International, Travel

river run: the ultimate cruise upstream china's yangzi river

Chris Chen/

Like gods and criminals, the Yangzi River has many names, some of them aliases, none of them definitive. In China it’s thought of as two rivers rather than one: the Golden Sand River begins at the glaciers of Tibet and trickles to the city of Yibin, then the Long River flows the rest of the way to Shanghai. It is too long then even for the name Long River. Excessively big is the standard scale in China, where the taxi ranks stretch to the horizon, the apartment blocks look like cities, and the cities look like worlds. One in 16 of the Earth’s population lives in its watershed. The Yangzi can drown you just with its statistics.

Clad in customary dress, a Tujia woman ponders the jade waters of Longjin Stream from the deck of a wooden junk. The name for this tributary of the great Yangzi River translates roughly to ʻdragon entering streamʼ, which references the surrounding landscape of dramatic gorges.

A junk sails through Tribe of the Three Gorges in Xiling Gorge.

Our introduction to the world’s third-longest river is deceptively humble – at the city of Yichang, 1 100km west of Shanghai and known locally as a kind of crossroads between road and river. It is an unmemorable place, apart from a cliff-hanger restaurant serving salamander, and seems to be built out of empty blocks of flats. (There are still enough inhabited blocks to house four million people.) Travellers don’t linger, but instead board a boat and head upstream through the narrowest and most famous section of the Yangzi. They want to see the Three Gorges, and their artificially constructed nemesis, the Three Gorges Dam.

When I first heard of the Three Gorges, I pictured three riverbeds side by side, separated by mountains, like water streaming through fingers. Instead they come one after another, rising and falling (mainly rising) along hundreds of kilometres of riverside. Most sightseeing ships dawdle in the gorges for a day or two, making side trips to tributaries and shore temples, then head against the current to Chongqing. This municipality carved out of Sichuan province is famous for its spicy food and forthright locals, and has ballooned into something of a megacity; it has a population of 30 million people – nearly two thirds of whom are in the urban centre and surrounds – and more than 10 000 busy hotpot restaurants.

Our ship, the Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer, takes the Yichang-to-Chongqing route over four nights. Not long ago, the only luxury boat on the river was one specially fitted out to Chairman Mao’s wife’s specifications (Mao Zedong was the founding father of the People's Republic of China), and until the 1980s there were still wooden junks being hauled by gangs of trackers – human tugboats fighting the rapids with thick bamboo ropes and poles. Untold numbers of people have travelled this stretch over millennia, few under power and even fewer in comfort. This was once one of the most dangerous river voyages in the world, and the journey that will take us three days used to take more than a month.

Picturesque views on the walkway to Fang Weng hanging restaurant, which is festooned with traditional Chinese lanterns.

Fang Weng hanging restaurant is carved into the cliffside and offers fine Chinese dining in striking surrounds.

Before it was tamed by dynamite and damming, the Yangzi was shallow and fast, and littered with underwater rocks and shoals. Its worst stretches had whirlpools that smashed wooden boats so hard into rocks they exploded, and, apart from the steady ropes of the trackers, only good fortune could prevent disaster. Before boats embarked on certain stretches of the river, a shaman-sailor would arrive on board with a flag reading ‘Powers of the waters, give a lucky star for the journey’.

There’s no such crew member when we set off, which is encouraging; so, too, is the Explorer’s workaday exterior – its metal hull and blue-and-white livery is unmistakably that of a Chinese riverboat. The refurbished interior is a different story: there’s a spa, a theatre and stylish, peony-themed cabins. The bow suites are fitted in Chinese colonial style, with artfully arranged ceramics and desks fit for calligraphy. There’s a library of Chinese classics and a restaurant serving buffet breakfasts (the superior congee becomes my staple) and lunches. Dinners are à la carte, with Western and local dishes, and while the Sichuan spices are tempered for non-Chinese tastes, they still bring grateful tears to the eyes. An observation deck doubles as a terrace for morning tai chi sessions, and each of the 62 cabins and suites has enough space in which to salute the sun. The finest extravagance, however, is the simplest: every room has a balcony.

We stay anchored overnight at Yichang, set sail in the morning, and are among the spurs and mountain folds of the first gorge almost immediately. It’s called the Xiling, and was once the most hazardous. ‘It is said every stone here has a name,’ says our guide Willie, leading the commentary from the observatory deck, and the gorges are thick with allusions and metaphors and mythologies that have silted them over thousands of years. The major formations are poetically named: Horse Lung and Ox Liver; Military Books and Precious Sword; Soundless Bell; and Shadow Play. They are the unmistakable elements of Chinese art, and in places where the sun has yet not lifted the morning mist off the horizon, Xiling Gorge looks like an ink painting on ivory silk.

Just off Xiling is the site of our first shore trip to Tribe of the Three Gorges at Longjin Stream. The Yangzi has more than 700 tributaries, many polluted by industry, but this one is fed by jade water from a spring high in the mountains and runs clear. The Tribe of the Three Gorges experience is run by the Tujia people, an officially recognised minority long associated with this area. They operate a tourist village, and most of the tourists are domestic: Han Chinese people are fascinated by minorities, especially those with colourful traditional dress and melancholic love songs. The Tujia qualify, but then so do most of China’s 55 official tribes, so itʼs their wedding traditions that set them apart – they practise ‘crying marriages’, where the brides weep with increasing frequency for up to three months before the ceremony. ‘Don’t catch a bouquet, or you’ll be stuck here three years,’ warns our guide Yin, herself a Tujia woman.

A ceremonial house is decorated for a Tujia wedding.

Fengdu streetlife, Chongqing municipality.

Tujia people perform a marriage ceremony in full regalia.

Back on the Explorer I become a fixture on the balcony, watching life along the Yangzi. It’s a working river, and its flow starts to feel like the drive of a massive engine, pushing China into modernity. Coal barges constantly putt by, pouring water. Cable-stayed bridges, sometimes in duplicate or triplicate, carry freight and high-speed trains. The first Yangzi bridge was completed in 1957, and now there are more than 100 major bridges, making up for lost time.

No bridge can match the fame of the Three Gorges Dam, though. One of the largest megastructures in the world, it was prophesised as much as planned. Everyone from Sun Yat-sen to Mao foresaw it, so building it became a political inevitability, if not an engineering one. The general feeling is that the environmental destruction and community dislocation wrought by this massive thing just have to be ridden out.

We disembark to take a closer look, bussing across yet another bridge. The dam is vast and wide but from this distance not so very tall, even with fishermen at the breakwall for height contrast. We can’t get close, and instead stand in a drab park while our guide Max recites damming factoids until some passengers get fidgety. A nearby museum full of dioramas of turbines barely hints at the controversies surrounding the river’s yoking. There is only triumph. ‘My old home is now underwater,’ Max says afterwards. ‘Sometimes I feel nostalgia.’

The true immensity of the Three Gorges Dam somehow doesn’t translate until that evening when, back on board, we pass through its locks to get upstream. The process takes hours, and I watch from beginning to end. There’s an audience for the first transition, but it dwindles as it gets late. There’s something compelling about it, though, and this basin of concrete with slick walls is so massive it starts to feel like a gorge itself. As the final gate opens, a klaxon sounds, and we slip into the matt black sky. Until this point, most of the boat traffic around us has been industrial, the only concession to beauty some potted trees and Chinese flags on the bridge. Looking back at the dam’s rim  now, I can see clusters of pleasure craft clad in galaxies of neon lights.

These ships, like ours, are here to see Wu Gorge. Its 12 famous peaks are a pantheon of gods and monsters, dominated by Goddess Peak. The Goddess is a huge, high natural statue, standing in state among the clouds. ‘No one climbs it twice,’ says Willie, because it’s too steep.

Hilltop homes in the Badong area, east of Wu Gorge in Chinaʼs Three Gorges region on the Yangzi River.

Run by the Tujia people, the pristine, scenic Tribe of the Three Gorges area is a popular attraction.

A viewing platform in the Xiling Gorge area provides spectacular vistas of the Yangzi.

There are still places where you can make out stone worn down by footsteps, and nicks and grooves cut into rocks by the thick bamboo lines that once dragged ships through the gorges. These are the remains of thousands of years of arduous labour by the trackers. There’s a proverb that ‘if the Yangzi has a soul, it is the boat trackers on the Three Gorges’, and once past the Wu, we jump ship, catching a smaller boat into another tributary, the Shennong Stream. There’s one merciful concession to the present, though: these trackers, also Tujia men, work fully dressed. In the past, they worked naked so their clothes wouldn’t catch and drag them under, but pulling tourists is less arduous, and more respectable. They’re working with small wooden pea-pod boats, not junks, pulled by teams of four, not teams of 50, but you can still see the strain, and the precariousness of sandals slipping on high paths. The valley here is narrow enough to make songs echo, and up on a cliff is an ancient wooden coffin. It’s believed to hold a nobleman of the mysterious Ba people, and no one knows how it got up so high.

Our own journey is almost complete; we’re approaching the last of the gorges, Qutang, which is centred on Dragon Gate, a spectacular scene that features on the 10 yuan banknote. The limestone cliffs here are whorled like fingerprints, though the dam has diminished their drama somewhat.

The cities are coming faster now as we approach Chongqing; there are relocation villages and refineries, even men swimming in the river on orange buoys. We pass a phenomenally ugly town, centred on two massive concrete tower blocks, like tombstones to town planning, and it has giant characters yelling its name from signage. The translation, I’m told, is Poetry City. The river is starting to smell like numbing chilli, and you can make out the sound of faraway car horns.

On the final morning, the mist is rising from the river, and I decide to stay on the balcony rather than join the deck-top tai chi class. Our pace feels slower, perhaps because the head-current has quickened. Across the water a woman’s voice carries, singing a high-pitched, lilting melody. It must be a boatwoman’s song, I think, and the scene seems eternal, this unchanging Yangzi, coursing from the deep past all the way into the future. And then I realise that the song is coming from a TV in the cabin above me.

Gritty urban detail in Fengdu.

The Dynasty dining room aboard the Explorer.

Chefs prepare food in Fang Weng restaurantʼs kitchen.

The shipboard menu includes wonton noodle soup.

Enjoy traditional fare on the Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer.

With separate bedroom and living areas, the spacious Jade Suite on board the Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer promises a luxurious voyage surrounded by elegant, contemporary Chinese design.

Corn dries for use in liquor making.