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Cruising the Yangtze

If I had to pinpoint one thing that I remembered the most about the Yangtze cruise it would be the overwhelming fact that 1.3 million people have been relocated in that region for the building of the Three Gorges Dam. At $180 billion, the Three Gorges Dam is largest hydropower dam project in the world, another of China’s “great walls.” The project, of course, has been mired by controversy since its inception over 15 years ago with various groups claiming it to be an environmental catastrophe.

Over the past 100 years over one million people have died due to flooding on the Yangtze River, known as the river of tears for this reason. The dam has significantly controlled the flooding. It has also allowed ships to flow easily to and from the city of Chongqing thus developing it into another powerful industrial hub. All this and China’s ever growing power needs were the grounds for the dam project. The dam site is geared for tourists with gardens, photo opportunities, gift stores, and heavy security. The dam is neither the largest nor the tallest dam in the world but is largest in terms of the amount of concrete used in the project. Although the dam is a quite a sight, spanning 1.1 miles long, it is not the reason to cruise this river. To the contrast of this man made engineering marvel the nearby gorges are truly one of nature’s masterpieces.

The area is fascinating and with its 2000 year old history mysterious as well. The tourist cruises successes lie in the breathtaking scenery of the gorges, and this alone is worth the trip. After climbing onto a smaller boat to go to the adjoining river one is taken into the smaller tributaries that flow into the Yangtze. The waters and life are still, only the slight hum of the boat’s engine is heard. One side of the mountains there is little signs of life. A family of monkeys enchants the tourists and then a lone farmer is seen boarding his small fishing boat. A few men come on their small boat trying to sell litchis to us. We pass an area where there are coffins placed in the high up in the cliffs. It remains a mystery how these coffins weighing several hundred pounds were placed in these niches over 1000 years ago. In fact, one of the issues of relocation of the people on the lower land by the government was the issue of their buried ancestors. The government provided for their coffins to be relocated in the process.

There seems to be very little dissent by the people in terms of their forced moves. My Chinese friend who was also my interpreter asked several people around the region about the relocations on my behalf. All responded positively about the project and took nationalistic pride in what the country has achieved. Some of the porters who carried our bags were former farmers that had to give up their lands. They said it was easier to carry bags rather than to farm and their lives had improved since they relocated. This seemed implausible as we walked a long distance leisurely to our vehicles. The porter followed using a bamboo stick on his shoulders to carry both our heavy bags, one bag on each side of the shoulders.

Throughout the cruise journey Jeff, our knowledgeable English speaking guide, gives you all the facts about the region and project. Everyday there are educational sessions on the dam project how it has helped the region in controlling floods and producing power. Jeff is able to answer all the questions that the tourists, mostly American and English, ask him with very little effort and the message that the Chinese government has ingrained in their people is clear…The project is China’s pride and joy and it will be projected as so.

The cruise ships are small and cozy, every room has a balcony and hours are spent gazing at the water, which is a bottle green due to the sediment deposits in the area. The air in August is warm and there is evident pollution during the journey. An upgrade to a suite on the cruise may be worth the extra money; unlike large cruise ocean liners there are very few public places to relax on these ships and one does tend to spend more time in the cabins. There is a large culinary spread for all three meals, a mixture of Chinese and continental. Dinner is a sit down Chinese meal, some interesting items such as crispy skinned chicken, beef with asparagus, shark finned soup and fennel dumplings were especially good; breakfast and lunch are buffet style. On our table we had a couple from Atlanta, USA traveling with two young children, he was a police officer and she was a scientist at Emory University. There was a couple from London as well; both couples had come to China for the Olympics as we did. We all agreed to meet up for the London Olympic Games in four years.

There are interesting activities to choose from on the cruise ship, like learning about freshwater pearls, Chinese art, Chinese Medicines and tai chi. Talks on the Three Gorges Project are held daily so people are prepared for what they are to see the next day. Excursions are in the morning after an early breakfast, the return by lunchtime. The ship’s courteous staff speaks good English and is talented as well. One of the evening’s entertainment included a musical extravaganza put on the by the staff. Our steward played an incredible piece on the saxophone. I wondered why he was working on the ship and later asked him the question. He replied there is very little work for a musician in the area and on the ship he could earn well as well as better his English speaking skills.

The 3 day Yangtze cruise puts the breaks on the hectic tour of China. After the morning excursions there is plenty of time to “do nothing” while the ship sails to next destination. The internet is rarely accessible and there is CNN is the only English channel in the room. But after sightseeing in three cities with another two to follow, the cruise was a relaxing break to the schedule. Several cruise companies and sailing routes are available to choose from. However I recommend the 3 day cruise as this is all you need to see the most important.

Publised in Midday Mumbai, November 2, 2008

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