The Yangtze begins at the southern foothills of Geladandong Peak in the Tanggula Mountains of Qinhai Province. From there it stretches 6,300km past six provinces, including Tibet, Jiangsu and Shanghai, finally emptying into the East China Sea.
Along this sometimes muddy waterway are some of the oldest human sites and artifacts known. The Ba, for example, were an ancient civilization that developed here 4,000 years ago who buried their dead in coffins raised high among the cliffs. The Ba believed the higher you were buried, the better for your soul.
Though many of these sites and artifacts are now being submerged as the Three Gorges Dam construction project proceeds, river tours still offer hundreds of fascinating sights. Tours often mix sights from the cruise boats as well as walking tours of the area.
Cruises visit Shibaozhai, home of the 12-story temple built in 1650 AD, with a view of the Yangtze below. There are excursions that take tourists down tributaries like the clear Daning River, offering awe-inspiring views of the canyons and rural villages along its banks.
Some trips will take visitors past the Three Gorges dam where waters are rising to eventually generate almost 4% of all the electricity in China in the largest construction project in history.
Squeezed between sheer cliffs covered in vegetation and inhabited by a variety of wildlife, visitors will experience periods of leisurely meandering alternating with rushing waters. Not far from Chongqing some tours pass through Kuimen, the Kui Gate where the roaring river races through. Qutang Gorge is just down river, with sights of breathtaking precipices.
In the middle of the Three Gorges section is Wu Gorge, where the Yangtze flows through the Wushan Mountains. Rugged peaks are adorned with ancient trees and colorful flowers, while the rushing waters create heavy mist.
Here, you pass the famous Twelve Peaks, including the Goddess Peak. Partly mist-covered, the mythological region will remind travelers of traditional Chinese paintings.
Moving down to the Xiling Gorge, the river picks up speed and begins to form rapids and roiling whirlpools. Thanks to more modern boat technology, clearing of obstacles, and experienced guides, visitors need not fear suffering the fate of so many who rode through this section.
Many of the large ships cruising the river have been in operation only a few years and are fully maintained. The Princess Sheena, for example, was built in Germany in 1993 and designed to Western standards of safety and comfort.
Ships are stabilized and have powerful engines to navigate the sometimes difficult shoals and turns. They also offer fully purified water and air-conditioning with the most advanced navigation equipment.
Some offer deluxe cabin suites with a separate bedroom and living room, along with a kitchenette. Even the single staterooms come complete with refrigerator and bathroom. All offer excellent views out the windows and on deck.
Communications on board are sometimes spotty, but many have Norwegian-designed satellites for mobile phone communications. The Chinese are the largest group of mobile phone users in the world with almost 400 million sets in use.
But visitors will find so much to see they’ll rarely have time for phoning, nor will they want to spend much time indoors. The Yangtze River cruises are an outdoor excursion which provide travelers with an experience they might otherwise see only in the movies.