Yangtze dreaming

Margaret Turton | VOLUME 24, ISSUE 1
The Daning River’s waters are clear, the canyon narrow.
Rich in beauty and legend, China’s Yangtze River is changing as man’s influence takes hold.

It’s hard to image the Yangtze beginning as a trickle of melting snow in the Qinghai-Tibetan highland – a trickle that develops into steady streams coursing through Tibet to form a river flowing east across the full breadth of China, it carves a clear division between the country’s north and south before emptying into the East China Sea near Shanghai.

This is China’s longest river – at 6397km it’s the third-longest river in the world, after the Nile and the Amazon. And as it makes this epic journey to the sea, the Yangtze switches its mood and appearance radically.

Sometimes the Yangtze’s waters are placid, sometimes they’re restless, but when they reach the Wu Shan Mountains of south-west China, they meet a solid limestone barrier that forces them to narrow as they rush beneath sheer cliffs and mountain peaks. These form one of China’s top scenic attractions; the myth-enshrouded Three Gorges – Qutang, Wu and Xiling. Eventually, on exiting the Nanjin Pass, the impatient waters are released; free to fan out as they pour across the boundless plain of the Yangtze’s lower reaches.


Of course, there’s more to the Yangtze story than that. Man has always loved, but feared this mighty river. Many sought to harness its power and, in 1919, Dr Sun Yat-sen, revolutionist and first provisional president of the Republic of China, proposed the building of a dam. Major flooding saw this proposal back on the table in the 1950s, when Chairman Mao felt sufficiently moved to set out his support in the following poem:

Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west

To hold back Mt Wu’s clouds and rain

Until a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges

The mountain goddess, if she is still there

Will marvel at a world so changed.

And indeed, the world did change for people along the Yangtze. In 1988 Gezhouba Dam was completed, as was (since 1992) much of the Three Gorges Dam Project – the largest water conservancy project in the world. The project includes a concrete gravity dam of gargantuan proportions and the biggest hydroelectric power station ever built. There are also permanent navigation structures such as a twin, five-flight continuous ship lock and, after 2009, a one-step vertical ship lift. These facilities already allow 10,000-tonne ships to navigate the 2425km distance between Shanghai and Chongqing, the latter in the Yangtze’s upper reaches.

A convenient spot to begin this upstream journey is Wuhan, on the vast Jianghan Plain at the confluence of the Yangtze and Han rivers. The site of a devastating flood in 1954, Wuhan is also known for sparking the republican revolution that brought down the last emperor’s Manchu court in 1911. Earlier, it had become a treaty port when China was forced to open its doors to foreign trade – the result of Britain’s victory in the Opium Wars.

As in Shanghai, this city retains an elegant Bund (waterfront promenade) of 19th century Western-style buildings – former banks and trading houses that made foreign powers great. Wuhan is also known for Hubei Provincial Museum and its rich collection of artifacts dating to the Warring States period (474-221BC), in particular, treasures from the tomb of local nobleman, Marquis Yi.


It may be more laid back than Shanghai, but Wuhan has become an ambitious city with an international airport and an ever-increasing number of high-rise developments. To illustrate the changes, our guide explained that, through to the 1990s, it was usual for a family to share a communal kitchen and one bathroom with up to three other families. Now, everyone wants their own place in the affluent New China. Everyone, perhaps, except the older generations, who miss the old ways and old communities – sentiments often repeated along the Yangtze.

As soon as we set off on this historic waterway aboard the 5000-tonne cruise ship, Viking Century Sky, the sharp contrast between city and country was obvious. Isolated farmhouses appeared on flat, lush fields running towards the riverbanks. These were punctuated by dredging operations. River craft added to the scene – barges carrying silt, gravel, coal and timber; passenger vessels carrying locals; smaller craft bustling in and out. And so it went, until we reached Yueyang, second-largest city in Chairman Mao’s home province, Hunan. It is still lagging behind economically, in this nation with the world’s fastest-growing economy.

Official statistics state that around 40 million students from poor families nationwide require aid and, here on the Yangtze, Viking River Cruises sponsor three schools that passengers can visit. The school we saw has almost 2000 students. It’s quite chilling to look at their images now and imagine their counterparts in Sichuan Province, where the May, 2008 earthquake destroyed entire schools. It killed so many students, along with the hopes of older generations conditioned by a one-child policy aimed at curbing China’s staggering population.

And so we left Yueyang, passing flat fields and harvesting scenes and sailing through the night to Gezhouba Dam, which can generate up to 15.7 billion kWh of electricity annually. Here, Viking Century Sky slipped effortlessly through a lock and sailed across calm waters to Nanjin Pass to enter Xiling Gorge. This is the longest of the Three Gorges and, historically, the most perilous.

Once known for fierce rapids and dangerous shoals that forced the Yangtze’s waters into whirlpools and created terrifying waves, Xiling Gorge is formed by sheer cliffs and forested slopes that zigzag for 76km. The two new dams have smoothed the shoals, but you still sense the river’s restlessness.


We disembarked at Sandouping alongside Huangling Temple, built in ancient times to commemorate an ‘anti-flood’ hero, Yu the Great. The current Yangtze hero is the Three Gorges Project, focus of that afternoon’s excursion. Long gone are the days when bamboo cables pulled junks over raging rapids and naked boat trackers used ropes and sheer physical strength to drag boats against the torrent. At the Three Gorges Dam Exhibition Centre, we viewed models illustrating the workings of the dam, the hydroelectric power station and the ship locks. We then drove on to see the real thing.

The dam is enormous. With a 39.3 billion cubic metre storage capacity, it is raising the water level by up to 100m, turning the inner river into a lake and improving navigation. Flood control measures will lessen the risk of flooding for 15 million people living downstream, including the region around Wuhan. That said, rising waters demand the relocation of 1.5 million people. Ecosystems will be altered, historic sites submerged.

As for the hydroelectric power station, this will generate up to 85 billion kWh of electricity per annum, an alternative to the annual consumption of 50 million tonnes of raw coal. And the Yangtze’s one-way shipping capacity will increase to 50 million tonnes a year, facilitated by the twin, five-flight continuous ship lock.

That evening, Viking Century Sky joined a diverse group of vessels and nudged towards the first massive lock. Once inside, centimetres separated us – you could follow the game of mahjong played on a vessel alongside. Slowly, the water level rose. Cocktails in hand, we stood there, transfixed by the enormity of the proceedings. Hors d’oeuvres were served as the lock gates opened and we moved into the second lock. The procedure was repeated and, at some point between the main course and desert, we exited the fourth and final lock, cruising onto the placid waters of the dam, 156m above sea level. The fifth lock will come into use when the waters achieve their final height of 175m. Meanwhile, we’d just ascended 93m during our evening meal. We then sailed through the night to the Wu Gorge.

Now the waters narrowed, hemmed in by the Wushan Mountains’ legendary Twelve Peaks, home to the mythical goddess cited by Mao. Shrouded in mist, the green-clad slopes looked like scenes from old Chinese watercolours. But this changed when we disembarked at Wushan City.


Old Wushan lies 70m below the rising river. So we squinted up at a new Wushan – a city of white and grey cubes. Here we transferred to a smaller vessel to explore a Yangtze tributary, the Daning, and to cruise through the Lesser Three Gorges –

Dragon Gate, Misty and Emerald, which some consider the most beautiful of all.

The Daning’s waters are clear, the canyon narrow. We saw monkeys, remains of old plank walkways and ‘hanging’ coffins of the ancient Ba people suspended high up in the precipices.

Returning to Wushan and Viking Century Sky, we continued upstream to Qutang Gorge – at 8km the shortest and narrowest of the Yangtze’s Three Gorges and, braced by towering cliffs, the most dramatic. Along with the beauty of these river gorges, we saw abandoned residences and farmhouses – ghost towns waiting to be submerged – and new cities reinforcing their riverbanks against the Yangtze’s rise.

One-time capital of the Ba kingdom, Fengdu, is already inundated. A new town was established in 2002 and this, we were told, offers space and better opportunity. To demonstrate the progress made in this regard, we were taken to watch a recital by senior citizens at a new Civic Park. They greeted us enthusiastically with Baa, Baa, Black Sheep …

And so we continued on to our last port of call, Chongqing, a municipality that is already the size of Austria. It is home to 30 million people and a number of giant pandas, the latter representing another definite highlight of this Yangtze journey.

Some of its backdrops may well be changing, but the mighty Yangtze flows on with its inherent majesty, as it has done for time immemorial.

For more information and bookings, contact Viking River Cruises toll free on 1800 829 138 or email: australia@vikingrivercruises.com.