For three nights and two days I cruised down the world’s third largest river, which houses a third of China’s population. Within its winding gorges and steep cliffs, the Yangtze is a flowing history book and as a key focus of China’s economy and heritage, is an established attraction on the travel trail. The Yangtze River cruise is an alternative means of local travel to the train and overland routes you normally take - just don’t get your hopes up when you hear the word cruise, unless you specifically pay hundreds of pounds more for a luxury version!
Most travellers will traverse the waters of Asia’s largest river like a local, so it’s wise to not set your expectations too high. While I don’t mind ‘roughing’ my way through a country on a budget, I do tire of people who constantly moan about something without doing their research beforehand, like some people on my boat. You are travelling in China and they live and travel differently to us westerners, many of who expect first class service and extreme cleanliness. You won’t get this here, since ‘clean’ by Chinese standards has a whole different meaning. It’s just the way it is and this shouldn’t put you off travelling on and missing out on the experience of cruising China’s waters.
What to Expect On Board
Our cabins were basic (if a little grotty) but bearable; the toilet in the tiny bathroom was of the squat kind with the shower head hanging above it, but we knew we only have to live with it for a couple of days; the bar was simple and played host to China’s worst karaoke singers summoned up to make your ears bleed, and the food was overpriced and unexciting. But we were there for the view, not for the comfort – and that should be at the forefront of your mind when undertaking this trip.
This can be difficult to deal with seeing as you will spend a lot of time on the boat, so be sure to bring reading materials, snacks and other means to occupy yourself. Gossip became the key highlight in my cabin and beer was the evening saviour. For those you squeal at the sight of a slightly off-white bed sheet, bring a silk sleeping liner or a sleeping bag, and definitely pack the mosquito spray!
The view, in parts, is spectacular, although becomes somewhat repetitive as time goes on. While my view was clouded with a fine coating of Chinese smog (which slightly ruined the experience) the high cliff faces that jutted out, the rock faces that lined the coastline and the pretty scattered towns that emerged from nowhere created a sporadic picturesque scene. At times you were transfixed, but overall I can’t wax lyrical about a romantic and astoundingly scenic route. The sheer size of the river and its strong flowing current becomes the more dominant and fascinating view of all, and the fact you are travelling on a world-renowned river!
What You Get To See
The daily organised stops and day trips from the boat provided me with the beauty and history fix I craved so it was worth jumping off when I could – while not compulsory I was eager to stretch my legs and get out into the local towns. All announcements were in Chinese (which included instrumental interludes of ‘My Heart Will Go On’) but timings for each excursion and later departures were put up in the board in the reception area. Be sure to do your research on each place or have a Lonely Planet at the ready since all guides recite only in Chinese via annoyingly loud megaphones.
Boarding a local hand-paddled boat, my group visited the Three Little Gorges where we got up close to the magnificent and enclosed green surroundings, drifting peacefully through the murky waters, past the misty wetlands and wading under draw-bridges that connected to hidden hilltop villages. We also docked the following day at Fengdu – nicknamed the City of Ghosts’ – except it’s not a ghost town in the exciting sense that it’s been left abandoned and ready for some Indiana Jones style exploration. However there are some great ghost and spiritual related legends as you leisurely ascent the Ming Shan mountain such walking a long corridor without looking behind you, balancing on one foot for three seconds while looking straight ahead at a Buddha in a temple and being able to walk over a small bridge in either five or 10 steps without stumbling over. If you failed in any of them, you were a bad person. I failed at one, so I’m not quite sure what that means, but it was a lovely stroll nonetheless.
Sadly a lot of the river is polluted and the locals on board don’t help – I saw a few happily throwing their rubbish in – and a lot of off-limits due to preservation so you don’t actually get on land that much. You hardly see local life in action from the boat as the towns are high up, tucked away and out of reach. As like much of China, heavy construction is also in constant view including high-rises and huge half-built bridges.
At the Yichang end of the cruise, which is most likely your end point as many float downstream from Chongqing, is the mighty Three Gorges Dam. It’s impressive, even if we had to squint through the smog, but it’s one of those must-see things that you spend about five minutes marvelling at seeing as it’s supposedly one of the largest hydro-electric power stations in the world. I particularly liked the description etched in stone that said: “The construction of the Three Gorges project has made the long-cherished dream of the Chinese people come true.” I’m sure the Chinese people have been dreaming of a lot more than that but at least it produces energy, prevents disastrous flooding and allows for safe travel along its wide-reaching waters.
The Yangtze River Cruise may not be the most exciting and spectacular thing you ever do, but it’s certainly a relaxing break from the chaos of the mainland. If you love travelling on local transport, the cruise is a great way to travel through China, alongside its great train system and other overland routes. Mainly, the trip is a convenient source to get you from one major travel hub to another, whether that’s going downstream from Chongqing to Yichang or the other way around. If you don’t raise your expectations too high, you won’t be disappointed. In fact, you will enjoy the peaceful surroundings and the time to recharge your batteries. Just don’t expect the service you receive from a cruise liner at home.