Cruising down the Yangtze through China’s famous Three Gorges, Teresa Ooi is mesmerised by the mountainous scenery.
It’s a spring morning with an overcast sky when I arrive at Chongqing, in China’s Sichuan province, after a long overnight flight via Hong Kong.
I’m here to board Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer for a three-night cruise downstream to Yichang in Hubei province on the mighty Yangtze.
The Chinese call it Chang Jiang, which means long river, and the Yangtze is the world’s third, and Asia’s longest river.
Confucius once said: “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.’’ We hear a lot about the Chinese sage, whose sayings are everywhere here.
We’re certainly anticipating lots of heart-stopping moments. The awe-inspiring landscape surrounding the Three Gorges is on our itinerary, and this journey ranks in the top 10 “must-do” bucket-list journeys.
The Yangtze is considered by the Chinese as the greatest source of life. The river originates from the Tibetan Plateau and surges from the west to the east, cutting through Sichuan, Chongqing, Hubei and Hunnan provinces before emptying out at Shanghai.
It’s hot and humid on arrival at a nondescript wharf with steep steps leading down to the river ship. An elderly farmer-turned-porter hoists my case over his shoulders and deftly descended the steps. No high-tech luggage loaders here.
The ship’s expecting 95 guests, mostly American, Korean, Australian and British, plus two local Chinese families with young children.
I’m six hours early, but the young crew is most welcoming, showing me to suite 310 on deck 3. It’s a generous-sized room with balcony, a bathroom with separate shower, queen-sized bed and wardrobe.
Lunch is steamed dumplings and vegetable noodle soup.
Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer is a comfortable ship. Cabin sizes start from 31sq m. The four biggest suites, ranging from 81sq m to the top Celestial and Imperial suites at 110sq m, are decorated in modern Chinese style.
The ship has an onboard spa specialising in foot reflexology, and tai-chi classes take place each morning. There’s a gym, conference room, theatre and Explorer bar on the top deck, where most guests congregate and listen to the Filipino singer’s repertoire of ’70s and ’80s favourites.
The ship has its own chequered history. In 1995, Bill Gates chartered it for his family and close friends, including American billionaire Warren Buffet, for a four-night private cruise on the Yangtze to take in the Three Gorges. Orders of specially imported marshmallow chocolate drinks for breakfast and cans of cherry-flavoured Coke were loaded up for Gate’s intimate cruise holiday, with more than 100 crew on hand.
The ship has also hosted former US Secretary-of-State Henry Kissinger and Mark Cendrowski, a TV director best known for the sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
Cruises on the Yangtze often begin or end in Chongqing, China’s gateway to the south-west. It’s also a city of lights. When dusk falls, colourful neon lights are switched on cruise ships, pleasure craft, buildings, overhead funiculars and bridges. The harbourside resembles a scene from the original Blade Runner.
The one main dining room, the Dynasty Restaurant, boasts a fresh, stylish ambience. This is the only ship plying the Yangtze that offers an a la carte menu.
Over the three-night cruise, we enjoy a mix of western and Chinese dishes. Starters include a choice of beef consommé soup, cream of mushroom soup and winter melon soup, while mains range from duck with plum sauce to dory fish fillet in Thai sauce and fried chicken. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style with a choice of Chinese noodles with dumplings, fried beef with capsicum, sweet and sour fish, fried rice and traditional western scrambled or fried eggs, muesli with yoghurt, cut bananas and watermelon.
On the last night before we disembark, the ship throws a Chinese banquet dinner and guests are treated to a parade of waiters and waitresses all spruced up in traditional Chinese costumes followed by an after-dinner concert at the Tang theatre on deck four. In keeping with the spirit, the concert has several contributions from guests including a guitar performance by a passenger from Queensland.
It’s a trifle disappointing that despite the cruise starting in the Sichuan province, known for its spicy and chilli-hot cuisine, few spicy dishes are served on board – kung pao chicken, a popular dish cooked with garlic and spicy sauce, an exception.
The next day, we arrive at the ancient ghost city of Fengdu, full of shrines, temples and monasteries celebrating the afterlife. We take a walk through Fengdu market place where stall-holders sell anything from pig’s earlobes to chicken feet. Barefoot dentists, with no proper qualifications, carry out their trade in the open streets alongside several women tailors, altering clothes on–the-spot for waiting customers.
We’re close to the denouement. One of the new wonders of our modern world, an engineering marvel shrouded in wonder and controversy – the Three Gorges Dam.
At a relocation village, we visit Mr Mao, one of 1.3 million Chinese, mostly farmers, moved from the river banks when the dam was being built. That figure gives you an idea of the scale of the project.
Just after sun-up the next day, the ship enters the first gorge. Qutang Gorge is about 8km long and takes 20 minutes to navigate. Guests are awestruck, mesmerised by the sheer beauty of the mountainous landscape.
It’s exactly what you see in Chinese picture books of the Three Gorges.
Next, we enter Wu Gorge. It stretches 45km and is considered the most beautiful, with 12 peaks, including the famous Goddess Peak.
When the ship docks at Badong, we disembark directly to a ferry, which takes us on a guided tour of the Shennong Stream. We board a sampan rowed by three elderly boatmen, former farmers from the river banks, helped by two boat trackers who jump off and pull the sampan in very shallow waters.
As we move upstream, the water is densely green but the surrounding mountainside is magnificent. It’s home to the Tujia people from the Ba tribe, who have their own language and customs.
“Can you see the coffin hanging from the mountainside? Look, quick – there’s a dragon head and a swallow’s nest at the side of the mountain – use your imagination,’’ our local guide urges us, pointing out rocky features.
About 4pm, we enter the treacherous Xiling Gorge, scene of many navigational mishaps due to its frightening whirlpool currents and strong rapids. The Three Gorges Dam was constructed in the middle of the Xiling Gorge, increasing the river depth from three metres to more than 100 metres in the reservoir.
That evening, we dine in style with a Chinese banquet which includes hot and sour soup, kungbao shrimp, deep-fried minced-pork ball with chestnuts, steamed dory with vermicelli, garlic snow pea vegetables, pork dumplings and Yangzhou fried rice.
After dinner, we all dash up to the top deck to watch as the ship begins to manoeuvre through the Three Gorges’ locks. It takes more than four hours; we sleep.
The next morning, we arrive at Yichang for a guided tour of the Three Gorges Dam project, one of the biggest hydro-electric power structures in the world. Construction started in 1994 and was completed in 2008.
The dam displaced more than 1.3 million people and flooded 13 cities, 140 towns and 1600 villages. It also flooded many archaeological and cultural sites. Besides producing electricity, the dam has increased the Yangtze River’s shipping capacity and reduced the potential of flooding further downstream. It generates 11 times more power than the Hoover Dam in the US.
But there’s no escaping the fact that this huge engineering feat has been achieved at a great cost to the Chinese people and remains a controversial issue.
CRUISE LINE: Sanctuary Retreats
VESSEL: Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer
STAR RATING: N/A
PASSENGER CAPACITY: 124
TOTAL CREW: 118
PASSENGER DECKS: 5
ENTERED SERVICE: 1995
FACILITIES: Explorer Bar, small reading room, conference room, Huang Ding spa, tai chi classes, gym, Tang theatre.
BOOKINGS: For more information visit: wendywutours.com.au; sanctuaryretreats.com
HIGHS: Going through the dramatic Wu Gorge with its 12 peaks and arresting mountainous terrain.
LOWS: Lack of spicy Sichuan food. Could do with a wider choice of fresh fruit.
BEST FOR: Experienced 60-something cruisers wishing to tick off their must-do list.