While meandering through epic gorges, cobblestone villages, and misty peaks, it's easy to imagine that time has stood still along the Yangtze River. Flowing 3,900 miles from the Tibetan Plateau before emptying into the East China Sea at Shanghai, the Yangtze is the longest river in Asia and third in the world after the Amazon and the Nile.
The mighty river, originally known as Chang Jiang (“long river”), has been a pivotal force, both dark and uplifting, in Chinese history and cultural life. The Yangtze River "represents life and death," claims novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux. "It is a wellspring, a sewer, and a tomb; depthless in the gorges, puddle shallow at its rapids. The Chinese say if you haven't been up the Great River, you haven't been anywhere."
What was once a harrowing journey that took several weeks on a steamboat at the turn of the century is now quite safe and comfortable aboard the stately Sanctuary M.S. Yangzi Explorer, a spacious and modern ship offering the finest luxury cruises along the Yangtze. Owned and operated by Sanctuary Retreats, the Yangzi Explorer adheres to the motto, "Luxury, naturally." With private balconies in all of its 62 airy cabins, a full-service 3,900-square-foot spa, and a duplex theater combined with an array of educational programs that include Chinese history lectures, film screenings, and offshore excursions, there's no better way to bask in the Yangtze's revered beauty and centuries of ancient history.
The Yangzi Explorer's three-night downstream cruise departs from Chongqing and ends in Yichang. The ship sails through the magnificent and picturesque Three Gorges region, abundant with lush vegetation and staggering bluffs that cut through the Wu Shan Mountain range. The desire for cultural immersion and pastoral scenery is met with the conveniences and comforts of luxury, as you set sail for a journey back in time.
The ship leaves the port in the evening on the first night of the cruise. Dinner, which consists of dishes like Grilled Beef Tenderloin and Stir-fried Chicken with Spicy Sichuan Sauce, is served in the elegant, wood-paneled Dynasty Palace. The city lights of Chongqing in Sichuan province fade into speckles of reds and greens when the Yangzi Explorer departs at midnight.
An exciting itinerary of offshore excursions is scheduled for the next three days at Fengdu, Shennong Stream, and the Three Gorges Dam Project. But simply sailing along the Yangtze lets one envision the evolution of an ancient culture that has adapted to modern times. Remnants of the past can be seen in the matrix of small houses and buildings that dot the mountainside, in the cargo and coal vessels that sail idly past, and in the breathtaking cliffs that flank both sides of the ship as the moon and stars illuminate the basin's spectacular rock formations.
With the completion in 2009 of the controversial Three Gorges Dam project—the world's largest hydroelectric power station—life on the river has altered dramatically. For hundreds of years, boat trackers—men from the Tujia ethnic minority—would tow boats and freight over sections of the river deemed un-navigable; they would sing songs and pull ropes in unison to the beat of a drum. Now, with the tradition nearly obsolete, modern technology has found its place on the Yangtze with a massive, five-tiered ship lock, which raises or lowers ships across the Three Gorges, and with the building of the dam, which has displaced communities along the river.
Cruise Director Scott Gumbiner shares stories and insights about the river's past, present, and future direction in one of his lectures, noting that the Yangtze continues to remain a major thoroughfare and hub for transportation and agriculture. "It has been seen as this huge artery that is spawning the life of China," he explains.
The Yangzi Explorer is the only cruise liner on the Yangtze that attempts to bridge the best of both extremes—from luxe accommodations and service to experiencing a slice of real life in the Chinese countryside. For the duration of the cruise, lectures and films provide the background and context for what guests experience and witness offshore.
For those seeking comfort, the ship's four exclusive suites with spacious living areas decorated with fine Chinese artwork and ceramics, four-poster beds, and private decks offer a soothing retreat. The ship's boutiques specialize in fine jewelry, art, Chinese calligraphy, and bespoke snuff bottles that are intricately hand painted from the inside using delicate brush strokes.
The river itself is a marvel, revealing its different personalities through rough and smooth patches. The ship glides under spectacular, arching bridges, and across the high waters of the gorges. In spite of a thick fog descending on the first day of the cruise, passengers are reassured with an onboard program that consists of morning Tai Chi at the spacious observation deck, informative demonstrations on Chinese medicine and silk embroidery, and a welcome reception with refreshments and live entertainment.
Opportunities for immersion and exploration abound when the fog temporarily lifts on the second day. Passengers alight to the Ghost City at Fengdu to see Buddhist and Taoist temples that honor the afterlife and pay tribute to the King of the Underworld. Though the weather makes it impossible for the excursion to Shennong Stream, where one could ride in a small boat that is pulled by a boat tracker for a more intimate view of the river, the experience on the third day of visiting the dam—a historic feat of engineering at 600-feet tall and with the power to generate 18,200 watts of hydroelectricity—marks the end of an eye-opening journey through China's most infamous river delta and what is considered to be the cradle of Chinese civilization.
Yangtze River heritage trail stops
1. Chongqing. Nicknamed the "Capital of the Mist," this former trading center and treaty port has become the world's biggest city with an estimated population of 31 million. It is the downstream gateway to the Three Gorges.
2. Fengdu. The Ghost City, located at the top of Ming Mountain, is home to over 75 Buddhist and Taoist temples that house statues of ghosts and super beings—said to be guardians of the spirit world.
3. Qutang Gorge. The first of the three famous gorges of the Yangtze River, Qutang is the shortest, but the grandest of the gorges. Mist frequently circles its breathtaking limestone peaks, and goo characters dating back to the Song Dynasty were carved by famous calligraphers on the Chalk Wall (Fenbi Tang).
4. Wu Gorge. This 25-mile middle gorge boasts of sheer cliffs and 12 peaks, all with mythical origins. The Shennong Stream is located along this stretch of river.
5. Shennong Stream. A tributary of the Yangtze River in Hubei province, this river valley is home to the Tujia people, ancient hanging coffins, caves, and rare animals like macaques and mandarin ducks.
6. Xiling Gorge. The longest and most treacherous gorge with dangerous rapids, the Yangtze River's five-tiered ship lock begins here. Before a safe passage was made in the 195os (when large river rocks were removed), it is said that the surface of the water contained frothing whirlpools.
7. Three Gorges Dam Project. Constructed in the middle of the Xiling Gorge, the dam has the largest hydroelectric generating capacity in the world. It took 16 years to build (starting in 1993) and during the peak of its construction, 27,000 laborers worked 24 hours a day in three shifts. It can store over five trillion gallons of water and can withstand an earthquake measuring 7.0.
8. Yichang. The upriver gateway to the Three Gorges, it has been a passageway between Sichuan and Hubei provinces since ancient times.
WHEN TO GO: April, May, September, and October.
GETTING THERE: While Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific flies direct to Beijing, I recommend flying business class on Air China to Beijing, then transferring on an Air China flight directly to Chongqing. Secure a visa before booking your flight.
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 2, 2011