfast we hopped onto buses for the short ride to Baidicheng (White Emperor City). Legend tells of a white mist rising from a well atop the mountain. Because it resembled a dragon, Gongsun Shu, (founder of the Shu state; 206BC-25AD), declared himself Baidizi (son of the white emperor/dragon) and his capital Baidi City (white emperor city). Located at the entrance to Qutang Gorge, we learned that all we had to do was climb 1,000 steps to the top of the BaidiCheng mountain for great views of the western entrance to the gorge. Wuzzies that we were, we took three rest stops to catch our breath – one stop just to watch in awe as porters carried paying passengers in traditional divan chairs up to the top of the stairs.
The historic imperial city was worth the climb – for the view and also for the Chinese history in the second century AD. As we entered the city through Kui dragon gate, we saw the Shu magical dragon well – but no mist was rising from it – instead, like magic, a heavy stone dragon sculpture rose in the well. Within the city gate were three halls constructed in the 13th-16th centuries to commemorate the founding of the large Shu Han state. In 200AD, it encompassed all of Chongqing and the three gorges area from Chongqing to Fuling. Bordered on the North by the Wei kingdom and the East by the Wu state, the time is known in Chinese history as the Three Kingdoms era. As the Romans built their empire, traders from China’s Three Kingdoms traveled the Silk Roads to the Mediterranean Sea.
Zhongwu Hall celebrates the unusual life of the orator and prime minister Zhuge Liang including his role in the “Tongue Wars with Confucianism” (208AD). “Tongue Wars” because Zhuge Liang established a key lifesaving wartime alliance between Liu Bei (emperor of the Shu Han state) and emperor Sun Quan (Wu Kingdom to the East). But to do so he had to defeat Confucian scholars who argued for peace with the invaders. Thus, “Tongue Wars” had to be won before swords, lances and arrows could be used. He succeeded and the Shu Han-Wu alliance successfully stopped a large invading Western Cao Cao army. Winning the war allowed the Shu Han state six decades of peace.
The time on BaidiCheng mountain was short. Reluctantly, we retraced our steps to the tour buses that would whisk us to lunch on our ship. We were reminded of a poem encountered on the mountain – “Departure from the BaidiCheng at Dawn” by poet Li Bai in the 7th century: “Bidding the town farewell when morning clouds hang low. A long trip through canyons I made in a mere day. Monkey cries were heard on either bank all through the way. While the boat passed by mountains swiftly in a row.” Boats and monkey cries are ever present in the Yangtze River mountain valleys and the spirit of Li Bai and the ancestors is preserved on BaidiCheng.
Departing from Fengjie dock we soon entered Qutang Gorge (the first of the three major gorges on the Yangtze River, i.e., with Wushan Mountain to the south (right) – and Dachang Ancient City in the north (left). From the height of the mountains, the narrowness of the gorges and the massive size of the river, it is easy to imagine what the rapids must have looked like during a flood. As dusk approached we entered Longmen Gorge and during the night we passed through Bawu Gorge and Dicui Gorge – smooth as silk, we slept through it.
Wushan dock, Small Three Gorges (Madu River – a tributary of the Daning River): Our third day on the river saw us anticipating arrival at Wushan dock for an intimate close-up encounter with the three small gorges on the Madu River. Disembarking, we found a short walk was all we needed to board smaller yachts that took us up the Daning River gorges to yet another dock on the Madu River.There, we again disembarked to board 20-foot long motorized sampans for our intimate close-up encounter with the three small gorges: Dragon Gate Gorge, Misty Gorge and Emerald Gorge.
Close to the water, we were able to really appreciate the narrowness of the rocky gorges, the height of the mountains and the tranquility of the scene with only the slight noise from our boat’s motor to interrupt the sleep of the ancestor coffins in their high cliff caves.
Returning to our ship just before dusk, we dined sumptuously and finished just in time to view our sunset entry into second large gorge of our cruise: Wu Gorge – the largest of the gorges. Legend has it that each of the twelve Wu mountain peaks has a fairy spirit, the highest peak being the spirit of Yao Ji, the youngest daughter of the Heavenly Mother. In the fading sun light, we couldn’t quite make her out but, to us, she appeared to be misty and ethereal in her crimson sunset robes. She bid us good night and bon voyage, for the next morning brought our last day on her Heavenly Mother’s river.
Three Gorges Dam: Located at the downstream end of Xiling Gorge, (the third of our major gorges), China constructed the highly controversial Three Gorges Dam. It is the largest dam in the world and was designed to control floods on the river, generate hydroelectric power and open the upper reaches of the river for easy navigation. Almost 600 ft high (181 m) and 7600 ft long (2335 m), the dam holds 360 ft of water (110 m) creating a lake that extends more than 400 miles. This amazing feat of engineering required a political challenge that few countries could have undertaken: i.e., moving one million three hundred thousand locals to higher ground into new government constructed housing. Controversial, because of the enormous environmental, ecological and social costs. Clearly to us, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam opened up the massive development taking place in all of the upstream cities. With Beijing now experiencing severe industrial pollution and smog, development and industrialization is moving south into the Yangtze River valley. The river rapids in the gorges have been replaced with tranquil, easily navigable waters and the Yangtze is the new commercial highway of Southeast China. Nature and tradition is clearly altered by the massive construction. It is for the future to determine whether the costs were justified.
One take away was clear to me, my initial impression that China was distant, ancient and elusive was confirmed. I was mistaken in thinking that China is emerging – it has already emerged. I was also mistaken to think of China as second or third world. The massive building projects, modern high rise buildings, express highways and trains are all first rate and new – the envy of any first world country. Our time viewing rural life along the river brought home the feeling that all this massive development has come at a significant cost for the older generation. Like the USA ‘farm belt’ or ‘rust belt’, modern urban development has benefited the younger but cost the older generation. Also like the USA and other countries, traditions die hard and historic ways of life are still on view in the three gorges of the Yangtze River.
IF YOU GO
Yangtze (Cháng Jiāng): As the third longest river on the planet behind the Nile and the Amazon, the Yangtze River extends 3950 miles (6380 km) from headwaters on the Tibetan plateau to empty into the South China Sea near Singapore. The vast river valley is the site of human activity for more than 27,000 yrs. probably including precursor civilizations for Austronesian, Polynesian, Southeast Asian and Northeast Indian populations.
The China Silk Roads: To familiarize ourselves, we made a visit to the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing. Archeological evidence shows trade in the Yangtze valley dating back at least 12,000 yrs. Over the ages, trade goods flowed but with cultural contacts also came the flow of ideas, religions, philosophies and mathematics. The flow profoundly impacted Chinese civilization, as well as cultures in the Mediterranean, India and Persia. For instance, Buddhism from India flowed into the Yangtze River valley probably during the Han dynasty (100-200BC). In return, Chinese science, including fireworks and gunpowder, flowed West into Persia and the Mediterranean, with profound effects on European warfare.
Trackers: At the museum, we also learned that strong Yangtze River currents, rapids and mountain gorges were obstacles to navigation. When steamships first came upriver in the 1920s, they had to be physically towed by 50-60 Chinese trackers through some of the rapids. Trackers’ lives were hard and at that time worth less than the price of a pig. Powerful marine diesel engines eliminated the need for trackers in the 1960s. However, the upper reaches of the river remained dangerous due to whirlpools and narrow channels – but that all changed when the Three Gorges Dam and ship locks opened in 2015. Part of the river history, now trackers are venerated in the museum, as well as in plays, dances and commemorative bronze statuary dotted along the river front.
Travel in China: For help with the booking, (and language, visa and tour issues), we found Jimmy Deng and the staff at Spring Tour (http://www.spring-tour.com/) in Los Angeles most helpful (China@spring-tour.com). They are one of the largest most reputable tour companies in China with their own fleet of aircraft. Following the old adage, ‘you get what you pay for’, we used Jimmy. Be advised that there are very few English-speaking Chinese, especially when you need them so, if you don’t speak Mandarin, advance planning is well advised. English-speaking tour groups are definitely an option worth considering. We also found the Chongqing Tourist Board very helpful.
The Yangtze Gold-6: The Yangtze Gold-6 is one of the largest and most modern cruise ships on the Yangtze River with a capacity of more than 500 guests, three dining halls and three elevators to the six decks. The English language website answers many of the common questions about shore excursions, VIP dining and room upgrades.
For more Barge and Cruise options see our Barge&Cruise page.
For more China travel options see our China-Travel page.