Dr. Watson Mills on his trip through the Three Gorges.

Remember that old song “a slow boat to China” which was popularized by the Broadway composer Frank Loesser in the 1940s? It is difficult to think of a better way to experience the Yangtze region – the cradle of ancient Chinese civilization – than with a cruise along the river of the same name. I took such a voyage in 2001, well before the completion of the Three Gorges Dam (2012). This huge dam is 610 feet high and runs 1.3 miles from bank to bank. Despite being one of the undisputed engineering feats of the modern world, it raised the water level significantly along the track through the gorges. This dam, the largest hydro-electric dam in the world, wiped out many of the cities and towns that I enjoyed seeing on my cruise; therefore, some of the sights I describe today, tragically, no longer exist. I am eternally grateful that I was able to make this journey when I did.

A cruise along the Yangtze River in a country that was closed to the outside world for centuries is a Voyage of Discovery. To many outsiders, China is still a land shrouded in mystery, making this voyage an exciting and fascinating one for even the most seasoned traveler. The water is a dark greyish color, extremely polluted with all sorts of debris – including human waste – floating in it. Despite these factors, the Chinese villages along the banks of the Yangtze wash their clothes and draw out drinking water! There are far fewer restrictions along the Yangtze than along, for instance, the Danube, so the ships that ply these waters are generally larger than European river vessels. As such, these ships can accommodate extra amenities, such as stateroom balconies, shops, spas, and workout rooms. The ships that sail the Yangtze, of course, are much smaller than the typical US cruise vessels, but most are clean and well maintained. The food is sumptuous, although I will confess I was not always even remotely certain what I was eating. My cabin was small but pleasantly decorated with rich colors reflected in walls hangings, draperies, and bed covers. There was a library and also a DVD library for reading/viewing when I wasn’t on the observation deck wearing out my digital cameras.

A “lesser” gorge

I boarded the ship at Chongqing. The four-night journey really is on “a slow boat,” providing ample to time to photograph and enjoy the rich flavor of the country side. My ship was one of the older ones, and so it did not have elevators, but the staircases were wide and there were sturdy handrails.

The Yangtze River lies in the Tibet Plateau and flows east across the entire width of China until it empties into the East China Sea near Shanghai. At 3,915 miles in length, it is Asia’s largest river and the third-longest river in the world, after the Nile and Amazon. Historically, it has marked the division between north and south China.

On the second day, I arrived at the “Ghost” City of Fengdu, which was built on the Mount Ming on the north bank of the Yangtze. The mountain is dotted with many temples. The city has been called the “Ghost” City (in Chinese the word translated “Ghost” means “capital of netherworld”). Since ancient times this word has been related to the supernatural beliefs about the afterlife.

Of course the most dramatic part of the Yangtze River cruise is the 124-mile stretch across the gorges region. A gorge is defined as a deep channel formed by a river that has eroded the earth’s crust over millions of years. This erosion results in a narrow passage with steep rocky walls above. Some gorges are so large they are visible from space, e.g. the Grand Canyon.

Within this region along the Yangtze lie the three gorges that span some 75 miles. The region boasts spectacular landscapes with misty mountains, lush bamboo groves, and serene riverbanks.

Wu Gorge

The Three Gorges are known as the Qutang Gorge (5 miles in length), the Wu Gorge (28 miles), and the Xiling Gorge (42 miles). Late on the second day the ship entered the Qutang Gorge near Fenjie. It is the shortest of the three gorges, and many say the most spectacular, situated along one of the most imposing sections of Yangtze River. Its magnificence has been the focus of countless works of literature for thousands of years, and it presently forms the backdrop of the Chinese 10-Yuan note. Some suggest that the Qutang Gorge earned much of its fame due to the fact that the Yangzte narrows to less than 500 feet through this gorge. Above the river towering 100s of meters are a series of mountains on both sides of the waterway. A voyage through the Qutang Gorge is something to behold.

One of the most unusual cultural phenomena that I encountered were the “hanging” coffins near the Qutang Gorge. Here, a wooden coffin, without the fancy scroll work to which we are accustomed, is suspended high up on the side of a cliff. Only a few of these were visible from the ship and they were somewhat challenging to photograph. The few I saw through a telephoto lens were suspended by wires or ropes often tied to tree limbs and sheltered from the elements by “hanging” under overhangs in the rocky hillside. The guide explained that in ancient times humans fished these waters, for income as well as sustenance, and so placing their ancestors’ coffins on cliffs above the river was seen as reconnecting the deceased with the natural world, their world, into eternity.

Hanging coffins

Early on the third day I boarded a small dingy and headed north to see the three “lesser” gorges along the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze. The depth of the water on this river cannot accommodate a cruise ship, but the smaller, motorized vessel was just the ticket, and I sailed through the narrow, breathtaking “Lesser Three Gorges” region without a hitch. The gorges are lined by sheer cliffs and mountains. I witnessed local homesteaders who somehow were able to cling to the rock face in their cliff-side homes. There were many ancient cliff-side “plank roads” that almost floated on the mountain sides, as well as hundreds of monkeys that inhabit the river banks below. This journey of about 30 miles encompassed all of the “lesser” gorges: Dragongate Gorge, Misty Gorge, and Emerald Gorge. I suppose “lesser” is a relative term, but I must tell you these gorges seemed pretty amazing to me! There were vistas of towering peaks, unusual rock formations, emerald waters, rare wild animals, and historic sites. Understandably, this region is recognized as “wonder” of China. It is some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.

Back on the ship, we headed through the Wu Gorge, also known as Big Gorge. It is 28 miles in length, and its ambience is a bit more picturesque than that of Qutang. It is also flanked by series of soaring mountains. Because of its lengthy, narrow canyon and a lingering dampness all year round, this area is best known for the stunning, if not eerie, clouds that perennially emanate from around the lower parts of the mountains. Apart from this hanging mist, the Twelve Summits of the Wu Mountain are spectacular in their own right. Among these the most renowned is the Shennv Summit, a term that means “sacred woman.” It got its name from a boulder that stands atop the mountain and appears to resemble the profile of a young woman.

Finally, I entered the Xiling Gorge, the longest and deepest of the three gorges. Before the Three Gorges Dam Project, Xiling Gorge was renowned for its winding waterway that suddenly narrowed into treacherous rapids skirting over dangerous shoals. In fact, Xiling Gorge
used to be known as the “death passage.” Since ancient times, Xiling Gorge has been feared for its twisting turns, its sudden bottleneck stretches, where the currents are swift and where jagged rock walls suddenly appear requiring a steady hand to maneuver through. At certain times during the year its treacherous eddies can develop into full-blown whirlpools, slamming ships into reefs and shoals where they can run aground. Despite the considerable obstacles, all river traffic is compelled to pass through these waters because there is no real alternative. The roughness of these waters was one of the arguments the government put forward to justify the construction of the dam. Raising the water level, it was said, would “tame” these angry waters, making them seem like those of a placid lake. Maybe I was just lucky on my pre-dam cruise, but the waters of the Xiling Gorge were only slightly rougher than what I had experienced sailing through the first two gorges.
The passing scenery is as beautiful as it is varied and spectacular. Several renowned natural features such as springs, boulders and caves can be found along this section of the Yangtze. Also the gorge contains many famous historical sites such as the Huangling Temple which was built over 1,800 years ago.

On the fifth day the ship docked at Wuhan marking the end of the most fantastic river cruise I have ever taken. Even after the construction of the Dam, these ships continue to make this journey, but at a water level that puts the traveler much nearer the top of the gorges than the now extinct vibrant villages that once dotted each side of the river. Gone forever are the hanging roads, the ancestors’ coffins, and the treacherous eddies. I suppose “progress” will always take some toll upon nature and humankind–this one surely did.


Next time: “One Well-Guarded Tomb: The Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, China”