Chances are you’ve heard of the Yangtze river even without ever visiting China. At over 6000 kilometres, it’s the third longest river in the world, and runs from the West of the country to the East, linking Chongqing to Shanghai. For the China, this river has been the centre of a lot of history and legends. But why would you want to visit such a place and why would it be worth your time? There are a few reasons: the dramatic landscape and the rugged karst peaks that flank the river for much of it’s journey make for spectacular scenery, but the many sights that you might encounter along the route will probably be the thing to tip the scales. Also if you are ever so slightly interested in China, the Yangtze river is still a strong economic and cultural factor for the Southern provinces of the country.
The Yangtze river: Get on a boat!
While you might be able to explore the Yangtze river with a hike from one of the many nearby towns, the most common way to visit the area is on a boat. You’ll find cruises departing from Chongqing all year around and depending on how much time you’ll have and how much you’ll want to spend, you will probably find something for you. From 2 days to up to 9 days on the river, take your pick, there’s something for everyone.
We’re more for a “take your time” kind of trip and would probably recommend one of the lengthier options, long journey trips leave from Yichang (not too far from Shanghai) going west or Chongqing going east, but if time is an issue then you’ll want to start in Chongqing (often referred to as ‘Furnace City’, as the summer months can be very hot!), as the best of the sights are close by and can be reached on one of the shorter trips. Attractions like the lesser three gorges for example are located fairly close to town. Also, if you’re a lover of spicy food, don’t forget to sample the Chongqing Hotpot while in town.
Side excursions: What you will get to see.
On a cruise along the Yangtze you will get to stop in quite a few unmissable and iconic spots. It could be a quick stroll through a certain location or a day trip, but you won’t get bored that’s a certainty.
If departing from Chongqing you will get to see, in the following order (if departing from Wuhan, then it will be the other way around) :
Shibaozhai – A temple made of wood.
A towering red pavilion built in to a rocky outcrop over 200m tall and overlooking the Yangtze river, it is a bit hard to make something more photogenic than that! You’ll get to climb to the top and observe the fantastic views on the nearby hills and fields. The landscape changes completely depending on the seasons: not only because of the colours of the trees but also because of the level of the water. Shibaozhai used to be a Taoist temple, which has become something of a tourist hotspot in recent years. Shops line up from the dock to the entrance of the temple. One thing is for sure: you won’t get lost! Follow the trinkets sellers!
The Wu Gorge – A ‘bewitching’ scene.
The Wu Gorge (also known has the Witches Gorge) is the second largest of the Three Gorges. The scenery is fantastic but it’s the stories behind the name and the place that add a little mystery to it all. The highest peak of this gorge is believed to be the embodiment of Yao Ji, a fairy protecting the sailors coming through the treacherous passage.
The Lesser Three Gorges – Hanging Coffins
You’ll get to jump on a much smaller boat to explore this area. The passage is narrow and you will be completely surrounded by cliffs that somehow might feel too close for comfort. It’s not just the landscape that makes this place so special: it’s famous for its hanging coffins, a tradition held by the Ba, a local minority. While the name may suggest otherwise, the coffins themselves were removed long ago, so don’t expect to see literal coffins dangling above your head, but you will certainly see the many holes and caves dug in to the rock faces, which were used to bury the dead.
The Three Gorges Dam – A massive engineering project.
This one you will definitely have heard of, the Three Gorges Dam is one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever attempted, and remains the largest dam and the largest power station in the world. Sadly we were a bit disappointed by our visit, unfortunate timing meant that the boat elevator was still in construction at the time and we didn’t really get a good look at the dam itself. But be prepared to stay a few hours with your boat in the massive system of locks that will take you from one side to the other.
When is the best time to plan a Yangtze cruise?
As for most things in China Autumn is clearly one of the best time to visit the Yangtze river. Turquoise water. Colourful trees. It’s got it all… but it will also most likely be booked early on due to the popular October holiday that attracts most locals.
If you can’t make it before or after that holiday then Spring and Summer are good times to come and visit. Be aware that Summer is hot, very hot, and that Chongqing will be very truthful to its nickname: the Furnace.
Visiting in Summer like we did also means that the water might be low in some areas and floods might occur downstream.
Is it worth the splurge?
As mentioned earlier you will find boats for just about any price when wanting to cruise the Yangtze river, so if you’re keeping to a tight budget, then fear not. But just be aware that cheaper options will obviously mean smaller cabins, and that budget tours typically cater mainly to Chinese tourists, so you’re unlikely to have the benefit of English-speaking guides or commentary, something that you may find daunting, or you may find very exciting, that one is up to you!
On the other hand, if you’re willing to spend a little more (after all you’ve travelled half way around the world to see China, you might as well splash out a little!) we can certainly recommend Viking River Cruises. As the only western brand currently operating their own ship for Yangtze cruises, you can expect all the comforts of the familiar; plush staterooms, English-speaking staff, great food and drinks (both western and Chinese options were always available at mealtimes), and a wealth of enjoyable entertainment and activities on board the ship. While a little more up-market than our usual type of holiday, we went on a Viking River cruise along the Yangtze and really enjoyed the experience.
Obviously, if you’re backpacking around China on a shoestring budget (been there, done that, got many of the t-shirts. . . ) then something like this might be out of your price range, but a Yangtze cruise itself doesn’t have to be, hop on a budget boat with your phrasebook in hand, and look forward to some good cheer and authentic Chinese food with the holidaying locals. But if this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip to China, then set a little extra aside and have yourself a spot of luxury while you take in the sights.
Can a Yangtze cruise be easily added to an itinerary?
If you are worried about adding this cruise in the middle of your itinerary then worry not, the airports of Chongqing and Wuhan serve most big Chinese cities. You can easily start from Shanghai, get to Chongqing to then travel to Chengdu (it’s a very short train journey between the two) and keep on going with your trip.
We’d probably recommend adding this towards the end of your trip so you can get yourselves some relaxing time before heading back home.
Have you been on the Yangtze? What would you recommend, a short or long trip? Let us know in the comments!
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