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A voyage along the Yangtze offers much more than the fabled Three Gorges, with a packed itinerary of sights to experience, both on shore and off

By Michael Jones Updated Jul.1

The undulating landscape between Wu Mountain and Wu Gorge, Chongqing, December 15, 2022 (Photo by VCG)

The wild and majestic Yangtze River extends for approximately 6,400 kilometers, through some of the world’s biggest metropolises including Shanghai, Nanjing and Wuhan. It also meanders through some of China’s most pristine natural territory, where somehow the endemic Chinese alligator and narrow-ridged finless porpoise have managed to survive, despite the sad extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin.  

The river offered a challenging adventure to local and international visitors for centuries, with many unfortunate souls falling victim to its rapids and hidden dangers. Amazingly it was only in 2019 that Ash Dykes from Wales became the first person ever to hike the entire river from mouth to source. As a fellow Welshman I was inspired by Ash’s journey and sought to emulate part of it. However, I chose to do so from the comfort of a suite with balcony aboard a five-star cruise ship. 

River cruises offer the opportunity to experience a country from a new angle, and the Yangtze River certainly has some intriguing angles. Almost all cruises on the Yangtze travel either from Chongqing to Yichang, or vice versa. The downstream route takes three nights (four days) while the upstream route lasts four nights (five days).  

I started my adventure in Yichang, which is one of the greenest and most pleasant cities I have ever visited in China. I was stunned by the immaculate and numerous flower beds and tree-lined avenues. Yichang has risen to prominence as the home of the Three Gorges Dam, the controversial hydro-electric power project that has dramatically changed the geography of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. Yichang Museum was an excellent place to start my travels, as it included plentiful information about the Three Gorges area, and some of the treasures that have been lost beneath the rising waters. 

Coffins in the Clouds 
The most fascinating discovery was that the area around the Three Gorges between Yichang and Chongqing is one of the few areas in the world to be home to mysterious hanging coffins. For those unfamiliar with hanging coffins, it seems that certain ancient Southeast Asian cultures chose to bury their dead in coffins that were either literally hanging from cliffs, suspended on wooden poles in cracks on cliff faces, or squeezed within small nooks and crannies within the cliff face. To this day there is no consensus among scientists and historians as to how the ancient cultures managed to achieve such elaborate feats of engineering, considering many of the coffins are in inaccessible locations often over 100 meters above the canyon floor. Sadly, the majority has been lost, either relocated by the government or subsumed under the water. Indeed, with the water rising well over 100 meters in many places along the river, the Three Gorges Dam has drowned numerous historic and natural points of interest.  

Thankfully, a few hanging coffins can still be seen by visitors. There are examples in the Yichang Museum, and an exhibition hall within the White Emperor City. However, the most fascinating examples are those that remain in situ. One such example is located near Yichang in the ‘Tribe of the Three Gorges’ open-air museum. Better examples still can be seen along the Shennong Stream, which many tourists visit on smaller sightseeing boats. 

Hidden Secrets 
Nevertheless, even without seeing the hanging coffins, the experience of sailing through the Shennong Stream, Qutang Gorge and Wu Gorge is certainly the highlight of the trip. The awe-inspiring mountains and cliff face that lines the river dwarf the passenger and cargo ships, despite their gargantuan size. Visitors cannot help but feel reminded of their own relative insignificance and vulnerability in the world when faced with such stark and sheer natural majesty. Considering the present scale of the gorges, it is almost impossible to imagine that they were originally over one hundred meters taller, with a much wilder, rockier, and more dangerous Yangtze River flowing at their base.  

I could easily have enjoyed weeks of simply sailing through those canyons without distraction. Unfortunately, the journey through the gorges only lasts a couple of hours. As it happens, this is also pretty much the only time during the entire cruise that you are not rushed off your feet visiting attractions. More than one person I met snoozed through at least part of the gorge experience, not realizing that it would form just a couple of hours on just one day of the holiday. Indeed, perhaps to accommodate the time-frame of Chinese national holidays, or perhaps for other cultural reasons, the Three Gorges cruise is a jam-packed travel option. For example, on day four, we disembarked after breakfast and did not return to the boat until dinner time.  

However, this should not put people off. The places we visited were astounding, and well worth the sore feet. Nevertheless, it is worth ensuring that you are prepared for a vacation full of action, rather than rest and recuperation. Perhaps in the future they will offer the same itinerary stretched out over a full week. It would be nice to relax on deck, drinking a cocktail, as the ship sails peacefully through serene nature. However, it seems not everyone has the same desires. Indeed, apart from the handful of foreign travelers, the ship’s gigantic cocktail lounge was almost entirely empty for most of the time. On the plus side, this guaranteed quick access to the bar, where top shelf cocktails were readily available and expertly made for as little as US$4.  

Of all the attractions that we toured on land, one stood out above the others. On the fourth day we visited Wuling Great Rift Valley within the enormous Chongqing municipality. Like so many of China’s hidden secrets, walking along the floor of Wuling Great Rift Valley should be on everyone’s bucket list. The valley is extensive and could be a holiday destination in its own right. For much of the valley there is a magnificent balance of sheer cliffs and forested slopes soaring above visitors. Then, in places, the rift narrows to just a couple of meters, and one finds oneself within a cave-like crevice, walking along a narrow path, unable to see the top, and suspended dozens of meters above the small stream at the base of the rift.  

When the futuristic towers of Chongqing finally greet the ship, the entire experience seems to have passed in the blink of an eye. Yet, with such an exciting itinerary, cameras are full, and memories are aplenty. Sure, I wish I could have stayed aboard for longer. But perhaps it is not a bad idea to finish an experience when you still have a feeling of wanting more.

A decorated tree at a temple in White Emperor City, Fengjie, Chongqing (Photo by Michael Jones)