A lux­u­ri­ous cruise along China’s mighty Yangzi River in the Three Gorges re­gion takes in the wa­ter­way’s re­mark­able sights, sounds and his­tory


Like gods and crim­i­nals, the Yangzi River has many names, some of them aliases, none of them de­fin­i­tive. In China it’s thought of as two rivers rather than one: the Golden Sand River be­gins at the glaciers of Ti­bet and trick­les to the city of Yibin, then the Long River flows the rest of the way to Shanghai. It is too long then even for the name Long River. Ex­ces­sively big is the stan­dard scale in China, where the taxi ranks stretch to the hori­zon, the apart­ment blocks look like cities, and the cities look like worlds. One in 16 of the Earth’s pop­u­la­tion lives in its wa­ter­shed. The Yangzi can drown you just with its sta­tis­tics.

Our in­tro­duc­tion to the world’s third-long­est river is de­cep­tively hum­ble – at the city of Yichang, 1 100km west of Shanghai and known lo­cally as a kind of crossroads be­tween road and river. It is an un­mem­o­rable place, apart from a cliff-hanger restau­rant serv­ing sala­man­der, and seems to be built out of empty blocks of flats. (There are still enough in­hab­ited blocks to house four mil­lion peo­ple.) Trav­ellers don’t linger, but in­stead board a boat and head up­stream through the nar­row­est and most fa­mous sec­tion of the Yangzi. They want to see the Three Gorges, and their ar­ti­fi­cially con­structed neme­sis, the Three Gorges Dam.

When I first heard of the Three Gorges, I pic­tured three riverbeds side by side, sep­a­rated by mountains, like wa­ter stream­ing through fin­gers. In­stead they come one af­ter an­other, ris­ing and fall­ing (mainly ris­ing) along hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres of river­side. Most sight­see­ing ships daw­dle in the gorges for a day or two, mak­ing side trips to trib­u­taries and shore tem­ples, then head against the cur­rent to Chongqing. This mu­nic­i­pal­ity carved out of Sichuan prov­ince is fa­mous for its spicy food and forth­right lo­cals, and has bal­looned into some­thing of a megac­ity; it has a pop­u­la­tion of 30 mil­lion peo­ple – nearly two thirds of whom are in the ur­ban cen­tre and sur­rounds – and more than 10 000 busy hot­pot restau­rants.

Our ship, the Sanc­tu­ary Yangzi Ex­plorer, takes the Yichang-toChongqing route over four nights. Not long ago, the only lux­ury boat on the river was one spe­cially fit­ted out to Chair­man Mao’s wife’s spec­i­fi­ca­tions (Mao Ze­dong was the found­ing fa­ther of the Peo­ple's Repub­lic of China), and un­til the 1980s there were still wooden junks be­ing hauled by gangs of track­ers – hu­man tug­boats fight­ing the rapids with thick bam­boo ropes and poles. Un­told num­bers of peo­ple have trav­elled this stretch over mil­len­nia, few un­der power and even fewer in com­fort. This was once one of the most danger­ous river voy­ages in the world, and the jour­ney that will take us three days used to take more than a month.

Be­fore it was tamed by dy­na­mite and damming, the Yangzi was shal­low and fast, and lit­tered with un­der­wa­ter rocks and shoals. Its worst stretches had whirlpools that smashed wooden boats so hard into rocks they ex­ploded, and, apart from the steady ropes of the track­ers, only good for­tune could pre­vent dis­as­ter. Be­fore boats em­barked on cer­tain stretches of the river, a shaman-sailor would ar­rive on board with a flag read­ing ‘Pow­ers of the wa­ters, give a lucky star for the jour­ney’.

There’s no such crew mem­ber when we set off, which is en­cour­ag­ing; so, too, is the Ex­plorer’s worka­day ex­te­rior – its metal hull and blue­and-white liv­ery is un­mis­tak­ably that of a Chi­nese river­boat. The re­fur­bished in­te­rior is a dif­fer­ent story: there’s a spa, a theatre and stylish, pe­ony-themed cab­ins. The bow suites are fit­ted in Chi­nese colo­nial style, with art­fully ar­ranged ce­ram­ics and desks fit for cal­lig­ra­phy. There’s a li­brary of Chi­nese clas­sics and a restau­rant serv­ing buf­fet break­fasts (the su­pe­rior con­gee be­comes my staple) and lunches. Din­ners are à la carte, with Western and lo­cal dishes, and while the Sichuan spices are tem­pered for non-Chi­nese tastes, they still bring grate­ful tears to the eyes. An ob­ser­va­tion deck dou­bles as a ter­race for morn­ing tai chi ses­sions, and each of the 62 cab­ins and suites has enough space in which to salute the sun. The finest ex­trav­a­gance, how­ever, is the sim­plest: ev­ery room has a bal­cony.

We stay an­chored overnight at Yichang, set sail in the morn­ing, and are among the spurs and moun­tain folds of the first gorge al­most im­me­di­ately. It’s called the Xil­ing, and was once the most haz­ardous. ‘It is said ev­ery stone here has a name,’ says our guide Wil­lie, lead­ing the com­men­tary from the ob­ser­va­tory deck, and the gorges are thick with al­lu­sions and metaphors and mytholo­gies that have silted them over thou­sands of years. The ma­jor for­ma­tions are po­et­i­cally named: Horse Lung and Ox Liver; Mil­i­tary Books and Pre­cious Sword; Sound­less Bell; and Shadow Play. They are the un­mis­tak­able el­e­ments of Chi­nese art, and in places where the sun has yet not lifted the morn­ing mist off the hori­zon, Xil­ing Gorge looks like an ink paint­ing on ivory silk.

Just off Xil­ing is the site of our first shore trip to Tribe of the Three Gorges at Longjin Stream. The Yangzi has more than 700 trib­u­taries, many pol­luted by in­dus­try, but this one is fed by jade wa­ter from a spring high in the mountains and runs clear. The Tribe

of the Three Gorges ex­pe­ri­ence is run by the Tu­jia peo­ple, an of­fi­cially recog­nised mi­nor­ity long as­so­ci­ated with this area. They op­er­ate a tourist vil­lage, and most of the tourists are do­mes­tic: Han Chi­nese peo­ple are fas­ci­nated by mi­nori­ties, espe­cially those with colour­ful tra­di­tional dress and melan­cholic love songs. The Tu­jia qual­ify, but then so do most of China’s 55 of­fi­cial tribes, so it s their wed­ding tra­di­tions that set them apart – they prac­tise ‘cry­ing mar­riages’, where the brides weep with in­creas­ing fre­quency for up to three months be­fore the cer­e­mony. ‘Don’t catch a bou­quet, or you’ll be stuck here three years,’ warns our guide Yin, her­self a Tu­jia woman.

Back on the Ex­plorer I be­come a fix­ture on the bal­cony, watch­ing life along the Yangzi. It’s a work­ing river, and its flow starts to feel like the drive of a mas­sive en­gine, push­ing China into moder­nity. Coal barges con­stantly putt by, pour­ing wa­ter. Ca­ble-stayed bridges, some­times in du­pli­cate or trip­li­cate, carry freight and high-speed trains. The first Yangzi bridge was com­pleted in 1957, and now there are more than 100 ma­jor bridges, mak­ing up for lost time.

No bridge can match the fame of the Three Gorges Dam, though. One of the largest me­gas­truc­tures in the world, it was proph­e­sised as much as planned. Ev­ery­one from Sun Yat­sen to Mao fore­saw it, so build­ing it be­came a po­lit­i­cal in­evitabil­ity, if not an en­gi­neer­ing one. The gen­eral feel­ing is that the en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion and com­mu­nity dis­lo­ca­tion wrought by this mas­sive thing just have to be rid­den out.

We dis­em­bark to take a closer look, bussing across yet an­other bridge. The dam is vast and wide but from this dis­tance not so very tall, even with fish­er­men at the break­wall for height con­trast. We can’t get close, and in­stead stand in a drab park while our guide Max re­cites damming fac­toids un­til some pas­sen­gers get fid­gety. A nearby mu­seum full of dio­ra­mas of tur­bines barely hints at the con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing the river’s yok­ing. There is only tri­umph. ‘My old home is now un­der­wa­ter,’ Max says af­ter­wards. ‘Some­times I feel nos­tal­gia.’

The true im­men­sity of the Three Gorges Dam some­how doesn’t trans­late un­til that evening when, back on board, we pass through its locks to get up­stream. The process takes hours, and I watch from be­gin­ning to end. There’s an au­di­ence for the first tran­si­tion, but it dwin­dles as it gets late. There’s some­thing com­pelling about it, though, and this basin of con­crete with slick walls is so mas­sive it starts to feel like a gorge it­self. As the fi­nal gate opens, a klaxon sounds, and we slip into the matt black sky. Un­til this point, most of the boat traf­fic around us has been in­dus­trial, the only con­ces­sion to beauty some pot­ted trees and Chi­nese flags on the bridge. Look­ing back at the dam’s rim

now, I can see clus­ters of plea­sure craft clad in gal­ax­ies of neon lights.

These ships, like ours, are here to see Wu Gorge. Its 12 fa­mous peaks are a pan­theon of gods and mon­sters, dom­i­nated by God­dess Peak. The God­dess is a huge, high nat­u­ral statue, stand­ing in state among the clouds. ‘No one climbs it twice,’ says Wil­lie, be­cause it’s too steep.

There are still places where you can make out stone worn down by foot­steps, and nicks and grooves cut into rocks by the thick bam­boo lines that once dragged ships through the gorges. These are the re­mains of thou­sands of years of ar­du­ous labour by the track­ers. There’s a proverb that ‘if the Yangzi has a soul, it is the boat track­ers on the Three Gorges’, and once past the Wu, we jump ship, catch­ing a smaller boat into an­other trib­u­tary, the Shen­nong Stream. There’s one mer­ci­ful con­ces­sion to the present, though: these track­ers, also Tu­jia men, work fully dressed. In the past, they worked naked so their clothes wouldn’t catch and drag them un­der, but pulling tourists is less ar­du­ous, and more re­spectable. They’re work­ing with small wooden pea-pod boats, not junks, pulled by teams of four, not teams of 50, but you can still see the strain, and the pre­car­i­ous­ness of san­dals slip­ping on high paths. The val­ley here is nar­row enough to make songs echo, and up on a cliff is an an­cient wooden cof­fin. It’s be­lieved to hold a no­ble­man of the mys­te­ri­ous Ba peo­ple, and no one knows how it got up so high.

Our own jour­ney is al­most com­plete; we’re ap­proach­ing the last of the gorges, Qu­tang, which is cen­tred on Dragon Gate, a spec­tac­u­lar scene that fea­tures on the 10 yuan ban­knote. The lime­stone cliffs here are whorled like fin­ger­prints, though the dam has di­min­ished their drama some­what.

The cities are com­ing faster now as we ap­proach Chongqing; there are re­lo­ca­tion vil­lages and re­finer­ies, even men swim­ming in the river on or­ange buoys. We pass a phe­nom­e­nally ugly town, cen­tred on two mas­sive con­crete tower blocks, like tomb­stones to town plan­ning, and it has gi­ant char­ac­ters yelling its name from sig­nage. The trans­la­tion, I’m told, is Po­etry City. The river is start­ing to smell like numbing chilli, and you can make out the sound of far­away car horns.

On the fi­nal morn­ing, the mist is ris­ing from the river, and I de­cide to stay on the bal­cony rather than join the deck-top tai chi class. Our pace feels slower, per­haps be­cause the head-cur­rent has quick­ened. Across the wa­ter a woman’s voice car­ries, singing a high-pitched, lilt­ing melody. It must be a boat­woman’s song, I think, and the scene seems eter­nal, this un­chang­ing Yangzi, cours­ing from the deep past all the way into the fu­ture. And then I re­alise that the song is com­ing from a TV in the cabin above me.

T HIS SPR EA D, CLOCK­WISE F ROM A BOVEHill­top homes in the Badong area, east of Wu Gorge in Chi­naʼs Three Gorges re­gion on the Yangzi River; en­joy tra­di­tional fare on the Sanc­tu­ary Yangzi Ex­plorer ( sanc­tu­aryre­; a cer­e­mo­nial house is dec­o­rated for a Tu­jia wed­ding; Fengdu streetlife, Chongqing mu­nic­i­pal­ity; a junk sails through Tribe of the Three Gorges in Xil­ing Gorge; chefs pre­pare food in Fang Weng restau­ran­tʼs kitchen; the Dy­nasty din­ing room aboard the Ex­plorer; Fang Weng hang­ing restau­rant is carved into the cliff­side and of­fers fine Chi­nese din­ing in strik­ing sur­rounds.PR EVIOUS PAGEClad in cus­tom­ary dress, a Tu­jia woman pon­ders the jade wa­ters of Longjin Stream from the deck of a wooden junk. The name for this trib­u­tary of the great Yangzi River trans­lates roughly to ʻdragon en­ter­ing streamʼ, which ref­er­ences the sur­round­ing land­scape of dra­matic gorges.

T HIS SPR EA D, CLOCK­WISE F ROM A BOVEA view­ing plat­form in the Xil­ing Gorge area pro­vides spec­tac­u­lar vis­tas of the Yangzi; run by the Tu­jia peo­ple, the pris­tine, scenic Tribe of the Three Gorges area is a pop­u­lar at­trac­tion; gritty ur­ban de­tail in Fengdu; the ship­board menu in­cludes won­ton noo­dle soup; pic­turesque views on the walk­way to Fang Weng hang­ing restau­rant, which is fes­tooned with tra­di­tional Chi­nese lanterns; corn dries for use in liquor mak­ing; Tu­jia peo­ple per­form a mar­riage cer­e­mony in full re­galia; with sep­a­rate bed­room and liv­ing ar­eas, the spa­cious Jade Suite on board the Sanc­tu­ary Yangzi Ex­plorer prom­ises a lux­u­ri­ous voy­age sur­rounded by el­e­gant, con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese de­sign.

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