The Yangtze River rises in the Tibet Plateau and flows east across the entire width of China until it empties into the East China Sea near Shanghai. At 3,915 miles, it's Asia's largest river and the third-longest river in the world, after the Nile and Amazon. Historically, it has marked the division between north and south China.
A cruise along this mighty river in a country that was closed to the outside world for centuries is a real voyage of discovery. It was only in the late 1970's that China began to develop its tourist industry, and to many outsiders, it's still a land shrouded in mystery, making it an exciting and fascinating destination for even the most seasoned travelers.
Most cruise itineraries include a land-based stay, typically in Beijing and Shanghai, providing a total contrast between vibrant modern cities and secluded rural areas that you can only reach on a ship. One day you'll be watching a dizzying acrobatic performance in a modern theatre, shopping in designer malls and visiting major museums, and the next, you'll be passing towns and villages dotted with temples and pagodas and haggling in small markets for silk clothes, embroidery and intricate wooden carvings.
The most dramatic part of the river is the 150-mile Three Gorges region, boasting spectacular landscapes with misty mountains, sheer gorges, lush green bamboo groves and serene riverbanks. A tour of the Three Gorges Dam -- 610 feet high and running 1.3 miles from bank to bank -- gives you the opportunity to marvel at the immensity of the world's largest engineering project, where your ship will take four hours to pass through the five locks.
The sheer size of the Yangtze means it doesn't have any of the restrictions posed by European rivers, such as low bridges or changing water levels that can affect itineraries. This means ships are larger than European river vessels and have extra amenities, including balconies on all cabins, shops, spas, gyms and Internet cafes.
En route, you'll discover an array of totally unique experiences, from sampling Peking duck made the traditional way -- where each bird is carved into 120 precise pieces -- to tours around jade and silk carpet factories, where you'll see craftsmen and women at work. During a night at the Chinese opera, exquisitely costumed performers "sing" (to the uninitiated it's not exactly tuneful), act and perform acrobatics. Even if some of these things are not to your personal taste, the country's diverse historic, cultural and culinary treasures will leave memories that last a lifetime.
The phrase "on a slow boat to China" was popularized by the Broadway composer Frank Loesser in the 1940's, and it's hard to think of a better way to experience the Yangtze region, the cradle of ancient Chinese civilization, than with a cruise along the river of the same name.
A typical cruise will be paired with a land stay and the choice of buying an inclusive tour with flights or arranging your own. Itineraries range from three nights -- usually Chongqing to Yichang, which includes the Three Gorges Dam -- to 14 nights taking in Shanghai, Xian and Beijing with the option of pre- and post-cruise extensions in Hong Kong and Guilin.
For most travellers, China is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and if time and budget allow, it is well worth opting for a longer itinerary to get the most from your trip. Shanghai is China's most modern and cosmopolitan city, and Xian and Beijing are the gateways to the unforgettable sights of the Terracotta Army and Great Wall of China.
Best Time to Go
The main Yangtze cruise season is April to October, although some lines operate outside these months. The weather is most comfortable in spring (April and May) and autumn (September and October).
School visit: Cruise lines, including Viking and Grand Circle, support local schools, and a trip to one of the classrooms is as memorable as any of the big sights. After watching a charming song and dance show, you'll spend time with a class and get caught up in the infectious enthusiasm of the youngsters as they ask for your autograph and expect you to put on an impromptu show. (Our rendition of Jingle Bells was a poor relation to their performance but was a big hit.)
Three Gorges Dam: It took 17 years and more than $30 million to build the world's largest dam. While it's a mighty feat of construction, the Three Gorges Dam was also controversial, as it controlled flooding while drowning towns and villages and displacing more than 1.2 million people. A tour gives an overview of the dam, locks and largest hydroelectric power station in the world, as well as insight into the pros and cons of China's largest construction project since the Great Wall.
Lesser Three Gorges: Passengers leave their cruise ships and board smaller vessels to cruise through the breathtaking Lesser Three Gorges National Parks, lined by sheer cliffs and mountains. Bring binoculars to get a close-up view of the hanging coffins of the ancient Ba people that cling to the rock face, the 60-mile ancient plank road and the monkeys that inhabit the banks.
Shibaozhai Temple: The dramatic 12-story red Shibaozhai Temple is described as the Pearl on the Yangtze. It was built in 1650, and legend has it that the higher you ascend, the more your prayers will be answered. It's also worth clambering up the steep steps for the panoramic views over the river.
Chongqing Zoo: If you want to see pandas, this is the place to see them -- on a cruise itinerary that includes Xian. The best time to take photos is in the morning, when they're fed and munch their way through piles of bamboo. Housed in separate enclosures, the pandas are undoubtedly the stars of the show, but it's not the best of zoos, and the cages and enclosures of other animals are far from perfect.
Terracotta Army: Also included on itineraries that visit Xian, this is an extraordinary sight and will take your breath away, even if you've seen the Terracotta Army brigade that visited the U.K., U.S. and other destinations during the traveling exhibition several years ago. Created by Emperor Qin Shi Huang to protect him in the afterlife, the 6,000-plus lifesize warriors -- all with different faces -- and horses were hidden from the world for more than 2,000 years until being unearthed by Xian farmers in 1974.
Great Wall: Trips to the Great Wall are generally included in the Beijing section of a trip; the section in the Badaling Hills is particularly well preserved and wide enough for 10 people to walk along side-by-side. Symbolizing China's isolation from the rest of the world, the wall was begun more than 2,000 years ago during the Qin dynasty; it once stretched for more than 6,200 miles. If you decide to scale the steeper section of the wall (your guide will point out the easier and harder routes), you can deservedly reward yourself with a kitsch T-shirt from the cavernous souvenir shop saying that you've climbed the Great Wall. (Incidentally, it's an urban myth that the wall can be seen from space.)
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City: Another Chinese record-breaker is the vast 100-acre expanse of Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public square and gateway to the Forbidden City, China's largest and best-preserved group of ancient buildings. So called because it was out of bounds to commoners for 500 years, the palace complex was home to two dynasties of emperors, the Ming and Qing, who rarely strayed beyond its walls.
Yangtze River Cruise Tips
Everyone visiting China requires a prepaid tourist visa that must be obtained from your local embassy prior to arrival. Your passport must possess at least two blank pages and have at least six months to run. The visa form, which also requires a passport photo, is relatively simple to complete, and cruise lines provide helplines for anyone needing assistance, and they can direct passengers to specialist agencies that will submit applications and passports to the embassy for processing. In China, the cruise line will take care of any immigration and passport requirements.
Shore excursions are longer and often more challenging than tours on European cruise ships, and a moderate level of fitness is required, as terrain can be rugged and uneven. While passengers can opt out of the included excursions on the river cruise element, this is harder to do during the land tour, and, in some cases, it's impossible with the only option being to stay on the coach or find a cafe to while away the time. Wheelchair users and anyone with mobility issues would find this type of cruise challenging.
Not surprisingly, there are quite a few cultural differences, so it's best to be prepared and know what to expect. While Beijing and Shanghai are sophisticated, wealthy cities, you will see limbless beggars dragging themselves along the pavements, as many station themselves outside tourist hotels and attractions. There are similar sights in rural China, parts of which are very poor and where you'll see women washing clothes in rivers. Smoking is widespread and allowed in many restaurants, and spitting in the street is commonplace.
Outside the main cities, westerners are often viewed as a novelty, and you may find yourself the focus of harmless attention, including pointing and giggling. You might even have your photograph taken. Conversely, don't point your own camera at anyone who looks official or try to take close-up photos of soldiers, such as the ones patrolling Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Tour guides always do their best to find western-style toilets for comfort breaks (including four- and five-star ones that have been officially recommended by the local tourist board!). But traditional Chinese toilets are the squat variety, and these often outnumber the western cubicles, leading to long queues of western women too squeamish to squat. Squat toilets are actually more hygienic than you think, and you get used to them quickly. Helpful hint: If you must use a western toilet, many public restrooms will have one or two in the farthest stalls. It's also a good idea to take your own toilet tissue when you're out and about.
Western food is always available on cruise ships, but on shore excursions you will be served Chinese food in local restaurants. Instead of individual courses, different dishes will be bought to the table and put on a glass-topped rotating lazy Susan so you can help yourself to what you want. If you can't get the hang of chopsticks, knives and forks will always be provided. These restaurants are used to catering to tourists, and much of the food will resemble the Chinese food you get at home. However, visitors who take in some of the local markets may be distressed to see tanks and boxes crammed full of live sea horses, scorpions, crickets and snakes -- to name just a few of the critters you might see -- which are often cooked in front of customers at food stands.
The Chinese currency is the renminbi (RMB), and the basic unit is the yuan. While large stores take credit cards, you'll need cash to buy souvenirs in smaller shops and markets. ATM's are widespread in major cities but very limited or nonexistent in smaller towns along the Yangtze River, so it's advisable to obtain cash before embarkation. U.S. dollars, sterling and other currencies can be exchanged in hotels. They all offer the same standardised rate, so there's no need to shop around for the best deal. Onboard accounts, including gratuities, can be settled with all major credit cards. However, cash is needed for local guides and drivers.
On shore excursions, there are plenty of opportunities to pick up cheap and colorful souvenirs from stalls and street vendors, and many enterprising traders set up shop next to ships and coach departure points. Bargaining for a cheaper deal is all part of the process; start by offering a third of the asking price, or write it down on the piece of scrap paper proffered by the seller. If you haven't got yuan, they will happily accept dollars.