China's Yangtze is one of the most iconic rivers in the world -- a 3,900-mile aquatic highway traversing the once-mysterious Middle Kingdom and coined "the Cradle of Chinese Civilization." Often called the Yellow River for its ochre-yellow colored muddy water in the lower basin, the river has played a huge role in the history, culture and economy of China, serving as the backbone of the country's water transport system for thousands of years.
The world's third-longest waterway flows east from its source in the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea, coursing through 18 provinces and connecting 700-some tributaries. The Yangtze's lower section seems beyond immense, like the Mississippi multiplied three-fold, and flows leisurely through a flat landscape where centuries of sampans and crossing barges have given way to mammoth freighters and bridges. In the 120-mile Three Gorges region of the middle Yangtze, the famed dam has created a mammoth reservoir, but scenic excursions into the Lesser or Three Little Gorges still rate spectacular.
There are about 60 cruise vessels operating on the Yangtze. Key routes are 1,400-mile up- and down-river journeys between Chongqing and Shanghai, taking from nine to 11 days. A popular version includes three- to six-day Yangtze River journeys from Chongqing to Wuhan to visit the Three Gorges, followed by land-based trips to the Great Wall, Guilin, Xian and Shanghai (for more, read Yangtze River Cruise Basics).
My package was the nine-day "Grand Yangtze Discovery: Shanghai to Chongqing" by Victoria Cruises, part of their "Majesty of the Yangtze" itineraries offering different cruise options and durations. I liked the fact I was able to easily extend my time an extra day at each end to decompress and see local sites, which I did through the company. There are other cruise ships, among them discount operators based in China. Currently, Victoria Cruises is the only American cruise line sailing on the Yangtze, and operates the largest of the river's fleet, seven. My ship, the Sophia, employed a crew of 121 to serve 208 passengers and the 1994 ship was renovated in 2011.
There were weather delays, ship traffic jams at the Three Gorges Dam and shore attractions that were unavailable for one reason or another. But in all cases, tried-and-true options were enjoyed without complaint. Most passengers hailed from Europe and Australia, with a few itinerant Yanks like me thrown in for good measure. In the end, it was a wonderful mix of international camaraderie buoyed by the fascinating sites and experiences unique to a cruise on the Yangtze River. Read on to see what the trip was all about.
--By Ted Alan Stedman, Cruise Critic contributor
Embarkation in Shanghai
With skyscrapers fading into the gauzy horizon and a labyrinth of crowded streets crisscrossed by bridges and lit by immense neon signs, Shanghai can seem overwhelming. Home to 25 million, the city is the country's most formidable showcase of capitalistic prowess. Cruise visitors typically arrive the day prior to departure after a numbing trans-Pacific flight, and from most downtown hotels there are limitless corridors to explore that include street food stands, cafes, international couture outlets and a dizzying collection of electronic stores.
Highlight: If congested Shanghai isn't your cup of Chinese tea, it's easy to organize a half-day trip west to nearby Hangzhou Wuzhen, a virtual pre-industrial time capsule and a refreshing prelude to your river journey. Wuzhen is the epicenter of ancient water towns along the Yangtze River delta, hemmed by canals replete with the sights, sounds and aromas that hearken back to its days as a Qing Dynasty silk producer.
About 185 miles from Shanghai, this historic walled town was built from 25 to 220 AD and flourished as China's capital during eight dynasties. On this first shore excursion, we walked along the immense city wall -- the world's longest at 30 miles -- while our guide explained how the brickwork beneath our feet remained remarkably intact. "It took 200,000 builders 21 years to complete, and they used cooked rice and lime in the brick recipe; why the city wall has stood for so long!" That's also helped preserve inscriptions on individual bricks considered important cultural relics, with two calligraphy styles that developed into elegant symbols traced to today's modern Chinese.
Highlight: Follow the adoring Chinese tourists flocking to Fuzi Miao, the famous Confucius Temple built in 1034 that serves as the seat of Confucius study. In the nearby Dacheng Hall, 38 exquisite panels of jade, gold and silver illustrate the life of Confucius, while his large bronze statue gazes with a pensive smile.
Our itinerary called for a full day shore excursion to Jiuhuashan, one of four sacred mountains in Chinese Buddhism. But with obscuring, rain-soaking clouds, Plan B's Huangshan Mountain, a.k.a. "Yellow Mountain," didn't elicit any complaints. Visitors here arrive by one of four cable car gondola routes snaking up the mountain. Once you gain the summit, there are upward of 30 granite-slab touring paths totaling 31 miles carved into steep stone terraces.
Highlight: The guide told our group that the scenery at Yellow Mountain has influenced traditional Chinese landscape painting for centuries. He wasn't kidding. Any armchair visitor would likely recognize the view: A succession of whimsical turreted peaks approaching 6,000 feet high, cloaked by the distinctive broad Hwangshan pines that have been beautifully portrayed on so many Chinese canvases. But the view is notoriously ephemeral, and true to its "Sea of Clouds" reputation, the mountain gradually became enveloped by fog that glowed pink from the setting sun.
On the evening of day four, we visit Wuhan, the largest city in central China and capital of Hubei Province. The ancient city was formally established as part of the Wu Kingdom and played an important role in the modernization of China during the 19th century. Since it sits at the confluence of the Yangtze and its longest tributary, the Han River, it's a vital manufacturing and agricultural center for downriver transport. But with a 3,500-year-old history, antiquity abounds.
Highlight: At more than a half-mile long and with a hundred-year history, Jianghan Pedestrian Street is one of China's five most famous commercial streets, brimming with hundreds of establishments. It's the best shopping opportunity during the trip. But a more authentic memory speaking to Chinese culture was a short bus ride away at the Hubei Provincial Museum. The golden glow of lighting provided a warm, welcoming aura as we took in displays of 200,000 cultural relics including pottery, jade and bronze vessels, ancient weapons, well-preserved musical instruments, jewelry, clothing -- even ancient human skulls.
Sailing to Middle Yangtze
The Yangtze water network covers roughly 694,983 square miles, accounting for nearly 19 percent of the land area in China. The middle stream starts from Yichang City to Jiujiang City in Jiangxi Province, a region that's highly developed. From our ship's upper deck, we saw a country in transition. Scenery alternated between sprawling rice farms, shantytowns and commercial ports, with incredibly massive steel bridges built during the Soviet era spanning the Yangtze's mile-wide girth. As one of the world's busiest waterways, an endless flotilla of barges and commercial tankers transport coal, manufactured goods and agricultural produce 24/7.
Highlight: Shipboard entertainment on this "sea day" proved to be just the thing. On the lower deck we checked out the exquisite, intricate glass and jewelry work crafted in real-time by artisans who were permanent fixtures aboard the ship. On the middle deck, historical and cultural presentations provided context for understanding the sometimes mysterious aspects of China's "Middle Kingdom" reign. My favorite portion was the colorful costumed song 'n dance shows, conducted by talented crewmembers, that celebrated China's multicultural heritage.
There's noticeable anticipation aboard on day six as Yichang appears off the bow. This economic centerpiece of western Hubei Province marks the entrance to the San Xia (Three Gorges): Xiling, Wu and Qutang, the most scenic section of the navigable Yangtze. The 75-mile steep-walled corridor historically claimed one in 20 boats with its treacherous rapids and shoals. But with 18 years and plenty of Chinese audacity, the river was "tamed" by the controversial $59 billion Three Gorges Dam project in 2009, altering land and lives with a 3,861-square-mile canyon reservoir.
Highlight: At Sandouping, shore excursions are mandatory while the ship takes four hours to pass through five locks. Inspecting the Three Gorges Dam gives you the opportunity to marvel at the immensity of the world's largest engineering project up close. After the ship locks, we reboarded and sailed into the middle reaches of Xiling Gorge. With the higher river now extending well beyond its historical channel (244 square miles were flooded from the dam), we experienced a placid, wide reservoir-like body of water that has an emerald hue reflecting the Yangtze's more mellow demeanor.
Wu Gorge and the Daning River
After sailing through the remainder of the narrow Xiling Gorge, we emerged into a broader gentle waterway before entering into Wu Xia (Witches Gorge). Wu is the second of the Three Gorges, known for its forested covered mountains and where steep cliffs with mist-covered summits rise 3,200 feet to block nearly all sunlight. Crewmembers pointed out famous peaks resembling various forms, like Shennv Peak (Goddess Peak), which conjures a slim, graceful girl.
Highlight: On a smaller vessel, we motored up into the Daning River's dramatic Three Little Gorges, a zigzagging journey through a chasm of natural beauty and historic artifacts. In Dragon Gate we saw remnants of the Ancient Plank Road chiseled 50 feet above the river. In Misty Gorge the scenery transformed to rocky peaks and caves, including Fairy Maiden Cave. On a long, layered formation said to resemble a dragon, a 2,000-year-old relic appeared: the Iron Coffin, made of wood that's turned black with age, suspended in a shallow alcove seemingly impossible to reach. At Emerald Gorge, the water takes on an almost neon hue while the verdant slopes are home to chattering Rhesus monkeys.
As the Yangtze River reservoir broadens, Shibaozhai appeared like a Chinese sentinel. During the Ming Dynasty, a Buddhist temple was built on the mountain, and worshippers climbed chains to reach it. In 1819, a red, wooden pagoda featuring a spiral staircase was built to ease access. The pavilion has nine stories to represent the mythological belief that heaven has nine levels. A dam around the base of the pagoda protects it from the rising water level of the Three Gorges Dam, making it look like a gigantic bonsai tree.
Highlight: To visit the temple, you walk to a new bridge connecting the Shibaozhai village to the pagoda. The ancient town that once stood alongside the pagoda has been replaced by a rebuilt village, which doesn't evoke the antiquity of the original; however, the pagoda is easier to access than ever before. Its architecture is fascinating, built without nails and leaning against the length of the rock, with three stories reaching toward the sky. Inside the pagoda are scriptures filled with prayers written in gold, and windows providing views of the surrounding water.
Arrival at Chongqing, trip to Dazu
Qutang Gorge gradually dissolves into rounder riverbank hills, and the air became cloudy as we entered China's deep interior. The journey ended in Chongqing, which I explored with a Victoria Cruises post-trip. The hazy mountain town has swelled to 33 million people and serves as the seat of central government for 27 counties and cities. But its pocketed districts seem a world removed from its high rises. I visited the zoo to see the giant pandas that have caretakers ecstatic with their successful breeding. The city's old town district, Ci Qi Kou (Porcelain Village), is wonderfully intact, and I wandered for hours taking in the traditional shops and sampling exotic foods (fried grubs?) along the crowded flagstone pathways.
Highlight: A fitting conclusion to the Yangtze River cruise is a short drive to the Dazu Rock Carvings, a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing some 30,000 beautiful statues from the 9th to 13th centuries carved along a limestone cliff face. The exquisite, colorful figures meander for 1,000 feet and depict an epic journey chronicling Chinese history and religious beliefs encompassing thousands of years.