Monday, January 18, 2010

The Yangtze - Riding the caramel-colored dragon

Well, the Yangtze used to be a dragon and was when I cruised down it, but post Three Gorges Dam, it's probably more like a gentle eel than a capricious dragon. The itinerary has changed since I made the trip but I doubt that it is any less memorable.

Passenger boats on the Yangtze.

Technically, only the stretch from Shanghai to Yangzhou of the world's third-longest river is the Yangtze. To the Chinese it was the Changjiang - long river - but the first British visitors' mistake has been a lasting one.

Most travelers want to see the Three Gorges area and take a three- to four-day cruise. I wanted to go from Chongjiang, western cruise terminus, to Shanghai, the eastern terminus, and am glad I did, even though it meant missing Xian and the Terra Cotta Warriors and a side trip to Ya-an to see the pandas (next time!). I also chose Victoria Cruises, another fortuitous choice.

Tip: The largest of Victoria's fleet - the Victoria Anna, Jenna and Katarina - have elevators. The smaller ships do not. If money is no object, the Shangri-La suites at the bow guarantee great views and for those early morning scenic wonders, because you can see both sides of the river, you won't have to get dressed and come on deck.

Not that it will take you much time to dress - attire is very casual with something nice needed only for the captain's receptions. Passengers were a United Nations mixture - American, British, Australian, Indian, Chinese, German and Taiwanese.

Pre-dam gorge. 

Chongjiang. Pronounced Chong-ching, this city of 33 million is like San Francisco on steroids. It's hilly, so hilly that instead of the plethora of bikes you see elsewhere, here they are motorized. Scooters are popular too and it's a genuine bit of culture shock to see frail-looking little men bent under wooden shoulder yokes and balancing woven baskets heaped high with forage driving bright yellow scooters.

I can't tell you much about Chongjiang because my plane from Beijing was so late it was after dark when I arrived and was taken directly to the ship. However, a frequent travel companion tells me she thoroughly enjoyed her day spent in what was headquarters for Chiang Kai-shek and the Flying Tigers of World War II. It is known as the country's foggiest city in the winter and one of China's three furnaces in summer. That I can attest to.
Warning: It was a precipitous, winding walk from where the car parked to the dock for me. Since the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, however, where we parked should be underwater so you might have a nice, relatively level entry. I emphasize the might. This will apply to all ports west of the dam although I suspect with the new building, access points should have improved. If you need more up-to-date details, e-mail me and I'll find them out from fellow travel writers.
Hold hands crossing this bridge if you want to remain lovers in the afterlife.

Fendu is a colorful as it is inscrutable.

Day 1 - Fengdu, the Ghost City. The ship left on time, slipping easily into the busy stream of river traffic - rowboats, huge barges, even Russian-made hydrofoils. The city is one of those that was inundated by the dam, but its primary attraction, a kind of Disneyland of the Dead, survives. It recreates the series of lurid stops and trials Buddhists must negotiate en route to heaven. You will probably chalk it up as inscrutable; I did, but on a clear day the views from Mount Minshan compensate nicely. You may miss it altogether: current itineraries list a relocation village as an alternative.                  

Pagoda tower.

Lesser gorges via Daning River.

Day 2 - Wushan and ship locks. You'll pass through the Qutang Gorge first thing in the morning then disembark at Wushan for an excursion to the Daning River Small Gorges or Shennong Stream. Motorized sampans take you up the Daning through ever-changing scenery - hillsides to cliffs where monkeys clamber and clamor. Where once we stopped at Zigui for the night, today's cruise sails through the Gorges Dam ship locks.

Day 3 - The Dam. Today you will tour the culmination of a dream that began in 1919 with Dr. Sun Yat Sen, China's George Washington. Like everything in China, it's big beyond imagining. The water west of the dam should be at its highest so you can see if silt buildup is the problem many feared. You'll reboard the ship at Yichang.

                          Dam under construction.


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