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.
Chongqing to Wanzhou
The cruise’s initial 250km, before the first of the Three Gorges begins at Baidicheng, takes in hilly farmland along the riverbanks, with the first likely stop 172km from Chongqing at south bank FENGDU (丰都, fēngdū) the “Ghost City”. On the opposite side of the Yangzi, Ming Shan Park (名山公园, míngshān gōngyuán; ¥80) is a hillside covered in monuments to Tianzi, King of the Dead; the main temple here, Tianzi Dian (天子殿, tiānzĭ diàn), is crammed full of colourful demon statues and stern-faced judges of hell.
Some 90km south of Fengdu along the Guizhou border, Wulong (武隆, wǔlóng) is a new national park enclosing a massive, rugged area of limestone sinkholes, caves and river systems. The access point is little Wulong town (武隆县, wǔlóng xiàn), on the Chongqing–Huai Hua rail line and long-distance bus routes from Fengdu. The Hongfu Fandian (宏福饭店, hóngfú fàndiàn; t 023/64501666; ¥200–299), on the corner of main street Wuxian Lu and Baiyang Lu, is overpriced but decent, and touts around the bus and train stations can lead you to cheaper places.
Buses from Wulong town’s Baiyang Lu bus station run north into the national park through the day; the place to aim for at present is Natural Three Bridges (天生三桥, tiānshēng sān qiáo; daily 9am–6.30pm; bus from Wulong town ¥20; entry, including transport inside the park, ¥95), about 50 minutes away. Once inside the park, buses drop you off at a two-hour circuit walk through a system of colossal, collapsed tunnels and caves; the Tang-style buildings at the bottom of one sinkhole are sets from Zhang Yimou’s period bodice-ripper Curse of the Golden Flower.
Zhongxian and Wanzhou
A further 70km along the Yangzi from Fengdu, ZHONGXIAN (中县, zhōngxiàn) is famous for Shibaozhai (石宝寨, shíbăozhài), a 220m-high rocky buttress a few kilometres downstream. Grafted onto its side – and protected from new water levels by an embankment – is the twelve-storey, bright-red Lanruo Dian (兰若殿, lánruò diàn; ¥50), a pagoda built in 1819. The temple above dates to 1750, famed for a hole in its granary wall through which poured just enough rice to feed the monks; greedily, they tried to enlarge it, and the frugal supply stopped forever.
Ferries might pull in overnight 330km from Chongqing at the halfway point of WANZHOU (万州, wànzhōu), a large, modern city built on hills above the now-submerged older port. The hydrofoil to Yichang (6hr; ¥300) departs from here five times a day, with tickets available at the dock on Beibin Dadao; if you’ve just arrived from downstream, you can catch connecting buses from the hydrofoil dock direct to Chongqing’s North bus station (3hr; ¥100).
The Three Gorges
The Three Gorges themselves begin 450km from Chongqing 18km past FENGJIE town (奉节, fèngjié) at Baidi Cheng (白帝城, báidì chéng; ¥70), a fortified island strategically located right at the mouth of the first gorge. Baidi Cheng is closely associated with events of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms; it was here in 265 AD that Liu Bei died after failing to avenge his sworn brother Guan Yu in the war against Wu. These events are recalled at the Baidi temple (白帝庙, báidì miào), where there’s a tableau of Liu Bei on his deathbed, and paths up to lookout points into the gorge.
Beyond Baidicheng, the river pours through a narrow slash in the cliffs and into Qutang Gorge (瞿塘峡, qútáng xiá), the shortest at just 8km long, but also the narrowest and fiercest, its once-angry waters described by the Song poet Su Dongpo as “a thousand seas in one cup”. The vertical cliffs, rising to a sharp peak on the north bank, are still impressive despite the new water levels.
On the far side of Qutang, WUSHAN (巫山, wūshān) marks a half-day detour north up the Daning River through the Three Little Gorges (小三峡, xiăo sānxiá). This 33km excursion offers narrower, tighter and steeper scenery than along the Yangzi, particularly through the awesome Longmen Gorge. When you arrive in Wushan, make your way to the Xiao San Xia dock, where you pay ¥250 for a cruise up the Three Little Gorges in a modern, glass-topped canal boat.
Wu Gorge to Yichang
Wushan also sits at the mouth of 45km-long Wu Gorge (巫峡, wū xiá), where the goddess Yao Ji and her eleven sisters quelled some unruly river dragons and then turned themselves into mountains, thoughtfully positioned to help guide ships downriver. Out the other side and in Hubei province, ZIGUI (秭归, zĭguī) was the birthplace of the poet Qu Yuan, whose suicide a couple of millennia ago is commemorated throughout China by dragon-boat races. Zigui is also where 76km-long Xiling Gorge (西陵峡, xīlíng xiá) begins. The Xiling stretch was once the most dangerous: Westerners passing through in the nineteenth century described the shoals as forming weirs across the river, the boat fended away from threatening rocks by trackers armed with iron-shod bamboo poles, as it rocked through into the sunless, narrow chasm. Nowadays vessels cruise through with ease, sailing on to a number of smaller gorges, some with splendid names – Sword and Book, Ox Liver and Horse Lung – suggested by the rock formations.
At the end, the monstrous Three Gorges Dam (三峡坝, sānxiá bà) at Sandouping is another possible stopover, with regular minibuses running tourists from the dock to the dam site (see Yichang and the Three Gorges Dam). Just downstream from here is the final port of call, Yichang. Aside from catching fast buses on from Yichang to Wuhan, or trains to Xi’an, you could also visit the Shennongjia Forest Reserve in Hubei’s mountainous north – for details, see Chapter 7.