A river cruise on the mighty Yangtze River through China’s heartland mixes ancient landscapes and modern engineering marvels with dramatic scenery. Brian Johnston reports.

China is a country of superlatives, with the world’s oldest continuous civilisation, largest population and fastest-growing economy. Its mighty Yangtze River, 6,300 kilometres in length, is the longest river within a single country. Along its banks you’ll find the world’s largest engineering project, a mega-city and the remnants of 5,000 years of history. A river cruise here is an epic journey.

Most Yangtze cruises start or finish in Chongqing. Some sail 10-day journeys downstream to Shanghai near the ocean, but most sail to Wuhan (six days) or Yichang (three or four days). You’ll find differences to European river cruising. Ships are much larger, since there are no restrictive locks or low bridges, which means more generous cabins and public areas. Most ships are Chinese-owned so, even if chartered by western companies, don’t imitate the usual brand mould.

If you cruise upstream, big river port Wuhan is your embarkation port. It has a spectacular bund of riverside parks, glitzy hotpot restaurants and neon-lit hotels looming over colonial-era embassies. Its greatest asset, though, dates from 400 BC. The 7,000 treasures unearthed from the tomb of Marquis Yi rank as one of the world’s great archaeological finds. Musical instruments, jade, weapons and golden bowls are beautifully showcased in Hubei Provincial Museum.

Passengers board to a welcome of drums and dancing lions. Many cruise companies offer on-board cultural entertainment such as lessons in calligraphy and mah-jong, tea ceremonies, or early morning tai chi on the deck. From the deck, you also get passing vignettes of Chinese life: farmers tilling fields, mudbrick villages under upturned eaves, temples teetering on crags. You’ll equally be astounded by contemporary China’s dynamism as you slip under vast new bridges, past entire new cities and between container ships and passenger ferries.

A third of all Chinese live in the Yangtze Basin, and it throbs with the energy of a country in the throes of transformation.

Talking of energy, the Three Gorges Dam is a symbol of China’s sometimes controversial can-do attitude. The world’s largest construction project displaced two million people and was finished in 2009. You could fill a whole Guinness Book of World Records with statistics about its size, volume of cement and energy output, enough to power 15 million homes. It also controls flooding and makes navigation easier. Seeing it up close is astounding. Passengers disembark at Sandouping to observe the massive dam from the hilltop and visit exhibition rooms to learn how this modern engineering feat was achieved.

This is where the Yangtze River’s most famous 250-kilometre stretch begins. The river is forced between a series of gorges and misty mountains in a landscape celebrated for millennia in Chinese poetry and painting. The plunging landscapes of scroll paintings — improbable cliffs, tiny human figures, age-darkened temples — are brought to life. As you sail, look out for those very temples and shrines clinging to cliff faces, and for giant Chinese characters carved into rock faces, quoting classical (and sometimes revolutionary) poetry.

The Three Gorges will have you patrolling your ship’s decks for the whole day, especially as each is distinctly different. Majestic Xiling Gorge is the first if you’re travelling upstream. It’s the longest and deepest of the gorges, with 1,200-metre cliffs and looming peaks, each associated with ancient legends. Next, the 40-kilometre-long but very narrow Wu Gorge is almost oppressive, zig-zagging between cloudy peaks. Finally, Qutang Gorge is the shortest but most dramatic, framed by massive, oddly-shaped mountains.

At Wushan, cruise ships pause to decant passengers onto smaller boats that sail up a tributary of the Yangtze River into the Lesser Three Gorges. The Yangtze’s mega-dam has made these narrow gorges less dramatic than they once were thanks to higher water levels, but they’re stunningly beautiful. Dramatic cliffs draped in monkey-haunted forest plunge into limpid green waters, and occasionally open into patches of farmland where oxen wallow and villages hunker under giant bamboo. You’ll also spot ancient plank walkways and suspended coffins high on the cliffs.

One of the Yangtze’s more amusing destinations is Fengdu, the ‘City of Devils’, where a macabre and colourfully kitsch temple complex outlines the punishments of hell, overseen by pop-eyed demons. Cruise companies might also take you to Shibaozhai, a more refined, 17th century temple often rather romantically shrouded in mist.

Chongqing, surrounded by mountains and clinging to steep hillsides above the Yangtze, is your cruise’s final destination as you sail upriver along the river. It’s one of China’s mega-cities: energetic, crowded, changing by the day and graced with mindboggling architecture such as the Chongqing Grand Theatre, which resembles a sailing ship and whose cloud-reflecting glass angles sometimes seem to make it disappear. Most shore excursions head to the zoo to see giant and red pandas, and to a restaurant to experience that other great regional icon, its spicy, tongue-numbing but delicious Sichuan food.

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