Few river panoramas inspire as much awe as the Three Gorges. Well-travelled Tang dynasty poets and men of letters have gone weak-kneed before them. Voluble emperors and hard-boiled communist party VIPs have been rendered speechless. Flotillas of sightseers have mega-pixelled their way from Chóngqìng to Yíchāng. For as long as many Yangzi boat hands can remember, the Three Gorges have been a member of the prestigious China Tour triumvirate, rubbing shoulders with the Terracotta Warriors and the Great Wall.
Yet the gorges these days get mixed press. Some travellers have their socks well and truly blown off; others arrive in Yíchāng scratching their heads and wondering what all the fuss was about. The route’s natural scenery is certainly far more dramatic than its historical sights, often crammed with historical allusions obscure to all but Chinese minds. Temples along the way can be crowded, while uniform riverine towns and settlements are modern-looking rather than twee and charming. To some, the gorges’ dramatic appearance can become rather repetitive, especially overlong Xīlíng Gorge (Xīlíng Xiá). The reservoir built up behind the Three Gorges Dam – a body of water almost the length of England – has certainly taken its toll as much more is now inundated.
But if you don’t expect to swoon at every bend in the river, journeying downriver is a stimulating and relaxing adventure, not least because of the change of pace and perspective.