The Route

Apocryphally the handiwork of the Great Yu, a legendary architect of the river, the gorges – Qútáng, Wū and Xīlíng – commence just east of Fèngjié in Chóngqìng province and level out west of Yíchāng in Húběi province, a distance of around 200km. The principal route for those cruising the Yangzi River is therefore between the cities of Chóngqìng and Yíchāng.

The route can be travelled in either direction, but most passengers journey downstream from Chóngqìng. Travelling upstream does ensure a less crowded boat, but somehow feels less dramatic.

If you buy your ticket from an agency, ensure you’re not charged upfront for the sights along the way, as you may not want to visit them all. Some of the sights are underwhelming and entrance fees are as steep as the surrounding inclines. The only ticket truly worth buying in advance is for the popular and worthwhile Little Three Gorges tour, which is often full.

Boats

There are three categories of boats: luxury cruises, tourist boats and passenger ships.

Luxury Cruises

The most luxurious passage is on international-standard cruise ships (豪华游轮; háohuá yóulún), where maximum comfort and visibility accompany a leisurely agenda. Trips normally depart Chóngqìng mid-evening and include shore visits to all the major sights (Three Gorges Dam, Little Three Gorges etc), allowing time to tour the attractions (often secondary to the scenery). Cabins have air-con, TV (perhaps satellite), fridge/minibar and sometimes more. These vessels are aimed at both Chinese and Western tourists and are ideal for travellers with time, money and negligible Chinese skills. The average duration for such a cruise is three nights and three to four days.

Best Top-End Cruises

  • Viking River Cruises Very luxurious cruise, offering five-day cruises from Chóngqìng to Wǔhàn, as part of a larger 13-day tour of China.
  • Century Cruises Claims to be the most luxurious cruise service on the Yangzi. Ships are new, service is first class and facilities are top notch.
  • Victoria Cruises Comfortable four-day trips between Chóngqìng and Yíchāng. Older boats than some other operators, but has excellent English-speaking guides.

Tourist Cruise Ships

Typically departing from Chóngqìng around 9pm, ordinary tourist cruise ships (普通游轮; pǔtōng yóulún) usually take just under 40 hours to reach Yíchāng (including three nights on board). Some boats stop at all the sights; others stop at just a few. They are less professional than the luxury tour cruises and are squarely aimed at domestic travellers (Chinese food, little English spoken).

Expect early starts: the public-address system starts going off after 6am. Cabins in all classes are fairly basic – hard beds in 2nd and 3rd class – but come with AC and a TV and usually have a small attached bathroom with a shower (although that doesn't mean hot water). Many travellers now book packages that take you first by bus from Chóngqìng to Wànzhōu, where you board a vessel for the rest of the trip. This reduces the journey by one night.

In theory, you can buy tickets on the day of travel, but booking one or two days in advance is recommended. Fares vary, although not by much, depending whether you buy your ticket from a hostel, agency or direct from the ticket hall, so it’s worth shopping around to check. If buying a ticket through an agent, ensure you know exactly what the price includes. Note that the following prices include admission to the most popular stops along the way (including the Little Three Gorges).

  • Special class (特等; tèděng) ¥1780, two-bed cabin
  • 1st class (一等; yīděng) ¥1100, two-bed cabin
  • 2nd class (二等; èrděng) ¥900, four-bed cabin
  • 3rd class (三等; sānděng) ¥750, six-bed cabin

Passenger Ships

Straightforward passenger ships (客船; kè chuán) are cheap, but can be disappointing because you sail through two of the gorges in the dead of night. Stops are frequent, but hasty, and they pass by the tourist sights. Journeys between Chóngqìng and Yíchāng take around 36 hours; between Fèngjié and Yíchāng, around 12 hours. Toilets are shared, and soon get pretty grotty. There are no showers, but there are sinks and power sockets in the twin cabins (as well as TVs, which usually don’t work). Meals on board are decent and cheap but there is no choice of dishes, so take along your own food and drinks in case you don’t like what’s on offer.

Eastbound boats leave Chóngqìng at 10pm and Fèngjié at 9pm. For westbound journeys, shuttle buses, which connect with the boats, leave Yíchāng’s old ferry port at 7.30pm; the boat leaves at 9pm.

Tickets can usually be bought on the day of travel.

Chóngqìng to Yíchāng fares:

  • 1st class (一等; yīděng) ¥884, twin cabin
  • 2nd class (二等; èrdēng) ¥534, twin cabin
  • 3rd class (三等; sānděng) ¥367, four- to six-bed dorm
  • 4th class (四等; sìděng) ¥224, eight-bed dorm

Fèngjié to Yíchāng fares:

  • 1st class ¥343
  • 2nd class ¥212
  • 3rd class ¥147
  • 4th class ¥119

Tickets

In Chóngqìng or Yíchāng, most hotels, hostels and travel agents can sell you a trip on either the luxury cruise ships or the ordinary tourist boats. In either city, passenger ferry tickets have to be bought at the ferry port ticket halls, which also sell ordinary tourist boat tickets.

The price of your ticket will include the one-hour shuttle bus ride to/from the old ferry port in the centre of Yíchāng from/to one of the two newer ferry ports, about 45km upstream, where almost all boats now leave from or terminate.

Chóngqìng

Travelling With Hostel mostly sells tickets for the ordinary tourist boats, but can arrange luxury cruises too. Helpful and excellent English skills.

Harbour Plaza Travel Centre specialises in luxury cruises, but also sells ordinary tourist boat tickets. Staff are friendly and speak OK English.

Chóngqìng Ferry Port Ticket Hall is the cheapest place to buy ordinary tourist boat tickets, and the only place that sells passenger ferry tickets; no English is spoken.

Chóngqìng to Wànzhōu

The initial stretch is slow-going and unremarkable, although the dismal view of factories gradually gives way to attractive terraced countryside and the occasional small town.

Passing the drowned town of Fúlíng (涪陵), the first port of call is at Fēngdū (丰都), 170km from Chóngqìng city. Long nicknamed the City of Ghosts (鬼城; Guǐchéng), the town is just that: inundated in 2009, its residents were moved across the river. This is the stepping-off point for crowds to clamber up Míng Mountain, with its theme-park crop of ghost-focused temples.

Drifting through the county of Zhōngzhōu, the boat takes around three hours to arrive at Shíbǎozhài on the northern bank of the river. A 12-storey, 56m-high wooden pagoda built on a huge, river-water-encircled rock bluff, the structure dates to the reign of Qing dynasty emperor Kangxi (1662–1722). Your boat may stop for rapid expeditions up to the tower and for climbs into its interior.

Most morning boats moor for the night at partially inundated Wànzhōu (万州; also called Wànxiàn). Travellers aiming to get from A to B as fast as possible while taking in the gorges can skip the Chóngqìng to Wànzhōu section by hopping on a 3½ hour bus and then taking a passenger ship from the Wànzhōu jetty.

Wànzhōu to Yíchāng

Boats departing from Wànzhōu soon pass the relocated Zhāng Fēi Temple. Quick disembarkations can be made here, allowing a visit to the ancient but much-restored temple which was moved 20 miles upstream in 2002 and now sits opposite Yúnyáng (云阳). A modern, utilitarian and unremarkable town strung out along the northern bank of the river, Yúnyáng is typical of many of the new settlements created in the wake of the building of the Three Gorges Dam. Past here, boats drift on past ragged islets, some carpeted with small patchworks of fields, and alongside riverbanks striated with terraced slopes, rising like green ribbons up the inclines.

The ancient town of Fèngjié (奉节), capital of the state of Kui during the periods known as the ‘Spring and Autumn’ (722–481 BC) and ‘Warring States’ (475–221 BC), overlooks Qútáng Gorge, the first of the three gorges. The town – where most ships and hydrofoils berth – is also the entrance point to half-submerged White Emperor City, where the King of Shu, Liu Bei, entrusted his son and kingdom to Zhu Geliang, as chronicled in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Qútáng Gorge (瞿塘峡; Qútáng Xiá), also known as Kui Gorge (夔峡; Kuí Xiá), rises dramatically into view, towering into huge vertiginous slabs of rock, its cliffs jutting out in jagged and triangular chunks. The shortest and narrowest of the three gorges, 8km-long Qútáng Gorge is over almost as abruptly as it starts, but is considered by many to be the most awe-inspiring. The gorge offers a dizzying perspective onto huge strata despite having some of its power robbed by the rising waters. On the northern bank is Bellows Gorge (风箱峡; Fēngxiāng Xiá), where nine coffins were discovered, possibly placed here by an ancient tribe.

After Qútáng Gorge the terrain folds into a 20km stretch of low-lying land before boats pull in at the riverside town of Wūshān (巫山), situated high above the river. Most boats stop at Wūshān for five to six hours so passengers can transfer to smaller boats for trips along the Little Three Gorges on the Dàníng River (大宁河; Dàníng Hé). The landscape is gorgeous and you're right up close to it, and many travellers insist that the narrow gorges are more impressive than their larger namesakes. Some tours include a 40 minute ride on local fishing boats here too.

Back on the Yangzi River, boats pull away from Wūshān to enter the penultimate Wū Gorge, under a bright-red bridge. Some of the cultivated fields on the slopes overhanging the river reach almost illogical angles.

Wū Gorge (巫峡; Wū Xiá) – the Gorge of Witches – is stunning, cloaked in green and carpeted in shrubs, its sides frequently disappearing into ethereal layers of mist. About 40km in length, its towering cliffs are topped by sharp, jagged peaks on the northern bank. A total of 12 peaks cluster on either side, including Goddess Peak (神女峰; Shénnǚ Fēng) and Peak of the Immortals (集仙峰; Jíxiān Fēng). If you’re fortunate, you’ll catch the sunrise over Goddess Peak.

Boats continue floating eastward out of Wū Gorge and into Húběi province, along a 45km section before reaching the last of the three gorges. At this time, many boats offer the option of a two hour trip on motorised dragon boats along Jiǔwǎn Stream (九畹溪; Jiǔwǎn Xī) and nearby tributaries of the Yangzi. Some travellers enjoy the experience, although the scenery isn't as inspiring as that of the Little Three Gorges.

At 80km, Xīlíng Gorge (西陵峡; Xīlíng Xiá) is the longest and perhaps least spectacular gorge; sections of the gorge in the west have been submerged. Note the slow-moving cargo vessels, including long freight ships loaded with mounds of coal, ploughing downriver to Shànghǎi. The gorge was traditionally the most hazardous, where hidden shoals and reefs routinely holed vessels, but it has long been tamed, even though river traffic slows when the fog reduces visibility.

Apart from the top-end luxury cruises, tour boats no longer pass through the monumental Three Gorges Dam, although many tours offer the option of a visit to the dam by bus. The passenger ferries and hydrofoils tend to finish (or begin) their journey at Tàipíng Creek Port (太平溪港; Tàipińgxī Gǎng), upstream from the dam. From here, two types of shuttle bus wait to take you into Yíchāng (one hour). One is free and takes you to the old ferry port (老码头; lǎo mǎtóu) in the centre of town. The other costs ¥10 and drops you at Yíchāng East Train Station (火车东站; Huǒchē Dōngzhàn). Ordinary tourist boats tend to use Máopíng Port (茅坪港; Máopíng Gǎng), from where you can at least see the dam, and which is also connected to Yíchāng via shuttle buses.