China adventure: The Yangtze River and the Three Gorges

By Randy Keck

(Second of three parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3)

The second stage of our China journey commenced in the bustling port town of Yichang, where, after dinner at a local restaurant, we boarded the MS Victoria Star, one of the 5-star cruise ships in the American-managed Victoria Cruises fleet used by my host, Value World Tours, and other operators.

Our 4-night/5-day, 410-mile upstream cruise of the amazing Yangtze River from Yichang to Chongqing would prove to be a relaxing, highly educational and seamless journey. The renowned Yangtze fog and overcast sky were true to form and seemed to add an element of otherworldliness to our upriver experience.

The shining Victoria Star

The MS Victoria Star was built for and perfectly suits Yangtze conditions. Photos: Keck

The Victoria Star was user-friendly top to bottom, featuring all outside-facing cabins with balconies and the service of a staff that was genuinely friendly and beyond reproach.

The meals were buffet style for breakfast and lunch, providing both Asian and Western options, with dinner a sit-down affair. Food quality and variety were agreeable, and — due to the galley’s focus on presenting a wide variety of tasty fresh vegetables and fruits at all meals — clearly, most passengers, like myself, enjoyed a healthier more balanced diet than at home.

With the exception of the Cruise Director, the entire staff appeared to be Chinese, and most passenger contact personnel spoke reasonable to excellent English. Communication in English with staff was definitely not a problem.

Onboard entertainment and activity programs were quite varied, including interesting demonstrations of traditional Chinese medicine practices by the onboard Chinese doctor. Staff lecture programs were also educational and highly informative.

The Yangtze controversy

Tujia boatmen provide a traditional sampan experience for the ship’s passengers.
Orange vendors offer their product to ship’s passengers and locals alike — Yichang.

The massive Yangtze River Three Gorges Dam, the largest water conservancy ever undertaken by man, is dramatically raising the height of sections of the river. It is controversial, like similar dam projects in other areas of the world, both inside and outside of China.

The dam is being constructed in Sandouping, which is in the middle of Xiling Gorge, the longest of the three gorges on the Yangtze. By the finish of the project in 2009, river villages in 19 counties and over 570,000 acres of farmland will have been flooded, resulting in the relocation of 1.5 million people.

While some environmentalists deplore the Yangtze project, the Chinese government and a long list of project supporters stress the major positives. These include permanent relief from devastating floods which historically have plagued the river; improved irrigation along the watercourse and increased volume, and safer navigation options for the massive commercial shipping industry, whose craft ply the waters of this important lifeline to China’s interior. Also, upon dam project completion, cruise ships will be able to explore areas of the river and gorges that are not currently navigable.

In any case, the project is a reality, is fascinating in scope and is amazing in its engineering prowess. We began our first day aboard ship with a tour of the impressive project facility.

Painless cruises

Our cruise itinerary was well paced, allowing time to fully relax and enjoy the river scenery from many vantage points aboard ship. For most, the highlights were passing through each of the famous Three Gorges.

Navigating the impressive lock system is a part of the Yangtze educational experience.
Upstream passengers disembark the Victoria Star at the thriving regional metropolis of Chongqing.

The Xiling Gorge is the longest of the three at 76 kilometers and commences after completing the 4-hour passage upstream through an impressive lock system. This is followed by the 45-kilometer-long Wu Gorge and finally by the 8-kilometer Qutang Gorge, which is rightfully considered scenically the most spectacular.

With only three years to go until completion of the dam project, the river height has already been increased dramatically, yet it has another increase of approximately 35 meters remaining. All along our journey we could see onshore markings denoting where the final river height would be, and in most villages all buildings below that future high water line have already been removed.

My imagination struggled in its continual attempts to visualize how different the Yangtze will both appear and feel after 2009. My final calming resolve was simply to return to China for the new Yangtze experience at that time. My primary recommendation for those who have not been, however, is to experience the Yangtze now.

Shore excursions

Daily shore excursions were included in the tour. My favorite was a peaceful trip on a small ferry up the narrow Shennong Stream, a tributary of the Yangtze where we later boarded traditional sampans manned by local Tujia village boatmen for a rowing and hauling adventure up a shallow stream.

The Tujia are one of China’s 56 ethnic minorities and are well known in China for the wide range of healthy herbs they produce.

Final advisory

In 2006, the 15-day/14-night “Three Gorges Deluxe” tour that I took is priced from $1,699 to $2,099 per person, land only, with optional deck upgrades on the cruise portion from $99 to $199. The Three Gorges cruise program is an integral part of several 12- to 17-day China tour itineraries offered by Value World Tours, which also offers river cruises and tours in Vietnam, Thailand and several regions of Europe and Russia.

You can reach Value World Tours at 17220 Newhope St. #202, Fountain Valley, CA 92708; phone 800/795-1633, e-mail or visit

(Continue to part 3)

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝Centuries of serenity and turbulence,
Mystery and history,
Now soon consigned to a tomb of concealment,
A future of new beginnings assured,
The question of questions lingers unresolved,
Shall time applaud or spurn the hand of man
In this great undoing of the natural world? ❞
— Randy Keck reflecting on the fate of the Yangtze