Yangtze River Cruise: Three Gorges, Two Friends, One Big-Ass Dam


There are certain things you have to do in China. You have to go see the Wall. You have to fumble around with chop sticks at a fancy meal with way too much food, and you have to cruise the Yangtze River.

Okay, maybe you don’t have to, but you should. No trip to China is really complete without it. The Yangtze River is the world’s third longest and winds its way through some dramatic landscape – the Three Gorges. Is it the most beautiful river gorge I’ve ever seen? Probably not, but still pretty spectacular. Would it have been more spectacular before the building of the dam? Absolutely, but since I don’t know what I’m missing I can’t really be disappointed.

Eugene Regis' photo of a cruise ship on the Yangtze.

Cruising the Yangtze. Photo by Eugene Regis.

My traveling partner had done the cruise before, so she knew the ropes. She directed us to Chónqíng- one of those Chinese mega-cities that you would probably never get to if you weren’t going to cruise the Yangtze River. (Cruises go from or Chónqíng to Shanghai or vise versa. It’s also possible to do shorter trips of segments in between.) Once on the ship, we settled into our cabin and then found some comfortable chairs on deck to stare at the cliffs shooting straight up out of the water.

Britrob's photo of Shennong stream off the Yangtze River.

Enjoy the gorges as you cruise the Yangtze River. Photo by Britrob.

Shennong River Trackers

Along with the amazing scenery, the Yangtze River cruise may come with some interesting side trips. Many travelers will find the trip up the Shennong River, which funnels into the Yangtze a little bit east of Chónqíng to be the most memorable.

Historically, the people of this area used their might and determination to pull boats through shallow, rocky waters. The men would literally strip down to loin cloths and hike along, dragging the boats, even ships, through the shallows. Today they wear western clothes and drag tourists.

This is one of those travel experiences that serves as a vivid reminder as to how much of life depends on where and when you were born. We, the travelers, sit on our duffs watching the scenery go by. They, the Trackers, sweat and strain pulling us along. The inequity is disturbing at best. One woman I’d met on the cruise felt completely miserable.

I didn’t know how to feel. It is absolutely unjust that some of us have the opportunity to receive an education, travel the world and be pulled up the Shennong river while others have to work like beasts. I don’t really know how to address this injustice. Lists posted at the small dock where we embarked made it clear the Trackers were anxiously awaiting their opportunity to pull a boat full of tourist. It gives them a way to earn money, and us a way to give it to them. And it is their cultural heritage. But still…

Gabriele Battaglia's photo of the first curve of the Yangtze river.

The Yangtze meanders through a dramatic landscape. Photo by Gabriele Battaglia.

Dam!

I would have like to see the Three Gorges at their full height, before the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to China until 2007, so I missed the boat on that one (pun totally intended). But the trade-off for not getting to see the gorges before the days of backed-up water is getting to see the dam itself. Regardless of whether you view such public works projects as the Forward March of Progress, or as Impending Natural Disaster, the Three Gorges Dam is impressive.

Photo by GDS Infographics.

GDS Infographics’ photo with everything you ever wanted to know about…

As one would expect from China, the Dam is big. I mean BIG – 2 km wide and almost 200 meters high – the biggest public works project in China since they the built the Great Wall. It was constructed to serve multiple purposes. The Yangtze River has a long history of catastrophic floods taking millions of lives. Flood control is a valid concern. The Dam will also improve navigation on the Yangtze River, and of course, produce hydroelectric power. But looking at it made me think that maybe it was one of those things we (we being humans) do, just to prove that we can.

Of course, there are many concerns about what the social and environmental impact will be of an “intervention” this big. Millions of people were displaced by the rising reservoir. This may not be as bad as it sounds. It’s easy for those of us who live comfortable “Western” lives to over-romanticize traditional lifestyles. I think many of the people who were ousted from their homes will probably enjoy the modern conveniences of their new apartments. But what about their livelihood? And if the Dam were to fail, the amount of water that would come crashing down on the half million people who live immediately below is unfathomable. There’s one other thing that seems rather disconcerting. Since the water will be moving downstream more slowly, that means that everything in the water will be moving more slowly too. Everything. Including waste. Human waste. Ummmmm, this is bound to smell pretty. You might want to plan your Yangtze River trip for sooner rather than later.

Allen Watkin's phot of the Three Gorges Dam.

…this. Dam! Photo by Allen Watkin.

Along with an impressive system of locks, the Dam also includes an elevator for “small” boats. I had a hard time getting my head around what that was. Isn’t an elevator for boats a lock? Well, no, not in this case. In this case, a small boat coming down (or up) the Yangtze River can sail into a box and then have that box – boat, water and all- lowered (or raised) down to the level of the river below (or up to the level of the reservoir above). Wow. Crazy.

And while I can’t say that there is anything particularly exciting about watching water rise, I got my butt out of bed and went out on deck as our ship passed through the locks at midnight. Locks are cool. A great example of how when faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, the simplest ideas sometimes work the best.

Patrick Denker's photo of the locks on the Yangtze river.

Wake up to go through the locks. Photo by Patrick Denker.

Yangtze River Cruises

Google Yangtze River cruises and you’ll come up with a lot of options:

China tours
Victoria Cruises
Avalon Waterways

And many more. Most of them seem to offer pretty much the same intinerary (logical, they’re all going down the same river). It’s probably worth checking traveler’s reviews. The main question may be – Do you want to be on a cruise with Westerners or would you rather be on a boat filled with Chinese? But that’s a topic for another post…

Published in China, Sightseeing

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