China // Sichuan and Chongqing //

The Yangzi River

Chongqing is the departure point for the two-day cruise downriver through the Three Gorges to Yichang. There are two main cruise options, both of which run year-round: relatively inexpensive public ferries, which stop along the way to pick up passengers; and upmarket cruise ships, which only stop at tour sites. Alternatively, you could travel in style on a cruise ship. These vessels verge on five-star luxury, with comfortable cabins, glassed-in observation decks, games rooms and real restaurants. They’re usually booked out by tour parties during peak season, though at other times you can often wrangle discounts and get a berth at short notice.

Rising in the mountains above Tibet, the Yangzi links together seven provinces as it sweeps 6400km across the country to spill its muddy waters into the East China Sea, making it the third-longest flow in the world. Appropriately, one of the Yangzi’s Chinese names is Chang Jiang, the Long River, though above Yibin it’s generally known as Jinsha Jiang (River of Golden Sands).

Although people have travelled along the Yangzi since recorded history, it was not, until recently, an easy route into Sichuan. The river’s most dangerous stretch was the 200km-long Three Gorges (三峡, sānxiá) where the waters were squeezed between vertical limestone cliffs over fierce rapids, spread between Baidicheng and Yichang in Hubei province. Well into the twentieth century, nobody could negotiate this stretch of river alone; steamers couldn’t pass at all, and small boats had to be hauled literally bit by bit through the rapids by teams of trackers, in a journey that could take several weeks, if the boat made it at all.

All this is very much academic today, however, as the new Three Gorges Dam above Yichang has raised water levels through the gorges by up to 175m, effectively turning the Chongqing–Yichang stretch into a huge lake and allowing public ferries and cruise boats easy access to the scenery. While rising waters have submerged some of the landscape – not to mention entire towns – many settlements have been rebuilt on higher ground, and many historical sites have been relocated or preserved one way or the other.