As the Amazon nourishesBrazil and the Nile providesfor Egypt, so the Yangtzefeeds China. At 3956 miles,it's the third-longest river in the worldand home to one third of China's population.Half of China's food is grown alongits fertile banks. From its source 20,000feet high in the Tibetan Plateau, theYangtze twists and turns like a dragonuntil it pours its stream into the EastChina Sea, so silt-laden that the oceanlooks mud-stained for 70 miles.
This mystical waterway, for centuriesa romantic inspiration for artistsand poets, wanders past ancient pagodas,homes with terraces running up theslopes of mountains, and fields so oldthe farmers have lost track of theirownership. It rushes through gorgeswhose sheer cliffs sometimes rearmajestically thousands of feet above theriver, and always it tumbles, untamed,headlong for the sea.
There, the Yangtze mouth stretches55 miles across, but at Tiger Gorge, it isonly 90 feet wide. About 1800 milesupriver, beyond the famous ThreeGorges, lies Chongqing, China's largestcity. It has an area population of 33 million,but is accessible only to small boatsless than 3000 tons.
In 1919, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the physicianwho is "the father of modernChina,"suggested damming the Yangtzeto facilitate navigation and prevent theriver's notorious flooding (1 million peoplehave died from the Yangtze's floodingin the past 100 years). In 1994, after 73years of discussion, China began buildinga massive dam that will raise the riverlevel by 575 feet. Called the Three GorgesProject, the dam will be completed in2009. Ecologists suggest it will submerge13 cities, 140 towns, 1352 villages, and8000 archaeological sites. It could alsoharm wildlife, create pollution, andendanger the nation if the dam breaks.But the project is well on schedule.
Floating in Style
Initially there was tourist talk of, "Seethe Yangtze before it's gone,"but now it'sclear the dam will help tourism by makingriver cruises more comfortable, softadventures, and the Lesser Three Gorgesof the Daning River tributary will becomemore accessible. Several riverboat companiesare gearing up for this, but upscaleVictoria Cruises has been on the river for10 years (800-348-8084; www.victoriacruises.com). Victoria Cruises really hasno competition. It's owned by the ChineseAmerican Pi family in New York, who"run it not as an investment for the familybut as a legacy."
The company's latest ship, the, made its maiden voyagein 2004, with 7-night cruises fromChongqing that include land excursionsto Wanxian, site of the 1926 gunboatincident with the British, and the ThreeGorges Museum, with its demonstrationsof the cliff burial of the Ba people, wholived there 1800 to 3500 years ago. Ahalf-day trip on a smaller ship up theLesser Three Gorges of the Daning pastthe cliffs where the coffins once hung—suspended high to show filial devotionand to be close to heaven—brings all ofthis alive. The ship guide actually pointsout a coffin still there, astonishingly highup on the river wall.