china 6: ultimate yangtze


Plunging from the Tibetan plateau, the Yangtze river or Chang Jiang “the Long River” in Chinese, is China’s longest river, and the third longest in the world, flowing 6,300 kilometres across the country to finally empty its waters in the East China Sea above Shanghai. The navigable section, however, only starts in Chongqing, the chief industrial city in south-western China with a population of 30 million. Constrained by a very hilly peninsula marking the meeting of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, the city is unique in China in not having a single bicycle on its streets, and tends to be very foggy all year round. If it is sunny for three days in a row, it makes news. 🙂

Chongqing is also one of its kind with its three very interesting forms of public transport. Cable cars carrying around 80 passengers at a time make stops at docks along the river. Elevators convey people from the lower part of the city to its upper reaches. And then there are the escalators; the largest spanning about a kilometre long and stretching from the railway station to down-town.

The Jialing river cuts through the heart of the city. Chongqing is incredibly beautiful, especially at night, especially to my eager happy eyes. Sparkling high-rises line the river and enmesh the steep precipitous hills; everything aglitter including the highways adorned with lights which change colour every few seconds. After an “authentic” meal of spicy noodles, tales of beautiful hot-tempered women and their soft hen-pecked husbands, much laughter and merriment, and wonder at the supermarkets and malls which held within their aisles the whole world’s wares that China supplies, I finally left for my cruise ship moored by the docks in the windy cold night.

It is possible to sail all the way from Chongqing to Shanghai, though most tours only cover the stretch from Chongqing to Yichang and last an average of four days. The most famous and enthralling section lies between Fengjie and Yichang. Mist-shrouded peaks, dramatic rock formations, vast hanging curtains of stone, remnants of ancient settlements and swirling waters all create a living drama that slowly unfolds as boats embark at towns and historical sights along the way.

The Yangtze river with its splendid three gorges is lined with Buddhist and Tao temples full of superstition and lore

Fengdu, or “Ghost City” and the nearby peak of Mingshan, a spooky collection of temples complete with statues of Yinwang, god of the netherworld, and a colossal bust of the Yellow Emperor encasing the summit is the first stop along the cruise. Cable chairs took me to the peaks above, where blue-walled temples led into each other, rich with superstition and lore. At the ultimate summit, a dark statue of Yinwang in a yet darker hall lit but dimly, awaited me. Fengdu dates back to the 7th Century and was an important place of pilgrimage in ancient times, playing a decisive role in the concept and beliefs associated with reincarnation, Buddhism and Taoism.

The splendid three gorges with their turbulent currents commence below Fengjie and cover a distance of 192 kilometres. They are easily one of the treasures of our world. Pristine, grand and beautiful. Swathed in mist and soft transitory rains, the gorges envelop any of us who venture into its folds with awe and the joy of nature’s soul. The 8th Century famed Chinese poet Tu Fu described the entrance to Qutang, the first gorge, as “a gateway where all the waters of Sichuan Province battle for access.” The banks narrow in at Qutang to become a canyon up to 600 meters deep, opening up into peaks and headlands above. The river’s width contracts to a mere 100 meters at points, pushing up the water level by 50 meters. At 8 kilometres, it is the shortest gorge of the three but the most ferocious. Ancient inscriptions, hanging coffins, precarious paths carved into the walls of tall rocky peaks capped with pine trees, and ruined temples silently slip by and then disappear. Every rock and defile has a name; spirits of deities are believed to inhabit the towering summits.

Wuxia Gorge, the Gorge of the Witches, is 45 kilometres long and dominated by its 12 Fairy Peaks draped in cloud. An onshore excursion to Shennong stream offered further unforgettable experiences. Boarding smaller boats, I entered Parrot Gorge and Dragon Boat Gorge, both endowed with lush pine mounts and translucent waters. Getting on to yet smaller boats dragged by local tribesmen, we proceeded to sail over pebbled streams nestling in silent hills, going ever deeper into the very innards of the Yangtze. The indomitable spirit of Chinese enterprise struck me yet once more. In the middle of nowhere, amidst pure unadulterated nature, I turned around to find a man standing knee deep in the waters by my side, selling picture post cards. “Nihal! Lookie, lookie. Buy, buy?”

Xiling Gorge, the longest of the three gorges at 76 kilometres, brims with history, legend, 2,000-year-old temples and numerous smaller gorges. Yichang is the final port of call. The Three Gorges Dam, the immense and controversial project which will slice across the Yangtze at Sandouping, is 40 kilometres above the town. Started in 1993, the largest hydro-power station in the world will be completed by 2009, submerging the gorges forever in the process. Over 2 kilometres wide and 185 meters high, the dam will create the world’s biggest reservoir, turning the three gorges into a lake 660 kilometres long and providing almost a fifth of China’s electrical needs. There would finally be an end to the floods that occur during the seasonal summer rains. And an end to the rapids of the three gorges. 1.13 million people are being relocated in the process. Five locks will allow ships into the three gorges which will, thereafter, be able to proceed easily to Chongqing, now transformed into a lakeside port. And the visions of nature I witnessed these past four days will be somehow lost forever.

Throughout the whole voyage I spent hours on deck, watching the mountains loom over me on all sides. It rained often as I took the smaller boats into Shennong stream. Yet, drenched to the bone, I stood on the prow, unable to move myself an inch away from nature’s beauty. Endless rows of pine-clad peaks gave way into each other whilst silken waters peppered with rain drops wound its way before me.

My ship was lovely with captain’s welcome and farewell dinners and a non-stop series of exhibitions and workshops explaining various facets of Chinese culture ranging from acupuncture to painting, and Chinese tea to embroidery. I had been allowed to upgrade my room so I took one with my own private balcony. It was splendid. Sleeping with the French windows wide open. Often I thanked my god. And wondered at my destiny, and all the places my soul was destined to be. 🙂

Three Gorges Dam Project

The Three Gorges Dam Project is the largest hydro-power station ever built in the world. The dam site is situated in Sandouping of Yichang city, Hubei Province and comprises a dam, two powerhouses, and navigation facilities. The spilling section is placed in the centre, while the powerhouses are arranged on both sides; the permanent navigation structures are located on the left bank side. Categorised as a concrete gravity type, the total length of the dam axis is about 2,309 meters with a crest elevation at 185 meters. There are 14 sets of hydro-turbine generator units installed in the left powerhouse while 12 sets are in the right. There are, thus, 26 sets of turbine generator units in total, 700 MW for each, totalling 18,200 MW in installed capacity that will produce 84.7 TWh of electricity output annually.

Divided into three stages, the total duration of construction is 17 years. Stage 1 of construction lasted five years from 1993 to 1997. Stage 2 lasted six years from 1997 to 2003. The third stage will last another six years from 2003 to 2009. After the project is completed, the total storage capacity of the reservoir will be 39.3 billion cubic meters, with the normal pool level at 175 meters. With the reservoir’s 22.15 billion cubic meters of flood control storage capacity, the river will be able to raise its flood control capability from the present 10-year frequency to the 100-year. The 660-kilometer waterway from Yichang to Chongqing will also be improved, making it possible for 10,000 tonnage ships to sail upstream directly to Chongqing.

The budget of the project is 180 billion yuan. Based on current electricity rates, 25 billion yuan can be earned annually in direct income from electricity sales. From this income alone the project can achieve full return on its investment within the allocated period. The enormous benefit from flood control and navigation is inestimable.


Wuhan is the final chapter of the Yangtze cruise though it is often reached by road from Yichang. There is a beautiful symmetry and harmony in the landscape en-route replete with fields submerged in glittering water, speckled with rice and the emerald green leaves of lotus plants, and water buffaloes steadily ploughing the meadows.

Capital of the Hubei Province, Wuhan is a combination of the three cities of Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang which group together around the Yangtze river, and contains 38 freshwater lakes. Wuchang was a former capital of the State of Wu during the Three Kingdom Period (220-265 AD) and operated as an anti-Qing centre in the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th Century. Hankou became a treaty port in 1861 with a mix of French, British, German, Japanese, and Russian concessions. Hanyang is the smallest of the three and was heavily industrialised in the 20th Century.

The city has many gems in the midst of its tree-lined avenues and strong French flavour. Of particular import is the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuchang with its captivating collection of over 15,000 relics from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, a small Zhou dynasty kingdom (1122-256 BC) dating back to 433 BC. The tomb was discovered in 1978 whilst building bomb shelters to supplement the military camp at Wuhan. Under bamboo mats and layers of timber, in an airtight cavity 20 meters below the ground, were unearthed ritual vessels, chariot fittings, musical instruments, weapons, gold, jade, lacquer-ware, bamboo slips; the main attraction being the Marquis’ magnificent sarcophagus consisting of an inner and outer coffin covered with early Zhou designs and motifs. Twenty-two sacrificial caskets were also discovered at the site containing mainly women. The skeleton found in the main sarcophagus suggests that the Marquis was about 45 years old when he died. Bronzes that accompanied the coffins in the tomb reflect an advanced stage of craftsmanship using the lost wax method to achieve intricate filigree details. Objects include bronze picks, ladles, a wine cooler, filters, various vessels, and an exquisitely detailed bronze weight.

Also unearthed were a huge set of bronze bells—the amount of alloy controlling the note of each bell—and a large 65-piece set of chimes. Each bell is further able to produce two different notes as it is thick in the middle and thin at the sides. The bells were carved with characters explaining the notes they could produce to ensure they were played correctly. It is unfortunately not known till date how exactly these bells were made as Qin’s conquests in 221 BC destroyed all traces of Zhou culture. In 1980 and 1997 concerts were held in China with the original instruments, recreating the music of millennia past. Currently, a musical performance is carried out at the museum daily using a reproduction of the bells and chimes. I attended one such show. Musicians dressed in traditional costume struck the large chimes and bells; the crystal clear notes punctuated with the loud clashing of cymbals and the soulful strains of the lute and zither. It was both, visually spectacular and magnificent to the ear.

Just around the corner from the museum is another monument to a vanished past. Chairman Mao’s villa is where the great leader regularly came to contemplate and plot his next moves. The villa is symbolic of the era, spartan and soviet, with weary traces of Mao’s life scattered within the rooms, offering a fascinating glimpse into the individual.

On snake hill by the Yangtze is the Yellow Crane Pavilion, a restored tower that has been much lauded by imperial poets of past dynasties. Originally built in 223 AD, it had already been destroyed 17 times by 1984 when it was rebuilt to its current form. Within the pavilion is an interesting set of models depicting the tower’s architecture under past dynasties.

Wuhan brims with life. From the chaotic traffic to the large elegant eating halls decorated with French paintings and furniture, from the crowds thronging the streets lined with trees wrapped in twinkling lights to the laughter and voices of merriment echoing at every corner. I went out for dinner to an eating hall with long French windows and enormous crystal chandeliers. Another one of my guide, Benjamin’s, treats. The place pulsated with nearly a thousand vivacious animated people seated around white-clothed tables, simultaneously talking, laughing, and eating, living life’s every moment vibrantly. The history and monuments are the edifice of this city. The people, they are its quintessence.


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