High on the Tibetan plateau, a glacier-fed stream trickles down the western slope of Geladandong Mountain. As it plummets in elevation, other waterways strengthen its surge, pushing it past walls of mountains and into valleys, past yak herds, rice paddies, and wide-open farms.
This is the mighty Yangtze, third longest river in the world and one of the largest waterways by volume. Its course has shaped the fate of China’s history and culture over millennia, a source of drinking water, irrigation, transit, and legendary tales. To say nothing of the breathtaking beauty of the Three Gorges. This 75-mile stretch could well provide some of the most dramatic scenery of any river in the world, thanks to the towering mountains that guide the water’s winding route.
Ming Mountain and the city of Fengdu oversee the Yangtze from its northern banks, providing the perfect riverside vantage point for the spirits that many believe inhabit this “ghost city.” Fengdu is an interesting prelude to a Yangtze cruise, fertile as it is with legends about the afterlife. In Chinese lore, the dead must pass three tests before they pass into heaven. If they fail, they are destined to spend eternity in the underworld. In Fengdu, this journey is brought to life: the city’s main attractions are the three bridges that represent the three tests.
Perhaps three—three bridges, three tests—is the magic number along the Yangtze. Surely, the Three Gorges through which we cruise cast a spell of their own. Of the trio of mountain-lined river passageways, the Qutang could be the most spectacular. Only five miles long, it zig-zags through a narrow canyon, dwarfed by mountains as tall as 4,000 feet. Near its entrance, you are greeted by the Hanging Monk Rock. Legend has it that a soldier who was trying to climb this hillside in the dark of night to recover the body of his revered general was frightened away by a monk who crowed like a rooster greeting the dawn. As revenge, the soldier hung the monk upside down, and he remains there still.
After winding through Qutang Gorge, the Yangtze flows through the Wu Mountains and into the 25-mile Wu Gorge, known as the Witches Gorge. Each of the dramatic Twelve Peaks that marks our progress symbolizes a fairy popular in local lore. Here, another rock formation at one of the summit’s peaks tells a story, this one of a penitent maiden represented by a huge rock that resembles a kneeling goddess. Long, deep canyons here leave this section of the river in shade much of the day.
Xiling is the final gorge on a downstream itinerary, the longest at 49 miles. The river quickens here through some narrow, magnificent stretches along the Three Rapids of Xiling. Passage along this section of the Yangtze was once treacherous, but some water control projects have calmed the waters, making for a smoother journey.
But one project along the Yangtze was not so smooth: the controversial Three Gorges Dam. Fully completed in 2012, it is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, and its construction was highly contested. When the dam was complete, water levels rose upriver and submerged priceless artifacts of Chinese culture and history. The government stepped in to save some of the treasures, but not all. The larger impact was on the tiny villages that once lined the Yangtze’s banks. Millions of people were relocated to higher ground. Proponents of the dam point to the huge amount of energy generated by its turbines, increased shipping and more trade upriver thanks to deeper waters, and the prevention of historically deadly flooding downriver every spring.
No matter your position, the Yangtze waters still flow, and they lead Gate 1 travelers into a magical landscape.