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With unsurpassed natural beauty and a basin that’s home to one third of China’s population, you can bet a cruise down the Yangtze is going to be one to remember 

If ever there was a reason to step aboard a cruise ship, it would be to discover the Yangtze. But while cruising’s popularity has rocketed among Australians, there are still some who can’t quite bring themselves to book a cruise due to its stigma of being more for those of the “senior” persuasion. And yet, a river cruise along Chang Jiang (to give the Yangtze its Mandarin title, meaning Long River) is the perfect way to get up close and personal with a country while never compromising on creature comforts. These opulent vessels couldn’t be further removed from the floating “theme parks” that grace ocean cruising playgrounds. With a maximum of around 300 passengers, they afford the opportunity to enjoy spectacular landscapes and ancient towns as passengers revel in a tranquility seemingly lost in the bustle of modern life. Nowhere does river cruising come into its own more than on the mighty Yangtze in China. The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon. A meandering 5,686 kilometres long, it rises on Mount Geladaindong in the Tibetan Plateau and disgorges into the Yellow Sea at Shanghai. This vital waterway traverses the heart of China, but it’s the upper reaches that are the popular cruising playgrounds for the variety of sumptuous vessels that have opened up this mysterious river to a worldwide audience of inquisitive travellers.

Must-see
Stop 1
Beginning life as a humble port, Chongqing is now a fascinating municipality of over 31 million inhabitants (the largest in inland China) and the launchpad for many cruises. It’s lit by more neon than Las Vegas, including the pagoda-style town hall, below which people dance the night away on People’s Square to a ballet of coloured fountains. Chaotianmen is the biggest of Chongqing’s harbours, and from here passengers descend a long flight of steps to board their vessels via a series of elevated metal gangplanks that lead to the middle of the Yangtze. Luggage follows behind, borne by an army of bang-bang jun – the bamboo- stick porters who are still a feature of life in Chongqing. No one could ever call this port attractive, but it’s the epicentre of Yangtze trade and the principal turnaround base for river cruisers. Each cruise is a little different. Some start in Yichang and make Chongqing their last stop – the upstream route. But whether you choose to travel upstream or downstream, you’ll still cover all the major stop points. For the sake of this article, we travel upstream.
Stop 2
The first stop along this fabled river is the Shibaozhai Temple (Precious Stone Stronghold). This 12-storey red pavilion is a gem of Chinese architecture and was built during the Qing dynasty in 1650. Some tour operators call it the “Ghost City” of Fengdu. Its temples contain sculptures of demons and devils.
Stop 3
Early risers the next day stand on the sundeck in silent awe as their river cruisers traverse the first of the legendary Three Gorges created by the Yangtze, forcing its way through a spectacular barrier of limestone ridges. Immediately downstream of the ancient village Baidicheng, the Yangtze passes between Chijia Mountain on the north andBaiyan Mountain on the south. It’s this point that is known as Kuimen Gate and the entrance to Qutang Gorge.
Stop 4
At eight kilometres long, the Qutang Gorge is the shortest and narrowest of the three and is enclosed on both sides by high, precipitous cliffs. Some say it’s the most picturesque, and they’re probably right, as the combination of narrow canyons and high mountains with several switchbacks create spectacular vistas.
Stop 5
Later that morning, vessels dock at the stygian port of Wushan where the Daning River flows into the Yangtze. Here passengers board smaller tourist boats to explore the 32 kilometre-long Lesser Three Gorges. These remarkable canyons are at their ethereal best when low clouds cloak the peaks and curtains of rain add to the ghostliness. Expectations are high as the boats glide through Dragon Gate Gorge, the first and most dramatic, only 10 metres wide in parts. At Misty Gorge, hanging coffins, relics of the Ba people, as well as ancient plank roads carved into the cliffs, are consigned to infinite pixels. In Emerald Gorge the soporific air is filled with the chattering of monkeys accompanied by a cacophony of birdsong.
Stop 6
Back on board, an afternoon of scenic cruising ensues as a navigation of the serene Wu Gorge, the second of the Three Gorges, takes passengers past the Twelve Peaks. What’s interesting about this gorge is that it has been known as “Wu Gorge” since the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280). Because of the long and deep canyons here, the daily period of sunlight is short, which impedes the dispersal of airborne moisture within the gorge and so creates clouds and fog, adding a mystical element to the gorge. The mist-shrouded diorama continues through the craggy rock formations of the Xiling Gorge. The longest of the Three Gorges, stretching 44 kilometres, it’s also the most dangerous. There are numerous reefs and odd-shaped stones existing in rapid shoals, but these will all be carefully avoided. Xiling is actually a series of four different gorges: Precious Sword, Horse Lung & Ox Liver, Soundless Bell, and Shadow Play.
Stop 7
With much precision from captain and officers, vessels enter the first of five massive locks that adjoin the awesome Three Gorges Dam. Within four hours the 112-metre descent is complete. Cruisers then continue their passage for 43 kilometres to the 47-metre Gezhouba Dam, where they descend a further 22 metres.
Stop 8
Perhaps the true beauty of this journey lies not only in the cruise itself, but also the itineraries that can be built around it. Depending on whom you book with (see below), you can also incorporate some of China’s great sites, including the Forbidden City of Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, or lesserknown attractions such as the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan. Wendy Wu cruises finish – or commence – in Nanjing, on the southern bank of the Yangtze, and thus allow you the opportunity to visit the stunning hilltop mausoleum of Sun Yatsen, father of the republic; as well as the nearby site of a 14th-century Ming tomb with its avenue of mythical stone animals. Experiences like these bring to life the incredible history and culture China has to offer. Combine that with the wealth of natural beauty along the Yangtze, and you’ll find your perceptions of cruising change. It’s a truly unique experience.