Yangtze River Cruise Adventure
By Anthony Anderton.
It is one of the great river journeys of the world. For centuries travellers have marvelled at the scenic grandeur of the Yangtze gorges. Still, in over 30 years of living, working and travelling across China, and seeing pretty much every highlight on the tourist bucket list, somehow a journey on the Yangtze — China’s Mother River — had eluded me. Until this year, when on a steamy summer evening I stepped aboard the 216-passenger MV Selina to embark on my week-long Yangtze adventure, cruising downriver to the mighty Three Gorges Dam, and then back upriver to my starting point — the mega city of Chongqing.
Day 1: Chongqing — The Journey Begins
Booming Chongqing is one of the biggest and most dynamic cities in China. It straddles the junction of two rivers — the Jialing and the mighty Yangtze. The city proper boasts a population of ten million plus (and growing) and it pulsates with energy 24 x 7. Most travellers embarking on a river cruise seem to skip Chongqing, but I recommend staying a day or two to soak up the pulsating energy of this riverside giant and sample its legendary fiery hotpot cuisine.
I boarded the MV Selina at the historic Chaotianmen dock — “towards the gate of heaven.” For centuries it has marked the start — or end — of every traveller’s Yangtze journey. But in mid 2018 the “gate of heaven” is a confusing maze of new construction; members of tour groups will be escorted though, but independent travellers might need some assistance to negotiate the chaos.
As my passport and ticket were being checked for boarding, a small brass band struck up an exuberant welcome aboard. Comprised of musicians from the Selina’s crew it would be one of several entertaining performances staged for passengers by the very talented crew.
After a quick inspection of my snug, blissfully air-conditioned cabin (in summer Chongqing is nicknamed “The Furnace of China”), taking in the view from the private cabin balcony, and a familiarisation walk around the ship, I joined the other passengers for the welcome buffet dinner.
After dinner I made my way topside for the dramatic night-time departure from Chongqing. This is when you need your camera or smart phone primed and ready for action. The night-time departure, taking in the futuristic neon-lit skyline of Chongqing, is something not to be missed. With the ship’s horn booming the Selina slipped into the surging current of the Yangtze — and the start of my adventure on what was once called “the river of 100 perils.”
Day 2: The Downstream Journey
River Sunrise & Fengdu, the City of Ghosts
The Yangtze flows with great force at Chongqing and can flood severely during the summer — but by the time the ship reaches Fengdu Ghost City the surging current has totally abated and the Yangtze is like a vast lake.
The first activity of the day was a shore excursion to visit the historic temple complex of Fengdu, or the City of Ghosts, an important landmark for followers of the Taoist (Daoist) faith. I decided to start the day morning much earlier, with a sunrise photo shoot from the top deck and the chance to take in the stirrings of life on the water. A variety of water craft were already nosing around. A small, local ferry approached from the opposite bank, bringing passengers from new town of Fengdu, one of the urban centres that have sprung up since the dam waters flooded the Yangtze. Dozens of small towns and villages were inundated when water levels rose by up to 70 meters and more than a million people had to be relocated. The old town of Fengdu lies deep beneath the coffee-coloured water.
After breakfast the excursion to the City of Ghosts assembled and was ready to go ashore at 8am sharp — life on a ship runs to a precise and exacting timetable.
(Note: The Fengdu excursion is an optional extra and may not be offered if numbers are too small or if the river conditions are unsuitable.)
Our small group was accompanied ashore by an experienced English-speaking local guide, a feature of all the side trips and excursions during the cruise. As you enter the main ticket hall be ready with your camera. We were greeted by a colourful, energetic troupe of dancers, acrobats and fire breathers. At the foot of the hill you can opt to climb the tree-shaded stairways, or take the chairlift; the latter offering some fine views of the countryside and river beyond. At the top of the hill a small temple complex is believed to be the home of the King of Hell, and contains the gateway to the underworld.
After the excursion do not miss the morning talk (delivered in English and Chinese) by the ship’s river guide. I found this both entertaining and informative. Included was fascinating historic film footage, featuring grainy black and white clips of the gangs of trackers who once laboriously hauled ships upriver through the fearsome rapids, shoals and deadly whirlpools of the Yangtze.
In the afternoon the Selina docks at Shibaozhai and I opted to get ashore and visit the famous Red Pagoda, a 300-year-old structure made entirely from wood. On the walk to the pagoda there are dozens of enthusiastic vendors selling all manner of souvenirs. Look carefully and haggle hard (with a smile) and you might well snare a bargain to take home. I discovered the talented Mr. Yang who made colourful, intricate and vibrant action figures, dragons and creations of all kinds out of soft wire.
The climb up the interior of the wooden pagoda is very steep and strictly one way. Once you start the climb there is no way to turn back. But the views from the Pagoda and hilltop were more than compensation for the exertions involved.
Day 3: The Downstream Journey
Entering the Three Gorges
The City of the White Emperor, or Baidicheng, is celebrated in Chinese literature, folk tales, and historic epics. Like a castle of the Rhine the town occupies a strategic vantage point with some fine views of the Qutang gorge. But this beautiful spot was once a place of harsh exile for those who fell from imperial favour.
Rising water levels have forced the residents to rebuild the old city gate higher up the bank. Although we went ashore in the morning I found the combination of summer heat, steep stairs and the self inflicted burden of heavy camera equipment quite challenging. Make sure you take on plenty of water and buy one of the inexpensive but effective handheld fans from a vendor.
Around midday the Selina approaches the first of the gorges — the Qutang Gorge. As we drew close a ripple of excitement swept through the passengers. It is a good idea to get out on the viewing deck early as the best vantage points are snapped up in a flash.
Although the shortest of the gorges, the narrowness of Qutang Gorge and the imposing height of the encroaching cliffs make it — arguably — the most impressive and picturesque of the Three Gorges.
Soon after leaving the Qutang Gorge we neared the entrance to the second defile — the equally dramatic Wu Gorge. Entering the mouth of the gorge the Selina passed the bustling new town of Wanshan and passed under one of the many impressive new bridges that now span the Yangtze. This bridge also marks the border between Sichuan and Hubei Provinces.
The rest of the day can be spent totally immersed in the grandeur of the mountain and river scenery. The forward and rear observation decks provide excellent vantage points for photography, but many passengers choose to return to their cabins, settling in to watch from their own cabin balconies.
Before entering the final and longest of the gorges — the Xiling — I joined another side excursion, which was a delightful small boat ride up the Goddess Stream, one of the many smaller waterways which join the Yangtze The scenery on this short cruise was stunning, with sheer mountain cliffs flanking the narrow stream.
Day 4: The Downstream Journey — The Final Day
The Three Gorges Dam and Ship Lift
During the night the Selina had exited the Xiling gorge and had berthed upstream from the massive Three Gorges Dam, the terminus point for the downstream cruise. After breakfast I joined a small group of departing passengers for the short boat ride to the base of the dam. Then we sailed into the gaping mouth of an extraordinary ship lift — the only one of its kind in the world. After a dramatic and eye popping descent, which takes almost one hour, our boat emerged into the sunshine and onto the river — 100 meters lower than where we entered the lift.
Days 5, 6 & 7: The Upstream Journey & Return to Chongqing
Many travellers opt to start their cruise in Yichang and then journey back upriver to Chongqing. The upstream journey takes a little longer and the ship reaches Chongqing in the early morning hours of the fourth day. The upstream voyage follows essentially the same itinerary as downstream, in reverse order. It includes a visit to the Three Gorges dam site, the ride in the ship lift, the spectacular passage through the Three Gorges and onshore excursions to the City of the White Emperor and the Red Pagoda. On this trip I was the only downstream passenger remaining on board for the return. As a photographer I enjoyed seeing everything a second time around, and a day of light rain and misty clouds on the mountains only heightened the dramatic appeal of the Wu Gorge.
The upriver itinerary offers a couple of interesting variations on the downstream itinerary.
The first of these is billed as a visit to a traditional Tujia ethnic minority village. The bus ride is interesting, offering a chance to see the bustling new city that has sprung up around the dam area and also for some excellent riverside views of riverside scenery below the dam. Arriving at our destination it was apparent the village was built solely as a tourist attraction — in other words a theme park — so do not expect to see an authentic, traditional Tujia community. You will have plenty of other tour groups for company as well. Watch out for a glimpse of the old Yangtze —replica junks and a recreation of how trackers once hauled ships upriver. Although very touristy, the mountain scenery is pretty, and we caught sight of a group of a group of wild monkeys that still roam the steeply wooded hillsides.
The second variation offered on the upstream journey is an excursion on a smaller boat up the Shennong Stream. Again the river and mountain scenery is stunning, and it is possible to glimpse small villages and local fishing boats working the river. At various points the guide will point out the mysterious hanging coffins that are perched high up in the rocks. How they got there, who put them there — and why – largely remains a mystery.
Day 8: The Final Day of the Upstream Journey
Return to Chongqing
In the early hours of the morning the Selina tied up in Chongqing, marking the end of my Yangtze River adventure. After breakfast it was time to check out, say goodbye and step back on to dry land.
Life on Board: Personal Highlights
The crew of the Selina were unfailingly friendly, efficient and helpful. Many spoke very good English and the excellent Cruise Director Marion and River Guide Tom were always on hand and available. My fellow travellers on the cruise were all part of larger tour groups; I did not encounter any other independent travellers. I had all my meals in the Yangtze Club dining room, which offered excellent buffet breakfast and lunch fare and evening selections from an a la carte menu. Soft drink, wine and beer were complimentary with the evening meals. The shore excursions were lively and interesting, but the tight timetable leaves little time for personal exploration.
Being able to speak Chinese offered me an extra avenue to engage with the many Chinese travellers on board and led to the most memorable personal encounter of my trip. I was approached to pose in a selfie with a group of animated and very excited Chinese travellers. When they discovered I could speak Chinese this became an open invitation for me, and in turn each one of the foreign guests on deck, to be introduced and invited to pose for a selfie with the whole tour group — all 37 of them. One of the Chinese travellers confided it was the first time she and her friend had ever met Westerners. She told me her companions were from a small city in the distant northeast Province of Liaoning. They had gone to primary school and high school together, and worked together in a large iron and steel complex. Now retired, and in their 60s and 70s, they remain close friends and regularly travel together around China.
During the cruise I was allowed on the bridge to meet the imposing Captain Yang, and watch as he and his crew expertly docked the Selina. Captain Yang has been sailing the Yangtze for almost 20 years and told me the changes he has seen on the river during that time are simply incredible.
➢➢➢ Click here for Tony’s “Yangtze River Cruise Tips” and to see more of his photos.
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