Winding its way 6,300 kilometers from western China’s Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the East China Sea, the Yangtze River passes through nine provinces and serves as a drain for 695,000 square miles of land. It is less in length only to the Amazon and Nile, and spans so many regions that it has acquired half a dozen names. In the high Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the Tibetans title it Dri Chu-Female Yak River. The Chinese in the area know it as Tongtian He, Traveling-Through-the-Heavens River. Where it borders Sichuan and runs through Yunnan, it is referred to as Jinsha Jiang, River of Golden Sand. Often the word Wanli prefixes the common Chang Jiang (Long River), designating it Ten Thousand Li River. Only in the lower reaches does this great flood go by its name common to foreigners: Yangtze.
For over two centuries the Yangtze has served as a transportation highway and commercial thoroughfare. Ocean-going vessels can navigate up the river for 1000 km and steamers can travel as far as Yichang, 1600 km from the sea. A quarter of China’s ocean-going cargo enters the river between Shanghai and the sea. Shanghai is known as the gateway to the Yangtze, spanning the Huangpu tributary just south of the river’s mouth. As China’s largest metropolis, Shanghai is an active hub of river commerce with thousands of boats crowding its harbor. Towering commercial ships stand out against the industrial shores, and countless ‘junks’, weather and sea-worn vessels topped with browning quilted sails, navigate the congested waterways.
Other important cities dot the shore of the Yangtze, but perhaps none equal the historic significance, both triumphant and tragic, of Nanjing. Dating back at least two and a half millennia, the ‘Southern Capital’ has seen eight dynasties including the celebrated Ming in its entire cultural splendor. Nanjing also saw tragedy and destruction during WWII when the Japanese invaded resulting in the loss of 150,000 civilian lives. Nanjing now boasts some of China’s most advanced technology and a prestigious university. The city stands as a symbol of Chinese strength and self-sufficiency, a monument of the people on their great river.
Every year the Yangtze deposits massive amounts of silt (more than 170 million cum/6 billion cu ft annually), that helps make up Jiangsu Province, a large plain used to grow rice. The fertile plains provide one of the most profitable areas of agriculture in China. Today China accounts for 35% of the world’s rice production. Rice is the world's single most important food crop and a primary food for more than a third of the world's population. China seeks to provide for its increasing population with improved agricultural technology and an increase in fertile land. The Yangtze provides crucial irrigation to Jiangsu Province which continues to produce abundant harvests.
Aside from its transit, economic and agricultural importance, the Yangtze winds through some of China’s most scenic landscapes. The common Chinese saying, ‘If you haven’t traveled up the mighty Yangtze, you haven’t been anywhere’, well describes the river’s range of picturesque landscapes. North of the Himalayas at the Yangtze’s origin (elevation 4900 m), the Tibetan Plateau has mighty glaciers and enduring snows which continuously melt into the Yangtze. Winding south and leaving the high country, the river meets the world-renowned Three Gorges which tower above it in the western Wu Shan (Witch Mountains). Known in the past for their dramatic beauty as well as religious and historical sites, the Three Gorges have recently received much attention due to the building of the controversial dam. The Yangtze stretches 192 km through the Three Gorges, Xiling, Wu, and Qutang. The perilous Xiling Gorge, furthest down river, often stands shrouded in mists. It threatens weary river vessels with whirlpools, rapids, and water cannons that can easily leave even large watercraft upside down. It is known for its sheer walls and the accelerated river beneath them. The Wu Gorge is tranquil and quiet with a deep valley and twelve peaks along its shores. Qutang Gorge boasts great magnificence in a brief eight-kilometer distance. Its scenic shores contain the Meng Liang Staircase, the ancient Plank Road, and the Seven Gate Cave.
The second phase of the Yangtze River Dam project has been completed, and the 5-stage permanent shiplock was opened to navigation in June, 2003. Benefits of the dam include flood control, power generation and improved navigation. The water level of the Yangtze River from Chongqing to the dam site has risen 135 meters and 140 dangerous rapids in Qutang and Wu Gorges have been inundated, allowing ships to easily sail between Yichang and Chongqing.
The increase in water level is insignificant compared to the height of the mountain peaks which make up the Three Gorges area. The scenery is still majestic, the experience still memorable. You will be amazed as you pass through the 5-stage shiplock of the dam, an incredible engineering feat.
The culture of the Yangtze River area is based on the beliefs of the Ba and Shu cultures of ancient China. This mixed culture dominated large areas of Sichuan and Hubei Provinces, along with neighboring areas. The most notable feature of Ba and Shu culture is the belief in the power of spirits, relating to the many cliff coffins sites as well as Fengdu, City of Ghosts.
A series of conflicts about 1700 years ago left an indelible mark in the form of historical relics and popular legends which are still recounted today.
Traces of an ancient plank road remain on the face of a steep cliff on the north side of Qutang Gorge. The plank road overhangs the river below and used to be the only passage to Sichuan. It was built by Chinese stone craftsmen and is a most spectacular and precarious relic of ancient masonry.
Extending over 18.6 miles is a plank road built on the cliff from Wushan County to Qinglianxi (Green Lotus Stream) at the border of Hubei Province. At a distance the plank road looks like a flying dragon, long and majestic.
Badong is in Hubei Province on the southern shores of Xiangxiliang Valley between Wu Gorge and Xiling Gorge. It links Sichuan and Hubei, and is an important distribution center for goods from both provinces. Badong has a long history. Kou Zhun, the famous prime minister of Northern Song Dynasty, served here as a county magistrate for three years. Qiufeng Pavilion is a place well worth visiting. It is a wooden structure, over 65 feet high and commands a good view of surroundings. Literary men of all dynasties came here to drink wine and compose essays and poems.
Situated at the top of Baidishan Mountain on the northern shore of Qutang Gorge. Baidicheng is a beautiful sight with its vermilion walls and flying eaves. The town has a history of 2,000 years and there is a wealth of historic sites of the Shu-Han period, along with numerous stone tablet inscriptions. Du Fu, Li Bai, Bai Juyi and Su Shi, all famous poets, had visited the town during their lifetimes and left a legacy of writing in praise of this historic town, which has become a city of immortal poetry. Du Fu had written as many as 430 verses in Baidicheng.
One of Guilin's main scenic spots is the magnificent Reed Flute Cave. The natural formation of stalagmites and stalactites form elaborate decorations inside the cave; lights are positioned throughout the cave to illuminate its natural beauty. The formations and lights are reflected in underground pools creating a magical effect.
This is on the northern shore of Qutang Gorge, richly colored in ochre. There are wooden boxes in the shape of bellows along the cliffs. The boxes were stored here by the legendary carpenter, Lu Ban. Further finds reveal that they contain the hanging coffins of the ancient Ba people.
Book Presenting Platform is halfway across the mountain at Feifeng Peak on the southern shore of the Wu Gorge. Yao Ji, the fairy, was said to have handed a book to Da Yu to help him conquer floods. The temple, built in the Tang Dynasty, is dedicated to the memory of the fairy.
It is a raised semi-spherical stone plate shaped like a drum on the west shore of Cuokai Gorge. Legend says that Da Yu chopped off the head of the Jade Dragon, which had wrought havoc to people by causing constant floods.
Located on Gaodu Mountain, Wushan County, it is said Prince Chu had a rendezvous with the Fairy of Wushan there. There is also an ancient temple, Gaotang Temple, which was built 1,000 years ago and still stands today.
One can find the site of Daxi Culture where the Yangtze and Daxi rivers join in the eastern end of Qutong Gorge. Since 1955, Chinese archeologists have excavated many cultural relics of the Neolithic Age (about 5,000 years ago) including stone artifacts, bone tools and potteries.
There is a huge stone platform on the northern bank of Nanjin Pass, several dozen feet above the surface of the river. Legend says this is the place where Zhang Fei beat a drum and trained soldiers for battle. The spot is marked with a statue of Zhang Fei with a raised sword in his left hand and a drumstick in his right.
On the north shore of the Yangtze, between Fengjie and Baidicheng, there is a rectangular stone which stretches into the river. Lu Xun of the State of Wu defeated the army led by Liu Bei and gave chase to him. Zhuge Liang arranged a battle array with eight positions, by which means he forced the Wu army to retreat.
Fairy Peak is on the northern shore of Wu Gorge and is the most famous of the 12 Peaks of Wushan. A huge limestone column stands 20 feet high atop the mountain. It resembles a standing girl with exquisite figure. Legend says that the column is the embodiment of a celestial girl, named Yao Ji, daughter of the Queen of the West. She descended from heaven to help Da Yu to conquer floods. She decided to stay among men to ensure the safety of boats that pass through the Three Gorges. Standing out from clouds and fog, she appears beautiful and mysterious.
Fengdu is the name of the abode of ghosts or town of devils, an ancient city of more than a thousand years. Since the Tang Dynasty, 48 temples full of sculptures, frescos and statues of demons and devils have been built on a hill. Located just south of Chongqing, it is frequently the first shore excursion when cruising downstream on the Yangtze River.
The origin of the town's extraordinary reputation as a shrine dedicated to the gods of the underworld dates back to the Han dynasty, when two officials became Daoists, living a reclusive life and eventually becoming immortals. According to the popular religious belief, the dead come to dwell in Fengdu and the evil souls go on to hell. In Chinese mythology, it's said that those who commit acts of evil during their lifetime will be destined for the hell at the 18th layer under ground after a trial and will have to endure eternal punishment. Shopkeepers used to keep a basin of water for customers to throw their coins in and those that floated were thought to be ghost money and unacceptable. There is a cable car up to the temple complex or it can be reached by a 30 minute hike.
Situated on the north shore of Qutang Gorge, the city of Fengjie has huge towering city gates facing the Yangtze. Liu Bei of the Three Kingdoms Period named the city "Yong'an" and on his deathbed, he entrusted the upbringing of his son to a man named Zhuge Liang who lived in the Palace of Everlasting Peace, or Yong'an. The site of the palace remains to this day. The grave of Madam Gan, wife of Liu Bei is also in the city. The city was called Fengjie during the Tang Dynasty and was placed under the jurisdiction of Kuizhou. There have been many poems and essays written about Yong'an in the past. The most famous of all was by the poet Du Fu, who came to the city and said, "Boundless vegetation droops down bleakly as the waters of Yangtze roll along endlessly."
The temple is on Yellow Ox Rock, said to be a celestial ox that helped Da Yu to conquer floods and reclaim land. After the Song Dynasty, it was renamed Huangling Temple. The Hall of Emperor Yu contains an inscription written by Zhuge Liang. And there is much reference material on hydrogeology. Built against the mountain the temple is surrounded by citrus trees.
East of the Ox Liver and Horse Lung Gorge there is the Kongling Gorge. The shoal or beach here was known as the Guimen or Ghost City Pass in the old days. The three shoals in the Three Gorges are the Xie Shoal, Qing Shoal and Kongling Shoal. Kongling Shoal has large and small rocks everywhere. Boats would often founder after hitting them. After reconstruction work the shoal is no longer a danger to visitors.
Kuimen Gate is at the western tip of Qutang Gorge. It is bordered by Chijiashan to the north and Baiyanshan to the south, both of which rise 4,920 feet high, like two huge gates. The cliffs force the water into an area only several dozen feet wide. The water flows rapidly, making the scenery ever more spectacular. Kuimen Gate is a symbol of the Three Gorges and was called the most magnificent scenery in the world by ancient Chinese writers.
Located 16.5 miles south of Badong County in Hubei Province, Lianxiahe Scenic Spot is approx. 3,280 feet above sea level and encompasses 494 acres. The clear water, natural beauty and elegant scenery attract many visitors. The shores are dotted with precipices, and the area includes a zone of strange and rare flora in which monkeys play. Visitors interested in the customs of minority groups will enjoy a warm welcome at the Tujia ethnic village.
Also known as Mingyue (Bright Moon) Gorge, Light Shadow Gorge forms the eastern section of the Xiling Gorge. The passage is very narrow, with steep cliffs.
Situated on the northern bank of Nanjin Pass is a small pool. Water flows into the pool from a fountain in the cliffs. Lu You, a poet and patriot of the Southern Song Dynasty visited the place. He boiled tea with the water from the fountain and enjoyed the taste so much that he wrote in praise of it.
This gorge is situated on the northern shore of the Xiangxi River mouth. There is a huge rock shaped like a pile of books on a cliff over 328 feet above the river. It is called Military Book Rock. On the lower end of the cliff is a huge stone like a sword pointing downward into the water. Legend says that Zhuge Liang kept his military book and sword here.
At Nanjing Pass, western exit of Xiling Gorge, steep cliffs stand on both shores and the waterway is narrow. The pass has strategic importance and control of it has been bitterly contested. There is a saying that he who controls the pass controls the passage to Shu and has Jinmen under their thumb. The rapid flow of the Yangtze ends at Nanjin Pass and after leaving it, the river widens to meander to the vast Jianghan Plain.
On the Northern Shore of the Yangtze you’ll find Ox Liver and Horse Lung Gorge, where endlessly flowing streams abound among rocks. Hanging from the cliff are limestone formations, two of which are ochre in color. They overlap each other and hang from above. One looks like an ox liver and the other like a horse lung.
Also known as Kui Gorge, Qutang is the first point that visitors traveling eastward reach in the Three Gorges. The first section extends from Baidicheng (White Emperor Town) to Daxi Township in Wushan County, extending about 4.9 miles. High cliffs and steep precipices with sharp edges rise one after another on either side of the narrow gorge. The poet Bai Juyi described the gorge by writing, "The shore looks like two screens. The sky has been cut out." Within the gorge there is Baidicheng, the ancient plank road built on the cliff, and the sites of Daxi culture.
The Red Cliff, also called "Chibi" in Chinese, lies on the southern bank of Yangtze River 31 km north of Puqi City. Composed of three rolling hills and facing the Yangtze River, the Chibi Mountain appears to be a herd of galloping stallions against a luxuriant green painted landscape.
Shennong, or Holy Farmer (a legendary figure who invented the plough) Stream is in west Hubei Province. It is over 37.2 miles long and runs from north to south, emptying into Wu Gorge in the east. Floating on the stream is a popular shore excursion during a Yangtze River Cruise. Visitors float in a broad beamed boat, which takes them to Mianzhu Gorge, Yingwu or Parrot Gorge and Longchang Gorge. The waterway is narrow and luxurious vegetation covers both shores. Monkeys and wild goats can be seen and the atmosphere is rustic. Plank roads on the cliffs and hanging coffins are also visible.
There is a huge grotto in a precipice on Jixianfeng Peak on the northern shore of the Yangtze River. Six Chinese characters describe Wu Gorge as having ‘rock after rock and peak after peak’. Some of the words are hard to read as a result of erosion. They were written in the Three Kingdoms Period by Zhuge Liang.
It is located at the Light Shadow Gorge, 10.5 miles from Yichang. There are rapids, grotesque rocks, unusual caves, a sweet water fountain, a secluded valley, as well as sites of Chinese resistance in the war against Japanese aggression. Other sights include Mingyue Bay, Shilingpai, and Light Shadow Cave. Many poems composed by literary figures of different dynasties can be seen here. A historical battle took place in Shipai in April, 1945 and was regarded as a Chinese Stalingrad. The tour includes aspects of the war of resistance for those interested in history.
Qu Yuan (340 BC-278 BC) lived in the State of Chu during the Warring States Period. A temple was built in Zigui, birthplace of the poet, where a bronze statue now stands. The Qu Yuan Memorial Hall is in the main architectural structure and the tomb of Qu Yuan is located in the back.
Lepingli or Luojiaoping is the birthplace of Qu Yuan. It is 18 miles east of Zigui County. There are many historic sites, such as the Reading Cave and Poetry Reciting Platform. A well, which served as a mirror for Qa Yuan, still remains.
This scenic zone is a karst formation located 23 miles from Fengjie County and stretching over 238 miles. There are 6 places of special interest, including the world's foremost heavenly pit, the longest limestone well, an underground river, a labyrinth and celestial cave.
This is the most splendid scenery in the Wu Gorge. The 12 Peaks are spread on both shores of the Yangtze, forming a vista of mountains and rivers.
The county is situated at the confluence of the Yangtze and Daning Rivers, at the northern end of Wu Gorge. It is a picturesque place with a long history dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period. It was named Wushan in the Sui Dynasty. The famous poet Lu You said that as the county is located in the gorge, it is provided with a magnificent view. Visitors to the county can view the clouds and rain of the Wushan Mountains, the Lu You Cave and the features of Fairy Peak. It is a popular place for tourists visiting the Three Gorges.
Xiangxi Stream is between Wu Gorge and Xiling Gorge, and is a tributary of the Yangtze. By proceeding from the upper reaches of Xiangxi Stream visitors can arrive at Zhaojun Village. Zhaojun was an imperial concubine in the Han Dynasty. She volunteered in 33 BC to enter into marriage with an ethnic tribal leader beyond the Great Wall. She played a considerable role in preventing a military invasion, by becoming the wife of Chan Yu, chief Huhanye. Places and objects in the village associated with her can be found such as her dressing table, Niangniang Platform, the residence of Zhaojun, Purple Bamboo Garden and the Pavilion.
Xiling Gorge starts at the western tip of Xiangxi Stream in Zigui and extends to Nanjin pass in the east, about 47 miles. In the middle is Miaonankuangu, where the Three Gorges Dam is built on Zhongbao Island. At the western section we find Military Book and Treasury Sword Gorge, and the Ox Liver and Horse Lung Gorge. In the east are Light Shadow Gorge and the Yellow Ox Gorge. Xiling Gorge is known for its strategic importance, and as a place of dangerous shoals. The landforms on the western shore of the gorge are varied, including many rocks, caves, and streams.
Xiling 100-li Art Gallery is between Three Gorges Dam and Gezhouba Lock, and is made up of three sections: the Yellow Ox Gorge, Light Shadow Gorge (Mingyue Gorge), and the Yellow Cat Gorge (Yichang Gorge), commonly known as the three new gorges. They are flanked by cliffs on both sides, covered with green vegetation, and are full of cloud and fog. Visitors find the place rather mysterious, as if they were traveling across paintings. The art gallery is considered the most picturesque landscape in the whole of the 120 miles long Three Gorges.
Yellow Ox Rock Tourist Zone is located on the southern shore, 0.6 mile from the Three Gorges Dam. Sights in the zone include Yellow Ox Rock, Huangling Temple, Xuanyuan Cave, and the site of an ancient mulberry plantation. The highest point is Yellow Ox Rock. Visitors who climb the rock will get an overall view of the great dam, gorge and lake.
Zhongbao Island in Sandouping (Miaonankuangu) is based on a granite formation. This sturdy structure is the reason why the island was chosen for the base of the Three Gorges Dam, scheduled to be completed in 2009. The island has a history that is full of mystery. It has never been submerged during floods. At one time floods submerged Huangling Temple, which stands much higher, but Zhongbao Island stayed intact.
Situated in the broad Xiangxi River valley, east of Wu Gorge, Zigui is a famous historic city. It was called Guizhou in the old days when Liu Bei used it as a transit point to ship food and fodder to the army. It was the birthplace of Qu Yuan, the poet and patriot. Many sites associated with the poet can be seen during the tour. The former town of Zigui is now referred to as Guizhou.
Most deluxe cruise ships have a complete menu of both Chinese and Western food. The various small towns and villages along the route offer some interesting local cuisine in restaurants or snack bars which can be sampled when travelers disembark during shore excursions. Local delicacies include:
Baishi salted duck (baishi banya) is a local popular dish. Before being cooked, the duck is salted and air-dried for one and a half months. The final dish exudes an irresistible fragrance.
Due to the mild climate in the area of the Three Gorges, local beef is tender to the taste. The local delicacy is translucent beef slices marinated in special local seasonings with a peppered flavor.
Deyuan stuffed dumplings are an unusual Chinese dumpling stuffed with pork, sweetened bean paste and sesame seeds.
Numerous shopping specialties enriched with characteristics of the local cities or towns along the Three Gorges are easily available through the tour. Some examples include:
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Most Yangtze River cruises pass through the famous Three Gorges area, situated between Chongqing in the west, and between Yichang and Wuhan in the East. The major means of transportation along the River is by boat. Travelers can begin the trip at either end, west of the Three Gorges area in Chongqing, east of the Three Gorges area in either Yichang or Wuhan, or even as far east as Shanghai, where the Yangtze River empties into the East China Sea.
The Yangtze River cruise ships usually offer 3-5 day package tours along the Three Gorges (up to 9 days if cruising all the way to Shanghai). The boats not only provide guests with standard rooms and services, but also offer culinary delights and various forms of entertainment. These ships stop at the most popular attractions, allowing passengers to disembark for shore excursions along the way, accompanied by English speaking guides.
Chongqing, Wuhan and Shanghai all have major airports with flight connections throughout China. Yichang has an airport with limited flight connections; it is sometimes necessary to fly into Wuhan and drive to Yichang, a drive of about 4 hours.