A Yangtze River Cruise, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in May 2004

China's Yangtze River is the world's third longest river after the Nile and the Amazon.  With a total length of 3,434 miles (5,526 km), the Yangtze rises in the highlands of Tibet and runs the width of China, flowing into the East China Sea near Shanghai.  The Yangtze River Valley is famous for its landscapes which include spectacular gorges and steep mountains.


Traditionally Yangtze River cruise passengers were able to observe scenes of rural village life along the river's narrow cliff-lined course as well as some of China's cultural and natural treasures.  While the recent construction of the 1.5-mile-long (2.395-kilometer-long) Three Gorges Dam has meant that many villages along the Yangtze are currently in the process of being inundated, travelers will still find it interesting to view the riverside inhabitants' transition to new housing.  Too, the rising waters have actually served to ease navigation through the narrowest of the Yangtze River gorges; and the most important cultural relics and antiquities are being moved or otherwise protected.


Construction of the Three Gorges Dam, China's largest construction project since the building of the Great Wall, began at Sandouping along the Yangtze River in December 1993.  Closure of two-thirds of the river was achieved in November 1997.  Then in June 2003 total river closure was finally completed, so the reservoir finally began to fill and electricity generation also commenced.


The world's largest hydroelectric power plant with twenty-six 700-megawatt (MW) turbines, the Three Gorges Dam will have a total electrical generating capacity of 18,200 MW, equivalent to that of 18 nuclear reactors.  The output of the Three Gorges Dam will be 44% greater than the output of Brazil's Itaipu Dam, which contains eighteen 700-MW turbines.  Itaipu is the world's second largest dam.  When it is completed in 2009, the Three Gorges Dam is slated to provide 84.8 billion kilowatt hours per year, or nearly 10% of China's energy requirements.


Additional reasons for dam construction include navigation, irrigation and flood control.  Historically the Yangtze has flooded about once every decade, and more than a million people died in these devastating floods in the twentieth century alone.


The magnitude of the USD 30 billion Three Gorges Dam project is overwhelming.  When completed, this dam will have required double the concrete used to construct Brazil's Itaipu Dam.  It will also create a 5,000,000,000,000-gallon (18,927,000,000,000-liter) reservoir some 385 miles (620 km) long.  The total rise in water level behind the dam will be 361 feet (110 meters) by 2009.  This new lake will displace some 1.5 million people.  While it lies near a fault zone, the Chinese claim that the Three Gorges Dam is being built to withstand an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude on the Richter Scale.


Yangtze River cruises operate between Chongqing (Chungking) in the west and either Yichang or Wuhan in the east.


During World War II Chongqing served as the capital of China.  Then Chongqing also played host to the American volunteer air corps known as the Flying Tigers.  Today the port city of Chongqing is China's largest inland metropolis and the most important industrial city in southwestern China.  Chongqing is 1,490 miles (2,398 kilometers) upstream from Shanghai and 660 miles (1,062 kilometers) from Beijing.


East of Chongqing near Fengdu is the Snow Jade Cave formed from karst, a limestone which is easily eroded.  Created 50,000 years ago but only recently discovered by local farmers, the cave was opened to the public in late 2003.  The Snow Jade Cave has a total length of one mile (1.6 kilometers).


Further downstream near Zhongxian is the Shibaozhai ("Precious Stone Fortress") Temple.  This 12-story architectural gem dating back to the eighteenth century was originally built atop a 721-foot (220-meter) cliff.  A wooden pavilion with stair access was added in 1819 and a further three stories were completed in 1956.  When the filling of the reservoir has been completed in 2009 this temple will be preserved on a small island of its own by a coffer dam.


For most travelers the highlights of a Yangtze River cruise are the famed three gorges which are situated in a 118-mile (189-kilometer) stretch between Chongqing and Yichang.  The 5-mile-long (8-kilometer-long) Qutang Gorge, the shortest and narrowest of the three, is known for the mists which swirl around its limestone peaks.  Prior to the recent rise of the waters, the 25-mile-long (40-kilometer-long) Qutang Gorge, hemmed in by high cliffs, was no more than 500 feet (152 meters) wide.  The Wu Gorge, sometimes said to be the most beautiful, also offers scenes of green mist-shrouded mountains.  So sheer are the cliffs that legend has it that the sun never penetrates.  The 47-mile-long (75-kilometer-long) Xi Ling Gorge, longest and historically the most dangerous of the three, is noted for its caves and rock formations.  This latter gorge is bisected by the Three Gorges Dam.


Aside from the three gorges on the Yangtze River itself, there are also three breathtaking lesser gorges on the Daning River, a Yangtze tributary.  A day trip up the Daning in a sampan is perhaps the most romantic and beautiful of any of the excursions offered during a Yangtze River cruise.  Steep mountains rise on both sides of the clear Daning River, and the gorges are separated by lush terraced fields.  Two ancient hanging coffins may also be seen there high up on the cliffs.


Yangtze River cruises must now transit the Three Gorges Dam, which contains the world's largest ship locks.  The double five-stage locks are each 256 yards (280 meters) long, 31 yards (34 meters) wide and 4.6 yards (5 meters) deep.  Many boats can fit easily into each lock concurrently.  After transiting the locks the river boats stop and a very interesting tour is given of the Three Gorges Dam project.


Some Yangtze River cruises end at Yichang.  However, mine continued downstream for two additional days along the Yangtze plain.  In Jingzhou (Jiangling) a very touching tour was organized to a primary school.  Jingzhou was the capital of China some 2,500 years ago, and remains of the old city wall can still be seen today.


My cruise concluded in the metropolis of Wuhan, a major industrial center and transportation hub.  Wuhan is roughly midway between Beijing in the north and Guangzhou (Canton) in the south.  It is also midway between Chongqing in the west and Shanghai in the east.


In Wuhan I toured the Hubei Provincial Museum.  Most of the museum's contents were unearthed in a single tomb in 1978.  The tomb, dating to 433 B. C., contained the world's heaviest musical instrument, which is on display in the museum.  Weighing 5,525 pounds (2,506 kilograms), that set of 65 bells covers 5 1/2 octaves.


Inevitably some aspects of a Yangtze River cruise experience have been altered by the Three Gorges Dam.  But the gorges themselves with their impressive landscapes remain natural wonders which will continue to draw cruise visitors long after the dam's completion in 2009.


The absolute best time for a Yangtse River cruise is in the early spring.  Heat, humidity and rainfall conspire to make travel less pleasant during the period from May through October.  And fog can sometimes frustrate photographers from October through March.


Flying time from Cairo to Beijing is upwards of 19 hours.  Singapore Airlines, for instance, provides an excellent and comfortable air service via Dubai and Singapore.  Round trip basic airfares begin from EGP 4,264 plus taxes.  Since the cheapest air seats are always limited, it is advisable to reserve early.  Here in Egypt air reservations on most airlines may be booked up to 11 months in advance.  Also, a tourist visa is required in order to visit China; and China tourist visa issuance in Cairo normally requires a minimum of one week.


First-time visitors to China should give consideration to combining a Yangtze River cruise with a visit to Beijing, Xian and/or Shanghai.  Beijing offers world-class sightseeing in the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and Tian'anmen Square.  Xian's incredible 7,000 terra cotta warriors are now world famous.  Shanghai, China's largest city and the world's third largest container port, has long been open to Western influences.  In particular, it is interesting to view the various architectural styles - Renaissance, Gothic and art nouveau - along the Bund, Shanghai's elegant corniche.


If you've enjoyed cruises on the Nile and on Lake Nasser in the past, why not try a Yangtze River cruise next?


ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com


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