Cruises typically last three nights and stop at a few of the sights listed below en-route, although the highlight is the spectacle of the Three Gorges themselves. The major sights along the way are: Fengdu and Shibaozhai, both of which lie to the west of the gorges, Baidicheng, which marks the start of the first gorge, and the Lesser Three Gorges and Shennong Stream between here and the dam site at Sandouping.
Sights throughout the region have been affected by the rising waters. While some, such as Shibaozhai, have been protected and others (Zhang Fei Temple, for example) have been moved, an equal number have been lost forever. However, as cruise ship operators and the government are keen to point out, the higher water levels will facilitate access to certain sites, including Baidicheng and Fengdu and will allow greater exploration of tributaries such as the Lesser Three Gorges and Shennong Stream.
All of the attractions are worth exploring but, if you’re interested in visiting a certain sight in particular, ask when you book. Most cruises stop at Fengdu, but choose only one of the Lesser Three Gorges or Shennong Stream, and might include Shibaozhai or Baidicheng temples. If you’re on an upscale cruise boat, then all the excursions (including entry fees) should be included, while on cheaper boats you may have to pay for each trip.
Transfer to the sights sometimes takes place by bus or ferry and a guide will be appointed for the English speakers from your boat and will take you through the main sections of the sight, perhaps giving you some free time to explore at the end. Guides often focus on the legends associated with sights; while entertaining, many of these stories are best taken with a pinch of salt.
If you want to go it alone, make sure to tell your guide and arrange a time to meet and return to the boat. These stops are also a good opportunity to stock up on drinks and snacks if you don’t want to pay the boat’s inflated prices – you’ll find shops, stalls and vendors clustered around docks and at the sight entrances.
Cruises finish at Yichang (or Wuhan). But, until the lake is completely full in 2009, the locks may be closed from time to time, meaning you’ll disembark at Sandouping, avoiding the intriguing four-hour journey
through the locks.
The Three Gorges (Qutang, Wu and Xiling) lie between Fengjie and Yichang, and offer a stunning ride through towering peaks steeped in history and legend. All three gorges were formerly treacherous to navigate, particularly Xiling and Qutang, and the latter was famously described by Song poet Su Dongpo as “a thousand oceans in one cup.”
These days the gorges are far tamer and by 2009 the whole run should be smooth sailing. Passing through the gorges, you’ll see bold markers denoting the water level when the lake reaches its full height.
Of the three gorges, Qutang, at only five miles long, is the shortest, while Wu (Witch Gorge) stretches for some 30 miles and Xiling is longer still at 50 miles. Although they have lost some of their depth, the gorges remain impressive and all three have craggy, lofty peaks which have been given poetic sounding names to describe their shape.
Guides will keenly tell you these names as you pass by and if you’re lucky you might actually be able to see the resemblance – Goddess Peak in Wu Gorge and Monk Hung Upside Down in Qutang Gorge are both recognizable. High up on the side of Qutang Gorge, you can also just pick out a series of four hanging coffins dating from the Ba period.
♥♥ Fengdu Ghost Temple (¥80)
A hundred miles east of Chongqing, Fengdu city has been completely covered by the rising waters of the dam, and its residents have been relocated to the other side of the river, but the ghostly temple itself remains intact. The 15-minute climb up gives a little chance to stretch your legs but, if the boat has put you in a stupor, there’s a cable car.
At the top you’ll be greeted by a grizzly collection of brightly colored statues that allegedly only allow the virtuous to pass – look out for the baby-munching green demon and his blue pal who’s chewing on a leg!
The temple itself is dedicated to the King of the Dead, and guides will eagerly tell you a legion of macabre tales associated with the site, encouraging you to participate in an Indiana Jones-style set of tests, such as crossing a bridge in only three steps and running up a staircase without taking a breath!
On the way out you should make sure not to miss the display of fiendish judges of hell, keenly meting out appropriate punishments to wrongdoers – a glutton is being boiled alive in a cauldron of oil and a nagging woman is having her tongue removed!
Grizzly demons guard Fengdu Ghost Temple
♥♥ Shibaozhai (¥60)
Fifty miles on from Fengdu, the 12-storey tower and temple at Shibaozhai is one of the most impressive structures along the cruise and although the town at its foot is now submerged, a coffer dam is being built to hold off the lake’s waters. The pagoda-style tower and temple were built during the Qing dynasty and the rocky outcrop to which they cling was once joined to the north bank of the river, but has now become an island.
Baidicheng (White Emperor City; ¥80)
The whole of this stretch of the Yangzi is associated with the Three Kingdoms Period, which is recounted in the 14th-century novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but nowhere as much so as Baidicheng. White Emperor City was established by the Shu King, Gong Sun, after he saw a white mist rising from a local well, whence he also proclaimed himself the White King.
The Shu protagonist, Liu Bei, retreated here after his closest ally was killed by his own troops and Liu died here in 265 AD. There’s a tablet commemorating his death in the temple, and there used to be another temple dedicated to his ally, Zhang Fei, although this has now been moved, brick-by-brick, to Yunyang, to save it from the rising waters. Poets were also inspired by the region and Tang master Li Bai “left Baidi amidst colorful clouds.”
♥♥♥The Lesser Three Gorges (¥190)
A little way beyond Baidicheng, the DaningRiver joins the Yangzi, and there’s a great five-hour trip to be enjoyed up the “Lesser Three Gorges” as this dramatic stretch of the Daning River is known. You’ll transfer from your cruiser to smaller motor crafts and push farther upstream through some stunningly narrow gorges and, unless it’s been raining heavily, you’ll see the water color change from murky brown to emerald green as you progress.
There’s a hanging coffin to be spotted in the second gorge and you might even see monkeys if you’re lucky. In days gone by you would be pulled up by men with ropes, but as the water level has risen this is no longer the case.
♥♥♥Shennong Stream (¥160)
There’s another excellent upstream adventure to be enjoyed on the Shennong Stream, a little downstream of Wushan. This four-hour trip affords breathtaking gorge views from small wooden rowing boats, which are painstakingly pulled through the roughest parts by teams of men using ropes. The local people are famous for their singing and your trip might be accompanied by their dulcet tones.
To get to the smaller boats you have to take a 40-minute ferry ride from your cruise ship. A little east of the Shennong Stream, Zigui is the hometown of famed minister and poet, Qu Yuan, whose river suicide is remembered by the Dragon Boat Festival .
Three Gorges Dam Site(¥135)
Whatever you think of the project, it’s gone ahead and is being touted as the best thing to happen in China since boiled rice. I visited the dam site several times during its construction and every time was overwhelmed not only by its gargantuan scale, but also by its popularity with domestic tourists.
At the site there’s an exhibition detailing construction and with a grand model of the dam. You can ascend to a viewpoint where you can overlook the whole site. If you’re lucky, your guide might be able to arrange for you to take a trip along the top of the dam itself – ask in advance and note that security is tight. You can also visit the dam site from Yichang by minibus or bus #8, which takes around an hour and costs ¥25.
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