Find out if a slow but fascinatingly timeless cruise on China’s Yangtze River will be fun for families with children — and why.
The Yangtze River is the third longest river in the world. Starting in the icy mountains of Tibet, it runs for almost 4,000 miles until it empties into the sea at Shanghai. Serving as the highway of China, it acts as the dividing line between north and south. It is also the site of what will become the largest dam in the world: The Sanxia or Three Gorges Dam. The dam is located at the head of the famous Three Gorges scenic area in China, an unspoiled natural wonder.
My family and I recently took a cruise along the Yangtze River. We began in Wuhan and traveled upstream to Chongqing (the boats can’t go any farther than Chongqing, it’s not deep enough) for a five-night, six-day journey.
Depending on your schedule, budget and children’s temperaments, there are a variety of travel choices including a local passenger boat which makes no stops, and a high-speed hovercraft. The one I recommend is the slowest: to go upstream with a tour boat, which makes several guided land excursions en route. The tour boats ensure that you go through all three gorges during the day, whereas on some faster modes of transport, families will go through at least one gorge at night.
Zen Approach to Cruising
The tour boats come in various classes. I was on one of the Victoria Cruise Line ships, all five star, well run and comfortable, with about 80 cabins each. I thought it was a good deal for what you get (bought in China, prices vary). In addition to the three meals a day and shore excursions with a guide, the boats themselves offer various entertainments: mahjongg lessons (the gambling passion of China, kind of a cross between gin rummy and dominos, played with tiles); calligraphy lessons, enthusiastic karaoke bars, and my personal favorite, Chinese massages, called qigong (pronounced chee-gong), which are very deep and feel great.
Although there weren’t many families on board during my cruise, it did seem very family-friendly. The boats are big, which means a lot of running-around room, but they are not the sports and entertainment palaces disguised as some American mega-cruise ships. Some kids might complain of boredom, especially if the weather is bad, but various shore excursions will take up much of the day. The excursions were fascinating to me, but could be tiring for little ones. However, between card games, calligraphy lessons, and possibly hanging out on the bridge with the Captain, I think kids will have a good time.
Touring Wuhan Before Embarcation
Wuhan, where the journey starts, is a city of revolutionary importance in China. It is the site of Mao’s famous swim in the Yangtze when he was 77 years old, done to demonstrate his health and vigor. (Shortly after that swim, he launched the 10-year nightmare known as the Cultural Revolution.) More recently, China’s gold-medal Olympic diver is also from Wuhan. Aside from Mao’s villa, which can be visited, there is the excellent Hubei Provincial Museum, well worth a look, and a beautiful old pagoda, the Yellow Crane Tower, dating from the 3rd century. The tour boats leave at night, so it’s not hard to schedule some time for sightseeing.
The first day upriver the views from the boat are uninspiring, the landscape is flat, and the route is lined with factories and small towns. You will pass barges carrying coal and rice, sampans with families aboard, and varieties of river transport, from tour boats to police motor boats. The boat pulls up anchor during the wee hours in Yichang in order to go through the Gezhouba Dam the next morning.
Day of the Dams
The day of the dams starts with the boat going through the small Gezhouba Dam, built in the 1980’s as a prototype before starting the massive Three Gorges project. Going through the dam is fun and something the kids will enjoy: starting at the front to watch the massive door locks open, and then running to the back of the boat to watch the locks close and the water rise. About two hours later, the ship docks and passengers are taken on a tour of the Three Gorges Dam site.
The Three Gorges Dam has been the highly controversial dream of Chinese leaders since Sun Yat Sen proposed it in 1911. The dam will controls terrible annual flooding of the Yangtze, which can be truly catastrophic; it is estimated that over 500,000 people have died from flooding over the past century. In addition, it helps China’s burgeoning energy needs. It is over one mile long and 600-feet high, creating a 350-square-mile reservoir.
The tour guide makes it very interesting. Soon after reboarding, we pass huge towers rising up in the river, and after that, enter the first and largest of the Three Gorges: Xiling Gorge. From here on, the scenery improves rapidly. Mountains rise abruptly from the Yangtze, eventually forming a massive wall on both sides, squeezing the river. The Three Gorges are the site of one of the most famous literary legends in China, “Legend of the Three Kingdoms.” This tale is not unlike King Arthur, but it dates from the 3rd century and tells the story of three kings battling for control of the Yangtze.
Xiling, 47-miles-long, is full of “Three Kingdoms” legends: “The Sword and the Book of the Art of War” describes an area where one of the three kings stored grain for his troops and hid his book of military strategy. Other areas in the gorge are known as the Oxen Liver and Horse Lung Gorge or the Gorge of Shadowplay. Identifying rock formations described in those stories is a fun and very Chinese activity.
The Yangtze used to be extremely treacherous to navigate due to rapids and whirlpools; one in 20 ships were lost. But from the 1950’s onward, many rocks were dynamited out of the water, greatly diminishing the rapids and the danger.
At the end of the first gorge, we spend the night at anchor in the town of Badong. It is interesting to take a walk in the old town, almost a ghost town now since most people have relocated to the new, higher village.
As you travel up the gorges, you will notice a narrow footpath cut into the gorges about 50 to 100 feet from the water. For centuries, men used to haul all boats through the rapids. Hundreds of men would labor and roped together to slowly pull junks and ships upstream against the strong current and rapids. If one stumbled and fell, others would be pulled to their deaths with him. Boat pullers are no longer needed on the Yangtze itself, due to the lessening of the rapids, but on some tributaries, like the Shennung Stream or the Daning River, they still haul large canoes that seat around eight people.
They mostly do it just for tourists these days, but occasionally haul goods and people who cannot afford motor boats, or whenever the water gets too low for even the motor boats to negotiate. Once the Gorges are flooded, the rising waters will render the boat pullers obsolete.
On day three, there was a wonderful half-day expedition up one of the tributaries to see the boat-trackers. Each boat has six boatmen, one at the tiller, four who do the pulling, and one in the stern with a long pole which he uses like a punt. Traditionally, men did the pulling stark naked (finding clothing an impediment), but tourism requires modesty and now they strip to underpants. At times they walk through the water, other times run across the rocks alongside the stream and, occasionally, when there is no place to walk, they use long poles to hook into the rock faces and pull the boat along that way. It’s a very impressive sight and the highlight of the river trip for me. I also found the scenery even more spectacular in the tributary since it was so narrow that the gorges just soared alongside us. We even saw some monkeys cavorting in the rocks.
Gorges Two & Three
Getting back on the boat, you go through the second and third gorges, Wuxia Gorge and Qutang, for the rest of the day. Wuxia means witches, and in this gorge is a very famous rock formation: Goddess Peak. The peak is named after 12 princesses who ran away from the Queen Mother of the East and met Yu the Great, tamer of the floods, who was fighting the 12 Dragons of the Floodwaters. The sisters slayed the dragons, and were immortalized as the 12 peaks that helped mariners navigate the Wu Gorge.
Qutang Gorge is the shortest and narrowest of the three. It is so narrow that there is only one-way boat traffic through it. At either entrance to the gorge is a small signal house with arrows, one pointing upstream, the other downstream, signaling which ships can go forward and which have to wait. It is extremely dramatic and beautiful, so you must be sure to run to the back of the boat to see what this last gorge looks like from downstream.
The next day brings another shore excursion. These can vary according to your ship’s program, since boats stop either at Fengdu, the City of ghosts, or Shibozhai, site of an ancient and beautiful nine-story pagoda. Although both are beautiful, if I had to pick I would probably choose Fengdu where there’s more for families to see.
Fengdu is called City of the Dead or City of Ghosts because it has a huge temple complex up the hill, all dedicated to Yinwnag, God of the Underworld. You can either climb 600 steps to meet him, or take the quick and easy chairlift up. People go there to offer prayers for their dead ancestors, on occasion burning paper money or paper representations of whatever they want their ancestors to have in the afterlife— cars, refrigerators, food, shoes— all represented in paper form to be burned as an offering. Some of the explanatory plaques had some translation difficulties, as in “The hell map of humor and terrific was realized. They were punished hardship and suffering in the hell.”
The last afternoon and evening, the river’s scenery is far less beautiful because factories and the metropolitan sprawl of Chongqing line the river. The boat arrives in Chongqing the following morning. Chongqing, a huge port city of around 20 million people, is also of great revolutionary importance: it was the last stronghold of the Kuomingtang before fleeing to Taiwan. Today, it is polluted, crowded, and has hideous architecture. During WWII it was bombed unmercifully by the Japanese and the city is still full of bomb shelters, now converted into shops and restaurants. Surprisingly, the old town, lined with tea houses, mahjongg players and delicious local food, is worth a visit because it gives you a sense of old Chongqing.
There are two other things you must do in Chongqing. One is to go have a Szechuan hot pot dinner (Chongqing is in the province of Sichuan). When they say hot, they mean it: the Sichuan hot pepper is used as a local anesthetic, and believe me, it left my tongue numb! The second thing you must do is go any night between 7:30 and 9:30pm to the huge plaza with colored musical fountains in front of the People’s Hall, to watch and join in the largest line dance in the world.
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.
Cruising the Yangtze with Kids
Most families choose to make cruising a part of a larger China itinerary. Pacific Delight World Tour, a tour operator we like a lot, offers many tours across China, making various stops. Contact your travel agent or Pacific Delight at 800/221-7179 for more information.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.