Yangtze River Cruise in the Three Gorges

John Sundsmo
12 min readNov 30, 2021

Story and Photos by John Sundsmo

Our cruise ship, Yangtze Gold-6, following another cruise ship around a bend in the Yangtze river.

A Yangtze River cruise was never high on my list of travel options, but it should have been. China in my mind’s eye was distant, elusive and ancient — yes — but also under-developed and an emerging second world country. Oh, how wrong I was. After a few days on the Yangtze River with my wife and our travel companions, my incredible ignorance was corrected.

Yangtze Gold-6 in Fuling

Chongqing: Our cruise ship left from the historic city of Chongqing. Dating from the 4th century (Qin and Han dynasties) the city took its present name in the 11th century (Song dynasty). The vast present day modern industrial city boasts that two out of every three laptop computers are born in its factory workshops. Its large municipal area is also home to car factories (Ford, Mazda); banks (HSBC, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Scotiabank); Wal-Mart; and other multi-national corporations.

Yangtze Gold-6 galleria

Our luxurious cruise ship awaited us at Chaotianmen Dock. Home for the next four days, the Yangtze Gold-6 (150 m long x 25 m wide; 150 crew members) was an amazing construction of steel, glass and gilt work. More like a floating Las Vegas hotel than cruise ship, our room on deck-3 was just a short walk up to the 6th floor sun/view deck.

Cruise Itinerary: Traveling most nights while we slept, our ship pulled into ports along the river each morning to allow shore excursions: i.e., at Fuling-Wanzhou (White Crane Ridge), Fengjie to visit Baidi City (Baidicheng; White Emperor City); and Wushan for a tour of the Small Three Gorges on the Madu River ( a tributary of the Daning River that flows into the Yangtze River).

Afternoon gorge viewing on the Yangtze River

Afternoons, as we traveled through the gorges and the surrounding towering mountains, we contemplated both the natural beauty of the scenery and the urban and rural life on the river. Our cruise passed through all of the three gorges cut through Mount Wushan by the Yangtze River: Qutang Gorge; then Wu Gorge; finally Xiling Gorge (site of the Three Gorges Dam).

Construction on the Yangtze River with a modern truck ferry in the foreground

Life on the Yangtze River: All along the ancient river, modern cities are sprouting like mushrooms. High rise apartment and industrial buildings dominate the skyline. Modern highways and high speed trains traverse long mountain tunnels to connect cities. Suspension bridges over the Yangtze River connect regions previously accessible only by boat. China is ancient, Yes, but emerging, No — it has emerged — one look at the modern new buildings, roads, bridges and rail lines is sufficient to inspire envy.

Modern suspension bridge crossing the Yangtze river.

On the river, ships carry sand, gravel and cement building materials; on the river banks, everywhere there is massive building activity; but, then round a bend in the river and into view come traditional fishing sampans, peasant homes and subsistence farming. It is abundantly clear that, as the Chinese ship of state races forward, some of its inhabitants are being left behind.

Fishing sampan —checking their nets

Our guides explained that children leave the rural villages to succeed in city factories and their efforts provide a monetary lifeline for families. On the Yangtze River rural China with it’s traditional ways was on view, but then around the next bend was modern-day urban life. My view of China, both old and new, was profoundly altered. Soon I was ready to just enjoy this unique travel experience and all of the beauties to behold on this long, mighty, and historic river.

Beached sand and gravel hauler being unloaded
Rural life on the Yangtze river complete with terraced vegetable gardens and orange orchards along the river. Transportation seems to be via sampans, with very few paved roads, cars or even motorbikes.

Fuling-Wanzhou — White Crane Ridge: Our first shore excursion took us to an underwater museum. Dropping from the shore down a long tube escalator, we arrived in a submarine-like enclosure — unbeknownst to us at the time, it was 124 ft. (38 m) below the surface of the water. Flooding from the Three Gorges Dam, (the last stop on our cruise), submerged a major archeological site so the Chinese constructed an underwater viewing submarine. Baiheliang (White Crane Ridge) was a limestone ridge in the river that recorded the dry-season water level with stone carvings in the shape of fish. The ridge also contained calligraphy and poems attributed to hundreds of famous scholars dating back 1,200 years. Fish-marking observations on the mile long ridge (1600 m) were used to establish weather patterns to predict farming and planting prospects.

Submarine view of White Crane Ridge

White crane sings and stone fish portends auspiciousness”, read one of the inscriptions underwater. Personally, I found it most auspicious to be back out of the stone-fish-submarine tubes and back on dry land.

White Crane Ridge historic painting (with a fisherman on the white ridge just behind the junk)
Porters carrying paying passengers to the top of the BaidiCheng stairs

Fengjie dock to visit Baidi City (Baidicheng; White Emperor City): Cruising overnight, our second morning on the river found us approaching Fengjie dock for our next shore excursion. After a quick breakfast we hopped onto buses for the short ride to Baidicheng (White Emperor City). Legend tells of a white mist rising from a well atop the mountain. Because it resembled a dragon, Gongsun Shu, (founder of the Shu state; 206 BC-25 AD), declared himself Baidizi (son of the white emperor-dragon) and his capital Baidi City (white emperor city). Located at the entrance to Qutang Gorge, we learned that all we had to do was climb 1,000 steps to the top of the BaidiCheng mountain for great views of the western entrance to the gorge. Weaklings that we were, we needed three rest stops to catch our breath, with one stop just to watch in awe as porters carried paying passengers in traditional divan chairs up to the top of the 1,000 stairs.

Bridge to BaidiCheng

The historic imperial city was worth the climb, both for the view and for the view of Chinese history in the second century BC, (when Hannibal crossed the Alps and invaded the Republic of Rome). As we entered the Baidi City through Kui dragon gate, we saw the Shu magical dragon well, but no mist was rising from it. Instead, like magic, a heavy stone dragon sculpture rose within the well. Inside the city gate were three halls constructed in the 13th-16th centuries to commemorate the founding of the large Shu-Han state in Southern China. By 200 AD, the feudal state extended far up the Yangtze River to encompass all of present day Chongqing, as well as, all of the three gorges area from Chongqing to Fuling. Bordered on the North by the Wei kingdom and the East by the Wu state, the time is known in Chinese history as the Three Kingdoms era. As the Romans built their empire, traders from China’s Three Kingdoms traveled the Silk Roads to the Mediterranean Sea.

Kui Dragon Gate entry to Baidi City
Wuhou Temple in Baidi City

Within the city walls, Zhongwu Hall celebrates the unusual life of the orator and prime minister Zhuge Liang including his role in the “Tongue Wars with Confucianism” (208AD). “Tongue Wars” because Zhuge Liang saved the Shu-Han state from invasion by Western Cao-Caomercenary army. He is credited with establishing a key lifesaving wartime alliance for Liu Bei, emperor of the Shu-Han, and Sun Quan, emperor of the Wu Kingdom to the East. But to seal the alliance, he first had to defeat Confucian scholars arguing for peace with the invaders. Thus, “Tongue Wars” had to be won before swords, lances and arrows could be used. He succeeded and the Shu-Han-Wu alliance successfully stopped a large invading Western Cao-Cao army. Winning the war granted the Shu-Han state another six decades of peace.

Zhongwu Hall: Liu Bei (200 AD) with his generals and prime minister

The time on BaidiCheng mountain was short. Reluctantly, we retraced our steps to our tour buses and were whisked away to lunch on our ship. We were reminded of a poem encountered on the mountain — “Departure from the BaidiCheng at Dawn” by poet Li Bai in the 7th century: “Bidding the town farewell when morning clouds hang low. A long trip through canyons I made in a mere day. Monkey cries were heard on either bank all through the way. While the boat passed by mountains swiftly in a row.” Today, boats and monkey cries are ever present in the Yangtze River valleys, and the spirit of Li Bai and the ancestors is forever preserved in the White Emperor City on BaidiCheng mountain.

Entering Qutang Gorge

Departing from Fengjie dock we soon entered Qutang Gorge, the first of the three major gorges on the Yangtze River, i.e., with Wushan Mountain to the south (right), and Dachang Ancient City to the north (left). From the height of the mountains, the narrowness of the gorges and the massive size of the river, it is easy to imagine what the rapids must have looked like in the time of Li Bai during a flood. As dusk approached we entered Longmen Gorge and during the night we passed through Bawu Gorge and Dicui Gorge, but sadly, smooth as silk, we slept right through it.

Sunset on the Yangtze River

Wushan dock, Small Three Gorges (Madu River — a tributary of the Daning River): Our third day on the river saw us anticipating arrival at Wushan dock for an intimate close-up encounter with the three small gorges on the Madu River. Disembarking, we found a short walk was all we needed to board yachts that took us up the Daning River gorges to a dock on the Madu River. There, we disembarked to board 20-foot long motorized sampans for our intimate up-close encounter with the three small gorges: Dragon Gate Gorge, Misty Gorge and Emerald Gorge.

Three Small Gorges tour, Madu River

Close to the water, we were able to really appreciate the narrowness of the rocky gorges, the height of the mountains and the tranquility of the scene. Perched high above us in cliff caves were ancestor’s coffins, with only the slight noise from our boat’s motor to interrupt their eternal sleep.

Returning to our ship just before dusk, we dined sumptuously and finished just in time to view our sunset entry into second large gorge of our cruise: Wu Gorge — the largest of the gorges. We learned that local legends say each of the twelve Wu mountain peaks has a fairy spirit. For the highest peak, the spirit is that of Yao Ji, the youngest daughter of the Heavenly Mother. In the fading sunset tight, to us, she appeared as misty and ethereal in her crimson and orange sunset robes. She bid us good night and bon voyage, for the next morning brought us to our last day on her Heavenly Mother’s river.

Ship locks at Three Gorges Dam

Three Gorges Dam: Located at the downstream end of Xiling Gorge, (the third of our major gorges), China constructed the highly controversial Three Gorges Dam. It is the largest dam in the world and was designed to control floods on the river, generate hydroelectric power and open the upper reaches of the river for easy navigation. It seems to have accomplished all three design goals. Almost 600 ft high (181 m) and 7600 ft long (2335 m), the dam holds 360 ft of water (110 m) creating a lake that extends more than 400 miles and opens all of the upper Yangtze River to navigation. This amazing feat of engineering required an equally daunting political challenge that few countries could have undertaken: i.e., moving one million three hundred thousand local people to higher ground on new land and into new government constructed houses. Construction was also highly controversial because of the enormous environmental, ecological and social costs. Clearly to us, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam opened up the river to the massive development we observed taking place in all of the upstream cities. With Beijing now experiencing severe industrial pollution and smog, forcing development and industrialization to move south into the Yangtze River valley. The river rapids in the gorges have been replaced with tranquil, easily navigable waters and the Yangtze is the new commercial highway of Southeast China. Nature and tradition is clearly altered by the massive construction. It is for the future to determine whether the costs were justified.

Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River at Xiling Gorge

One take away was clear to me, my initial impression that China as distant, ancient and elusive was confirmed. I was mistaken in thinking that China is emerging, because it has already emerged. I was also very mistaken to think of China as second or third world country. The massive building projects, modern high rise buildings, express highways and trains are all first rate and new, really the envy of any first world country. Our time viewing rural life along the river brought home the feeling that all this massive development has come at a significant cost for the older generation. Like the USA ‘farm belt’ or ‘rust belt’, modern urban development in China and the USA has benefited the younger but cost the older generation. Also like the USA and other countries, historic ways of life die-hard and are still on view in the three gorges of the Yangtze River, making it, for me, a must-see for future exploration travel.

This article was published previously on TravelExaminer.net under the same title (https://travelexaminer.net/yangtze-river-cruise-in-the-three-gorges/ ).


Yangtze (Cháng Jiāng): As the third longest river on the planet behind the Nile and the Amazon, the Yangtze River extends 3950 miles (6380 km) from headwaters on the Tibetan plateau to empty into the South China Sea near Shanghai. The vast river valley is the site of human activity for more than 27,000 yrs. DNA evidence suggests that ancient human migrations probably included precursor civilizations for Austronesian, Polynesian, Southeast Asian and Northeast Indian populations.

Life on the Yangtze River before the dam (Photo: courtesy of the Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing)

The China Silk Roads: To familiarize ourselves, we visited the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing. Archeological evidence in the museum shows trade in the Yangtze valley dating back at least 12,000 yrs. Over the ages, trade goods flowed but with cultural contacts also came the flow of ideas, religions, philosophies and mathematics. The flow profoundly impacted Chinese civilization, as well as cultures in the Mediterranean, India and Persia. For instance, Buddhism flowed from India into the Yangtze River valley probably during the Shu dynasty (100–200 BC). In return, Chinese science, including fireworks and gunpowder, flowed West into Persia and the Mediterranean, with profound effects on European warfare.

Veneration of “Trackers” in a shipboard play

Trackers: At the museum, we also learned that strong Yangtze River currents, rapids and mountain gorges were obstacles to navigation. When steamships first came upriver in the 1920s, they had to be physically towed by 50–60 Chinese trackers through some of the rapids. Trackers’ lives were hard and at that time worth less than the price of a pig. Powerful marine diesel engines eliminated the need for trackers in the 1960s. However, the upper reaches of the river remained dangerous due to whirlpools and narrow channels, but that all changed when the Three Gorges Dam and ship locks opened in 2015. The trackers are now a most significant part of the river history, and are venerated in the Museum in Chongqing, as well as in plays, dances and commemorative bronze statuary dotted along the river front.

Travel in China: For help with the booking, (and language, visa and tour issues), we found the staff at Spring Tour (http://www.spring-tour.com/) in Los Angeles most helpful (China@spring-tour.com). They are one of the largest most reputable tour companies in China with their own fleet of aircraft. Be advised that there are very few English-speaking Chinese, especially when you need them, so, if you don’t speak Mandarin, advance planning is well advised. English-speaking tour groups are definitely an option worth considering. We also found the Chongqing Tourist Board very helpful.

The Yangtze Gold-6: The Yangtze Gold-6 is one of the largest and most modern cruise ships on the Yangtze River with a capacity of more than 500 guests, three dining halls and three elevators to the six decks. The English language website answers many of the common questions about shore excursions, VIP dining and room upgrades.



John Sundsmo

A traveled scientist, photographer and co-founder of TravelExaminer, John brings a different focus to travel writing interests in history, science and culture.