Yangtze River Cruise Guide: From Modern Shanghai to China’s Wilderness

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When you think of China, your mind may not conjure images of a prime cruise destination. But for those in the know, there are many sides to this vibrant nation, which balances shining metropolis and rugged countryside like no other place on earth. In this guide, we explore the Yangtze River, the world’s third largest waterway, which stretches more than 3,960 miles along the country. Indeed, the Yangtze is so vast, ocean-going vessels can travel smoothly inland for almost 1,000 miles before they meet any major obstacles. With over 700 tributaries, countless ecosystems and no fewer than three riverside communities, it’s no exaggeration to say the Yangtze is one of China’s most culturally, economically and geographically significant natural phenomena.

The best seasons for a river cruise on the Yangtze are undoubtedly spring and autumn, when the weather is neither too hot nor too cold. Trips take place both upstream and downstream, and vary in length depending on the current, season and vessel. We recommend allowing yourself at least a week or 10 days to take in all that this beautiful part of the world has to offer – from millennia-old tales of Tibet to imperial naval history, mist-shrouded ghost towns and some of the best cuisine this side of Shanghai…

History

The Yangtze’s source is found on Jara Hill, high up in the Tanggula Mountains, where it remained hidden until the late 20th century. Rumour has it this is due to the somewhat surprising origin, which belies the sheer scale of this river.

But the Yangtze’s history far pre-dates the discovery of its source. Written records date back as far as 208 AD, which signified the first appearance of the Yangtze in military history. During the Three Kingdoms period, the Battle of Red Cliffs split the former Han Empire at the Yangtze; it was a divide that would keep the Northern and Southern communities segregated for centuries.

In 1861, at the height of the British Empire, a trade concession in Wuhan was established to increase commerce between the Chinese and British. This may have provided opportunities for industrialisation in the region, but increased foreign control led to further footfall from non-native communities. By 1898, the first steamboat to reach Chongqing was captained by an Englishman. This is now a major stop on Yangtze river cruises.

Perhaps the most significant occurrence for the Yangtze was the Three Gorges Project, a conservation effort instigated to combat flooding and protect aquatic life. The initiative was not without controversy, but was viewed by many as a necessary measure to preserve the valuable ecosystems and communities that live off the land surrounding the Yangtze. In building a dam and reservoir, China created the world’s largest reservoir, responsible for supplying around 15% of the nation’s hydroelectricity power.

The star attractions

There’s an amazing array of things to see and do along the Yangtze, and here are a few of our favourites.

The Three Gorges

Sail the Yangtze and it’s hard to miss the Three Gorges, a trifecta of landmarks known for their geographical significance and importance to Chinese folk culture. The magnificent Qutang, Wu and Xiling gorges each offer something entirely unique from one another, but there are so many fantastic things to do, a single gorge excursion is likely to sate your appetite for adventure. Qutang is five miles long, while Wu covers 30 miles and Xiling 21 miles.

Tribe of Three Gorges is a popular tourist spot along the Xiling gorge, retaining many of its pre-dam structures and customs. The Village on the Water is our favourite though; a humble fishing community on the banks of the Longjin Stream, azure in colour and clear enough that you can see the many shoals swimming peacefully beneath its surface.

If you want to learn more about the three gorges, why not stop off in Chongqing? One of the largest cities along the busy waterway, it’s the official home of the Three Gorges Museum, which gives a good explanation of the history, geography, physical makeup and culture of the gorge communities. While you’re in the city, try to visit Ci Qi Kou, an aptly named porcelain village that is peppered with intricately-made structures dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. The vistas alone are fit for a china plate pattern!

Shigu Village, Lijang

Shigu Town

For most, this will be the first stop on their cruise, as they take in the rather humbly named ‘First Bend’. This historic and fabled point in the river represents the apex of three rivers joining around Meli Snow Mountain. It is both a picturesque scene and an ideal area for hikers. Head along the No.308 provincial road to access the viewing platform, or if you’re able, climb the hill at Shigu Village to get the full local experience. Locals may even tell you the legend of the three rivers, which makes for a fascinating insight into ancient Lijang culture.

Three Visitors Cave

Within the three gorges lies the three visitors cave, a heritage site at the cliffside of Mount Xiling in Hubei Province. A hugely culturally significant locale, this cave holds both ancient inscriptions and origin stories that help to explain its eponymous name. Perhaps the most whimsical is the tale of three famous poets coming to visit during the Tang dynasty to leave their mark upon its walls and create the tradition of engraving that goes hand-in-hand with the cave.

Ancient Plank Road

A must-see from the comfort of the deck, this storied road sits roughly 33 feet above water. A keen eye will notice thoroughfares that traverse the gorges, connecting each one over 31 miles. What may today seem like a fool’s game was vital passage for people through the mountains, providing protection from much worse fates. Flood seasons, dangerous currents and rapids were no match for the savvy Shu people, who created paths using wooden planks, or by utilising the natural material there – carving walkways directly into the cliffs. It is a must-see to understand the ingenuity required to survive among the Chinese wilderness.

Fengdu “Ghost City”

ghost town on yangtze river

Atop Ming Mountain stands an ominous stone figure, peering down as the icon for Ghost City. In what is, at times, an unnerving experience of traditional Taoist teachings, you learn about the shrines, temples and monasteries dedicated to the study of the afterlife. Along the way, don’t miss the ‘Nothing to Be Done’ bridge, ‘Torturing Pass’, and ‘Last Glance at Home’ tower, three trials that must be overcome if souls were to pass peacefully into the next life. If you have time, the ‘River of Blood’ and Tianzi Palace are particular highlights. Fengdu is definitely one for the secretly macabre among you.

Shibaozhai Pagoda

170 miles from Chongqing, you can set eyes upon Shibaozhai Pagoda, a 12-storey temple not for the faint-hearted. The only way to reach its peak is to climb the stairs and the ladders that connect each floor. Legend has it, the higher you climb the more likely your dreams are to come true. Inside the pagoda, there are many beautiful statues of lions, dragons and Buddhist figures to observe. Meanwhile, the tour guides can regale you with tales of the secret holes dotted around the pagoda for the passage of rice and duck to the temple’s monks.

Shanghai

As the point of origin or final stop on your river cruise, Shanghai places the Yangtze River in a different context. You will witness the pinnacle of modernity contrasted with the natural, free-flowing spirit of the Yangtze. Shanghai is a wonderful location for fashion, culture and architecture, but just outside, there are beautiful water towns that will show you the best ancient Shanghai has to offer. And of course, it goes without saying that Shanghai has some of the best food in the world. Check out Fengjing Town for a sense of ancient architecture, peasant art and quaint attractions those who enjoy off-the-beaten-path exploration will relish. The canal is a particularly remarkable sight, lined with traditional red lanterns that glow at dusk.

What to eat

Traditional rice dumplings

The Yangtze River’s differing levels of land fertility have led to creative uses of ingredients by the communities who live along its course. Here are the kinds of cuisines you can look forward to, and a few of the places we feel really do them justice.

Where the Yangtze River originates, mutton, beef, tsampa (roasted barley), and Tibet butter tea are the main dishes, owing to limitations in what the terrain can provide. Visit here to sample traditional Tibetan cuisine of simple yet delicious fare.

Long dubbed ‘the Home of Fish and Rice’, the lower plains of the Yangtze River are its most fertile. Rice is the core of diets here, and the basis of various types of cakes or sweet dumplings made of rice and Zongzi. Expect mild, fresh notes in the dishes of this area, as showcased by the Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui cuisines.

Hubei and Hunan Cuisines are core to the communities that lie in the middle reach of Yangtze River. Interestingly, this is where the land becomes less easy to work, with mountains and low humidity covering the region. Hunan cuisine is typically spicy and sour, since salt was historically difficult to obtain. While this has certainly changed with modern transport, the tradition of spicing their dishes still stands. In contrast, Hubei Cuisine is characterised by a milder kind of flavouring, which allows its star ingredient to shine. With an abundance of shrimp and freshwater fish, the high concentration of lakes in this area, delivered plentiful amounts of food.

Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan represent the highest reaches of the Yangtze, and depart from typical flavourings because of the unique topography of the land in this region. Less sunlight and greater humidity means that the people in these areas produce hotter, spicier food to help regulate their body temperature.

With thousands of restaurants in Chongqing, Wuhan and Chengdu alone, the Yangtze River offers plenty of choice for the discerning diner. Chongqing’s Jin Yao Xuan regularly draws in people with its specialist regionally inspired broth hot pot, while the famed dry noodle diet of Wuhan is best captured at The Stone’s Hot Dry Noodle Bar. Nowhere does Sichuan like Din Tai Fung, a fine dining experience providing hot, sour shrimp and pork dumplings that melt in the mouth.

Hot pot korean meal in a table.

10 amazing facts

  1. The Yangtze is home to over 350 species of fish. 112 of these are endemic, which means the only place in the world that they’re found is the Yangtze River.
  2. This river is said to be accountable for 20% of China’s GDP, making it an economically essential part of the country.
  3. The Yangtze irrigates more than a third of China’s agricultural output, comprising 30% cotton, 25% rice, 40% grain, and 48% fish.
  4. The Yangtze River is the origin point for more cities than any other river in the world.
  5. It is the world’s busiest inland waterway, with traffic levels growing at a rate of more than 25% per year.
  6. Far from just being long, the Yangtze River is the second deepest in the world.
  7. The Yangtze releases around 8 million gallons of water into East China Sea every second.
  8. Over 50 bridges provide access to the various destinations found along the Yangtze River. Before these were built, people relied on ferry to cross the river.
  9. The drainage basin of the Yangtze alone covers 20% of China.
  10. The Yangtze has more than 700 smaller tributaries.

A natural marvel; a location of truly outstanding beauty, the Yangtze River is one of the most memorable choices in our range of river cruises. This stunning destination will show you a different China than the one of busy streets, soaring skyscrapers and metropolitan living, as you interact with a cross-section of cultures, each living and working off the land as their ancestors have done for hundreds of years. A cruise around this area is not only educational but deeply humbling, and something you will carry with you for years to come.

If you fancy discovering these amazing sights for yourself, check out our latest river cruise deals on our dedicated river and luxury cruises page, or give our friendly customer care team a call on 0808 274 6777.

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About Author

Claire Wilde

Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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