The ferryboat ride from Chongqing down the Yangtse River and through the famous gorges is one of the most interesting journeys available in China. The trip to Wuhan takes just under three days, but unless you have a particular reason for going on to Wuhan or Shanghai, it is better to get off the ferry at Yichang, the town just below the gorges. Once past there, the river widens and the trip becomes rather tedious – the river banks are usually too far away to see clearly.
The Yangtse, 4000 miles (6400 kilometres) long, is one of the world’s greatest rivers. It rises on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau to the west and bisects China neatly in half, traditionally, marking the dividing line between the north and south of the country. It flows into the East China Sea just north of Shanghai.
The ferries from Chongqing sailing downstream, mostly named The East Is Red, stop at a number of towns along the way. At the end of the first day of the cruise, the boats dock at WANXIAN and spend the night there so that they will arrive at the Yangtse Gorges in daylight. Passengers are allowed to get off the boat and wander round this colourful river town, which also features a lively free market.
The first of the three gorges is the QUTANG GORGE, the shortest but also the most spectacular. At its narrowest point, the sheer precipices rising steeply on either side of the river are less than 100 yards (90 metres) apart. One ancient poet described the sight of the Yangtse forcing its way into the gap as being like ‘a thousand seas pouring into one cup’. High up on the cliff face, coffins have been found which were placed there according to the strange funeral rites of some long-vanished tribe.
Next comes the WUXIA GORGE, about 25 miles (40 kilometres) in length, where the cliffs on either side rise to over 3000 feet (914 metres). The most famous of the nearby peaks is the GODDESS MOUN-TAIN, named for its female contours, for which a Song dynasty poet wrote:
See the Goddess Peak from afar,
Her form is true loveliness.
Reflected in the water is the long knot of her hair.
Sun-filled clouds caress her flowing robes.
The third and longest of the gorges is the 50-mile (80 kilometre) XILING GORGE, at the end of which a huge hydroelectric dam is under construction to supply electricity to Wuhan. The GEZHOUBA DAM is also expected to make the waters of the Yangtse Gorges safer to navigate.
In the past, every boat making its way up the Yangtse had to be pulled up through the gorges by trackers. Sometimes hundreds of them were needed to pull a single junk up through the rapid currents, but the greater use of steam-driven boats in the past few decades has, thankfully, meant an end to the large-scale use of river trackers. However, people can still occasionally be seen hauling smaller boats up the channel.
How to get there
There is usually only one boat a day from Chongqing heading down the river, so getting a berth can sometimes be difficult. It is best to book in advance through CTS. If you travel to Chongqing from Chengdu, ferry hckets can be booked at the CTS office in the jinjiang Hotel in Chengdu.The ferries generally leave Chongqing at 7.00 a.m. and arrive at Wanxian at about 8.00 that evening. They start out again at 4.00 the next morning and dock at Yichang at 6.00 p.m. that night. They arrive at Hankou in Wuhan at about 4.30 p.m. on the third day. The upstream journey from Wuhan to Chongqing takes five days.
From Wohan it is possible to continue down the Yangtse to Nan-king (three more days) and Shanghai (four days).
The East Is Red ferries have five classes of accommodation. A number of berths and an exclusive lounge are often reserved for foreign tourists, but they can also travel second, third or fourth class. The Chongqing-Hankou (Wuhan) tickets cost 101 yuan for the top class and 29 yuan for fourth class.
The food provided on the ferries is generally considered to be awful, so it is wise to buy some provisions in Chongqing before starting out, although food can also be bought at the numerous stops along the way.