The Three Gorges Cruise

The spectacular Three Gorges of the Yangtze River is easily the biggest tourist attraction in Chongqing. It’s highly recommended to take a boat down the river, and though cruises can start from either Chongqing or Yichang (which is in neighboring Hubei Province), most people start from Chongqing, which presents some of the best views of the gorges. If you’re thinking about starting in Chongqing and ending the tour in Shanghai, you should know that no tour boat can take you farther east than Yichang. Going further down the river from there means arranging a separate and expensive boat trip from Wuhan to Shanghai. There are some ferries that run from from Chongqing all the way to Wuhan, but they are strictly traveling boats and include no sightseeing.The legendary natural beauty of the Three Gorges has left legions of ancient poets speechless and softened the countenance of even the most hardened souls. But for many, the greatest beauty along the river is its human life: the people in the heart of China going about their work in the way they have for generations. But The Three Gorges Dam, which may be partly responsible for the area’s fame in the West, has had a deep impact on both the land and the people. Only recently finished in 2012, the dam has created a reservoir that is nearly the length of England, and many who remember the gorges before its creation claim that the natural beauty has been diminished by the raised water levels. Many historical sites were preserved or moved, but others were unfortunately lost. People who for generations made their lives close to the river were relocated to more modern dwellings (in what used to be the hilltops around the river) and have had to adapt to a new and more modern model of “community.” All this change has made visitors’ recent reactions to the Three Gorges somewhat mixed, with some wondering what all the hubbub is about, while others get weak in the knees and gush at the breath taking sight.The following is a list of attractions and info for the Three Gorges Cruise. Regardless of the company you use or the date you choose, virtually every cruise varies their itinerary. Some of the attractions are included in the price of the cruise, while others are stops along the river that work as optional shore excursions and may require you to pay extra if you want to experience them. Some are not included either way, so when shopping around be sure to pay attention to each company’s itinerary.

Buying a Ticket

When buying a ticket, the internet may not be your best friend. Tours found online are often overpriced because they cater to international tourists, so it’s better book it locally in Chongqing. As beautiful as the Three Gorges tour is, the price should never be as much as a Caribbean or Mediterranean Cruise. There are three basic options.
The Frugal Traveler
Tour boats are not the only boats cruising the river. Commuters also use the Yangtze for quick travel up and down the river, especially for those hard-to-get-to towns. If you’re not that interested in the sights of the river but are looking for reliable travel from Chongqing to Wuhan or Yichang (or vice versa), then a ferry or hydrofoil might be for you. Don’t expect a whole lot, though. Rides are far from cruise liner comfortable, and the toilets – much like long train rides in China – can give the last quarter of your journey a stinky memory. You should also bring your own snacks as the food available on the boat is hardly gourmet. All negatives aside, tickets for these boats almost never run above ¥200, and they can be purchased in and around Chaotianmen or at the ferry pier. The journey usually takes between 14-16 hours (depending on your destination and line).
The Thrifty Sightseer
Don’t let all the expensive tour options discourage you from getting an affordable sightseeing option through the Three Gorges. Chinese based tour ferries are still by far the most popular and cheapest way to tour the Three Gorges and sights along that stretch of the river. These ferries usually include three classes and last between three to four days. Third class tickets are between ¥200-400, second class between ¥500-700, and first class ¥800-1,000. If you’re travelling solo, you’ll have to share a room, even in first class. Food can be hit or miss, so be sure to bring some snacks along. These Chinese tour companies vary on what destinations they stop at, and all tours are conducted in Chinese. You can arrange these tickets with most accommodations in Chongqing for a small commission. If you feel like shopping around, you can head down to Chaotianmen where several touring offices are located. CITS (address: 19/F, 177 Bayi Lu, Yuzhong District – 渝中区八一路177号19楼; phone: 023 6382 1162; website: provides a service where they allow you see the prices of many liners at once for a “time saving fee” of ¥50.
The Full Deal Cruise
If you’re looking for English service, then you’ll need to sign up for one of the “international” cruises. On these boats, the food is generally good (most include ten buffet meals in the fare) and the tour includes English speaking tour guides at the sights as well as English material about the sights and gorges. The rooms are more spacious and include a balcony and room service, and there is usually onboard entertainment, including cultural dances and a variety show. The full cruises will usually make one free shore excursion each day with an optional stop in morning or evening for an additional fee. Prices range from ¥2,000-4,000 and can be booked online or through a local agent. If you’re planning on staying with either the Green Forest Hostel or the Yangtze Youth Hostel in Chongqing and would prefer to book in advance (especially during high season or months between September and November), then contact the staff about ticketing information.

Here is a list of recommended cruises.

President Cruise

The President Cruise offers a giant deck and café for viewing the sights along the river, and there are also traditional Chinese craft demonstrations onboard. After the boat reaches its destination outside of Yichang near the Three Visitors’ Cave, you can hop in one of several air conditioned shuttles to the Yichang East Railway Station. Tours usually last four days.

Phone: 400 027 0880

Dragon Cruise

The Dragon Cruise is perhaps the easiest to recognize because the mast of the ship is in the shape of a giantic dragon head. The boat departs and disembarks both in Chongqing and Yichang. If you’re going downstream from Chongqing you’ll end up on the major downtown road of Yichang near the Wanda Shopping complex. If you’re heading upstream the boat will stop at Chaotianmen on the Yuzhong pennisular area in Chongqing.

Phone: (0717) 886 0467

Victoria Cruise

Victoria Cruises is the largest American operated tour company sailing the Yangtze. It has excellent English services, and guests also have access to a balcony and communal sun deck. Like the Dragon Cruise it disembarks at the main dock in Yichang and Chongqing.

Phone: 800 348 8084

Fengdu Ghost Town (Fēngdū; 丰都)

Fengdu is one of the most famous stops along the Yangtze Three Gorges area and has been known since the Tang Dynasty as the “Ghost Town” because of its association with the Chinese god of the underworld and the departed spirits he manages. The city’s name actually evolved from a linguistic mix up. During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), two Taoist devotees, Wang Fangping and Yin Changsheng, were said to have reached immortality on the hills outside present day Fengdu through great cultivation and meditation. For generations, locals in the area shared the stories of Wang and Yin until eventually their names became reversed and modified to Yan Wang, which is the name of the Chinese god of death and sovereign of the underworld.

The imagined process of dying in early dynastic China was actually rather bureaucratic. First, it was thought a soul would check in at the foot of the Fengdu hills, travel up to the top, and pay their taxes to the god of heaven, at which point they would be tested. The good were able to cross a series of bridges to the afterlife, while the bad were said to be stuck on the hillsides to await judgement from Yan Wang, whose temple sits at the top of the hill. Souls found guilty of sins were punished by a series of demons. Each demon was responsible for torment that related to a particular sin, and you can see statues of the different beasts as you ascend.

During the Cultural Revolution many of the structures at Fengdu were destroyed. Fortunately, however, the top of the hill was largely inaccessible at the time (some say there were some things even the Red Guard wouldn’t dare destroy) and the Temple of Death has been thankfully preserved.

Once inside the temple, prepare yourself to meet tools of punishment reminiscent of medieval Europe, including a ghastly “iron maiden” device used for torture with burning oil.

White God City (Báidì Chéng; 白帝城)

The ancient temple complex of Baidi Cheng is scattered along the top of an island that was once a hill on the banks of the Yangtze. After the flooding from the creation of the dam, many of the lower structures were submerged as the hill became water bound, and today the island’s remaining land-based buildings are beautiful and worth some of your time if your cruise stops here.

The most prominent attractions of Baidi Cheng temple complex are the three temples. Mingliang Temple (Míngliáng Diàn; 明良殿) and Wuhou Temple (Wǔhóu Cí; 武侯祠) sit on the sides of the island, while in the center Baidi Temple (Báidì Miào; 白帝庙) is perhaps the most important. The latter contains dozens of relics from dynastic China and the Neolithic period, all displayed in sleek, modern exhibition halls that also have some exhibits on the Ba minority’s customs and habits.

The area makes for a comfortable day excursion, but wear comfortable shoes. There are nearly a thousand stairs in Baidicheng, and its proximity to the water along with the humid atmosphere can make the stairs slippery.

Qutang Gorge (Qútáng Xiá; 瞿塘峡)

Gorges, it’s also considered the most scenic and the best known. In fact, if you’d like an idea of how famous this particular gorge is among the Chinese, just pull out a ¥10 note and check out the back for a bird’s eye view of Qutang.

The Gorge’s beauty is comes from its sheer sides and narrow waterway. As you pass through the tightly curved path, you may notice a white stone area along the edge of the river. This is the the river’s highest water level, which it reaches in mid-winter. The difference between it’s winter high and summer low points can be 3 to 5 m (10 to 16.5 ft), which is 30 m (98.5 ft) higher than it was in 1990 (before the dam was built).

This unfortunately means that many ancient stairways, paths and rock engravings are now submerged. All is not lost, however, and as you pass through the gate called Kuímén (夔门), look to your left for the large area on the mountain referred to as the Chalk Wall, which still contains many engravings dating back to the Song Dynasty.

Wu Gorge (Wū Xiá; 巫峡)

The 45 km- (30 mi)-long Wu Gorge is the second of the Three Gorges. Although not as spectacular as Qutang’s Kuimen, Wu Gorge is not without charm. On both sides of the river are the Wu Mountains, whose precariously high peaks form dazzling figures that have inspired river communities and writers for generations. The Wu mountains along the river have 12 peaks, and each is believed to contain a fairy, but the most famous is Goddess Peak. It’s somewhat obscured by the other precipices nearby, but if you look close enough you can see its formation that resembles a young woman looking down on the river. She is fabled by the locals to be the daughter of the goddess of heaven.

Xiling Gorge (Xīlíng Xiá; 西陵峡)

Xiling Gorge is the only gorge of the Three Gorges not located in Chongqing. It would also be the longest gorge if it weren’t technically made up of four distinct gorges. As you cruise down the river from west to east, they are the Precious Sword Gorge (Bīngshū Bǎojiàn Xiá;兵书宝剑峡) , Horse’s Lung and Ox’s Liver Gorge (Niúgān Mǎfèi Xiá;牛肝马肺峡), Soundless Bell Gorge (Kōnglǐng Xiá;崆岭峡), and the Shadow Play Gorge (Dēngyǐng Xiá;灯影峡).

Though these formations are by no means the tallest of the gorges, this section of the river used to be known as the most dangerous because of the shoals (craggy underwater rocks that can puncture boats). Much of that danger has now subsided from the flooding caused by both the Gezhou Dam (Gězhōu Bà;葛洲坝) and the Three Gorges Dam.

Cruising along the Xiling Gorge gives tourists an excellent opportunity to witness today’s river life. It’s here that locals can be seen fishing, gathering crops, building boats and playing in the river. This section is also home to quite a few historical sites, including the Three Visitors Cave, the Three Gorges Scenic Area, and several hamlets inhabited by the Ba people. A good deal of these attractions can be toured from Yichang, the final stop on the West-East route from Chongqing. Information for these attractions can be found on.

Shibao Village (Shíbǎo Zhài;石宝寨)

One of the few sites protected from the flooding brought about by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam was Shibaozhai. Literally meaning “precious stone fortress,” this beautiful ancient area was named after the red stone said to have been left by the Goddess Nǚ Wā (女娲) after she patched up the sky. A temple was built at the location, but access was difficult, particularly because climbing to the top involved pulling one’s self up with iron chains. In 1819, a statue-adorned Buddhist pavilion was built up to create better access, and a set of stairs now makes it much more manageable, but the climb up is still fairly steep.

At the top of the hike are two well-known holes: the Duck Hole and the Rice Flowing Hole. The Duck Hole was so-named because locals imagined that it led to a network of small tunnels that connected to the river below. To prove this theory, a man threw a duck down the hole, and within two hours the same duck was supposedly found floating in the river below. The believability of that story, however, pales a bit in comparison to that of the Rice Flowing Hole, which tells of a greedy farmer who discovered that this hole could produce an endless amount of rice. As he dug further and further for more rice, the gap soon collapsed and ended his hopes of ever eating rice again.

Shennong Stream (Shénnóng Xī; 神农溪)

The first thing you’ll notice when going to Shennong Stream is that it’s far more of a river than a stream. For the explanation to this contradiction, we once again refer you to the flooding from the Three Gorges Dam.

The river used to be inhabited by naked boat pullers who would guide boats into small villages along the waterway. The pullers forwent clothing because the practice of hauling boats all day led to strong chaffing from their clothes, which would rub against their skin constantly as they strained to guide the boats. Today, the nudists’ naked ways are a thing of the past, given up partly to respect tourists’ sense of modesty, and also because the job involves far less pulling than it used to. All the pullers today are over 60, with the oldest one a ripe 94, but their active ways have given them the robustness of healthy men 20 years their junior. Unfortunately, boat pulling is a tradition that is dying out, as the job is unlikely to inspire the younger generation.

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