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The Awesome Yangtze River — an Introduction for Travellers

Views along the Yangtze RiverThe mighty Yangtze has some breathtaking scenery.

Described as "China’s River of Heaven", the Yangtze River’s a powerful force that the Chinese have only recently managed to tame.

The Yangtze River has a strong claim to being the world’s most fascinating river, with a huge variety of tourist attractions, breathtaking scenery, and diverse culture along it’s length.

It's known as the "Long River".

The Yangtze’s the longest river in China and Asia. It also holds several world records. The Yangtze’s the third longest river in the world, but the longest river within a single country.

A total of 6,380 km (3,960 mi) from source to sea, the winding Yangtze, if straight, would stretch across the whole of China, or from China to the UK or the US. No wonder the Chinese name for it is Chang Jiang, literally 'Long River'.

Think of the giant Yangtze as 3 parts: the upper, middle and lower reaches.

The upper reaches start 5.34 km above sea level on Mt. Geladandong in Tibet. Some parts are well worth exploring on their own merits, particularly if you like hiking.

Tiger Leaping Gorge at the upper reach of the RiverTiger Leaping Gorge in the upper reaches of the Yangtze.

Stone Drum Town in Yunnan has impressive modern day statues, a history of trade, a thriving market, and a cheek to jowel existence with pigs. Lijiang is where you’ll hear the Tiger Leaping Gorge story.

The middle reaches between Yibin and Yichang is where most of the touristy scenic spots and attractions are.

Most of the Yangtze cruise companies concentrate on the Three Gorges, with it's awesome scenery,  intriguing culture, and modern wonders.

The lower reaches include Wuhan, with its Yellow Crane Tower and East Lake Park, Yangzhou’s elegant gardens, and Nanjing, the former capital, before eventually flowing into the Pacific Ocean at Shanghai.

Cruising the Yangtze

Views along the Yangtze RiverEnjoy sunrises and sunsets on the Yangtze.

The best way to see all the many scenic spots, as they are on both sides, is to be on the river. 

When to Go

As to a best time of year to go on a Yangtze River Cruise — apart from avoiding any Chinese Public Holidays (when everywhere will be ridiculously crowded) — there isn’t one, just different photos, that is any time of year is good.

Going in peak summer may be too hot, sightseeing all day, as most ancient places have very little shade. Monsoon season (from spring to fall) can be very wet. Both of these problems are sorted by purchasing a sunbrella. 

Autumn gives you amazing red gorge photos as the trees turn, but timing this for the short Chinese autumn could be hard. Winter is cold, but that means there’re less people. It’s your choice.

Cruising Tips

If you have never cruised before, this journey’s ideal for you. Rivers are calmer than sea voyages and if you are not sure how you will travel there is much to distract you. The best thing is seeing all it’s scenic spots without having to pack and unpack every day. Dress code on board is casual.

A Typical Yangtze Cruise

Cultural relics along the Yangtze RiverCultural relics along the Yangtze River include the unique Shibaozhai.

Beginning (or ending, depending if you’re sailing downstream or up) at Chongqing, after testing it’s famous hotpot, maybe a cable car trip over the Yangtze, or time watching peanut brittle made by men physically beating it with mallets, you are now ready to board. 

Bangbang men will run your bags to your ship, threading the handles through a thick bamboo pole and balancing it across their shoulders.

At Chaotianmen Dock, where you board, you can see a distinct meeting of two rivers as this is where the clean water of Jialing River meets the brownish yellow of the Yangtze that has picked up silt and sand from the bottom.

Aboard the Cruise Ship

On a cruise shipThe deck of a Yangtze cruise ship

Cruise liners are guided by computers and sonar, but also the naked eye of a ship’s crew as you sail equidistant from the two sets of markers on the river sides. 

"I was invited to view the bridge of the Victoria Lianna on my 50th birthday." 

— writes Lynne Buddin, a China Highlights customer, who has cruised the Yangtze and has authored most of this page from first-hand experience.

Beautiful and dangerous river cliffs: Locals name all the beautifully shaped, hard granite mountains — like The Frog, or the Three Ladies, but maybe it’s only possible to see them after drinking their strong rice wine! Some rock is a much softer limestone. The Government had to abandon a much-wanted road being built between villages after six men died building just 2 miles of it 100 feet up. It remains incomplete.

Cruise Stops and Excursions

Fengdu Ghost CityFengdu Ghost City

Fengdu, Shibaozhai and Qu Yuan Temple: These 3 stops along the Yangtze show travellers the history, architecture, art and culture of the people living here. You can’t help but be impressed by the buildings and the tour guides do a great job in conveying the way of life of the ancient people.

Don’t be put off by Fengdu’s name, “Ghost City”. Statues and figurines everywhere represent the spirit world. We chose between health or wealth routes to allow us passed armed men in national costumes into eternal life. We run up 33 steps in one breath and balanced on one leg stood for a minute on a stone inside a box, each a test to prove our worth for the after life.

Shibaozhai ('Stone Treasure Village') is a trip over quite a wobbly wooden bridge and up long flights of steps to a giant red pagoda that looks like its been pushed into the mountain by a giant hand. It is bui

lt without a single nail. Qu Yuan Temple is a group of buildings built to honour an ancient poet, houses his tomb and is only 600 metres from the Dam.

Finally the Biggie — The Three Gorges Dam Project

The  Three Gorge DamThe Three Gorge Dam

On the face of it maybe a visit to the biggest hydroelectric power station in the world may seem dull, unless you like engineering. But believe me — it’s far from dull! Impressive isn’t a big enough word for the Three Gorges Dam — it’s breathtakingly massive. 

More seriously though it’s stopped the flooding which caused so many deaths and allows China to harness the power of the mighty Yangtze.

The Three Gorges Dam Project is a Multi-World-Record-Breaker

It boasts the largest water conservancy project ever undertaken by humans. Begun in 1994 and fully completed in 2009, it shows Chinese efficiency being 2 years early! It serves three main purposes: flood control, hydroelectric power production and improvement to ship navigation through the Yangtze River.

Record Breaking Facts about the Three Gorges Dam

Three Gorges Dam ship lockA Three Gorges Dam ship lock
  • 175 metres high, 18 metres wide at the visible top, but 130 metres thick on the riverbed
  • 2,335 metres wide with the greatest number of inner ship locks anywhere
  • The most complicated ship lift in the world — that’s right, an elevator for ships!
  • One lock can contain 6 cruise liners packed in 2 x 3 formation like sardines.
  • Boats of up to 10,000 tons can now use the river by ascending the dam.
  • Helping nature is a fish lift for returning fish to spawn upstream.
  • A river reservoir of 600 km long
  • Capacity to store 39.3 billion cubic metres of water.
  • The dam's 34 generators make 22.5 megawatts of electricity, that's 87 TWh per year.
  • It cost 230 billion yuan, but this was recovered in just 5 years of operation in 2013!

How to Understand the Size of the Dam

The sheer size of it’s mind blowing. Short of taking a helicopter flight (available) the only way to appreciate this modern wonder of engineering is to view the scale model in the museum. 

Your specialist Dam Guide explains the workings and the process of it here for you. Then you have free time to wander round it yourself and marvel that you now know the incredibly powerful and fascinating Yangtze River.

Discover the Yangtze Your Way

The Majestic YangtzeCruise the majestic Yangtze and experience the heart of China.

Contact us to have the Yangtze in your tailor-made China journey, or maybe start your personalized tour plan from one of these recommendations.