Experience China: The Gorge Explorer
The world's largest power station sits across the world's third-longest river in one of the world's most-populated countries. A structure of steel, concrete, and the result of an 89-year process from conception to power generation, the Three Gorges Dam forms the centrepiece of Yangzi Explorer's cruises on China's Yangtze River.
The Yangtze flows from the Tanggula Mountains, through wartime capital Chongqing, Hubei province capital Wuhan, Nanjing, to the East China Sea at Shanghai, and with that enormous geographical reach (more than 6300km) comes a waterway that is deeply rooted in Chinese history, culture, and its future.
The Yangzi Explorer transports tourists between Chongqing and Yichang, in three- or four-night options (depending on direction of travel), and incorporates excursions to key locations, including the historic Shennong Stream, the original home of Tujia people, and a detailed look at the history and construction of the enormous Three Gorges Dam.
It is through these excursions, and during various on-board presentations and demonstrations as the vessel's at-times slow, smooth, meander continues upstream that you learn of the Three Gorges Dam's impact, and the events that helped shape China's identity.
A theatre, small gym, art gallery, spacious rooms for 124 passengers, an on-board doctor and relaxation spa add another level of luxury to the Yangzi Explorer.
The sixth deck is dedicated to the exclusive suite lounge, bar and observation area.
While each room has a small balcony at which passengers can privately enjoy the exquisite scenery, the Explorer Deck is home to an uninterrupted view of the surrounding landscape, which is enhanced by in-depth commentary as you venture through the Three Gorges.
The first night on-board, during which the Yangzi stays at its Yichang port, features a welcome dinner at the Dynasty Dining Room, and the exploration of our temporary home. Buffet breakfasts and lunches and a la carte dinners are served in The Dynasty Dining Room.
The daily menu boasts a clash of Western staples and Eastern delicacies, allowing the most unseasoned palate the chance to try something new.
Commentary starts as the Yangzi Explorer sets sail from Yichang towards the Xiling gorge area, and the home of the Three Gorges Dam.
The first day of the west-bound cruise is downstream of the dam, which means much of what you can see - the towns, architecture, and seemingly untouched forest - is relatively unchanged. A Chinese medicine display is the first of many presentations in the Tang Theatre.
Dr Xu, the on-board doctor, discusses the similarities and notable differences he has experienced in the Western and Chinese applications of medicine in a way that is informative and entertaining.
Other displays include Chinese reflexology, silk embroidery, snuff bottle painting, calligraphy and dumpling making - to name a few.
Each interesting display goes for about an hour, but gives a deeper understanding of China's rich culture.
The big-ticket day one item is the Three Gorges Dam excursion.
The size and scope of this structure is difficult to comprehend.
First envisaged in 1919, construction didn't start until 1994, and began generating power in 2008.
Not only did its construction force the relocation of 1.3 million people (visit a relocated village during an excursion), it submerged 13 cities, 140 towns and more than 1600 villages.
Smaller vessels can use a 113m ship lift to navigate from one side of the dam to the other. The 30-45-minute trip is nothing when compared the Yangzi Explorer's three- or four-hour excursion through the ship locks. The locks act as a staircase for cruise ships making the upstream journey.
After the ship moves into a hold, giant steel doors close behind it, and the loud elevator-like structure lifts the vessel to the next level.
The first one or two locks are interesting to witness, but by the fourth hour the loud noise and relatively slow progress is forgotten as you settle in for a few drinks at the Explorer Bar, or a movie in your room.
The Shennong Stream meets the Yangtze opposite the city of Badong.
The Shennong Stream is a natural waterway that was majorly affected by the dam: areas unimpacted by the project maintain a depth of about 15m, while the mouth, where it meets the Yangtze, is more than 150m. Still, the native Tujia people live like they always have, and passengers get an up-close feel for their traditional way of life via short trips in a sampan. The early afternoon features commentary as the vessel passes through the remaining two gorges, Wu Gorge and Qutang Gorge.
The Wu Gorge is home to the 12 peaks, the most notable of which is the Goddess Peak, a vital navigational landmark for generations of sailors.
Qutang Gorge is considered the most beautiful of the three. The view from near Baidicheng, the White Emperor City and an optional leisure excursion (dependent on numbers) about 8km east of Fengjie, to the north of Qutang Gorge is spellbinding.
GO TO HELL
Here, the tour splits in two groups, which is dependant on the passenger's arrangements.
One group visits local families at the relocation village to talk about the impact of the Three Gorges Dam and their way of life, the other goes to hell. Fengdu Ghost City is dedicated to the afterlife.
Shrines and monasteries are reached via hundreds of steep, small stairs, but the taxing climb is worth the effort. The name's origin is from the Eastern Han Dynasty, when two officials from the imperial court, Wang Fang Ping and Ying Chang Sheng, went to Mt Mingshan to practice Taoism and became immortals. When combined, their names sound like "King of Hell" in Chinese, hence the Ghost City title.
According to Chinese legend, the dead must pass three tests before they enter the next life: the Bridge of Troubled Water, a judgment before Yama, the King of Hell, and a test where a person must balance on a certain stone for three minutes.
Only by passing all three tests does one pass on: the rest are condemned to hell, an eternity of punishment which is demonstrated in a graphic diorama towards the end of the tour. The rest of the day is free to explore on the vessel, until the Taste of China Farewell Dinner.
The writer was a guest of Sanctuary.
Things to consider
A trip to China could also be the best social media detox of your life. The world superpower's communist government has blocked access to social networks and some of the biggest websites Australians use every day.
Say goodbye to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google and the search engine's associated products (Google Maps etc).
You can communicate with family at home via email, iMessage, and Skype, while Apple Maps works even if not connected to the internet.
A few more things:
MONEY Access money from any major ATM, just be sure to select the correct language before proceeding.
STAY OUT OF TROUBLE US college basketball star LiAngelo Ball recently made headlines as he avoided a decade-long stint in Chinese prison for shoplifting. Respect their laws, and their higher punishment, and you won't have a problem.
LANGUAGE Commit "Bu, xie xie" to memory. The Chinese equivalent of "No, thank you" is a primary weapon against potential scammers. You can always visit police, who are highly visible in popular centres.
FOOD Chinese McDonald's staff whipped out a photo board the moment this Westerner approached the counter, but it's worth learning basic Pinyin. If you know basic words and complete a transaction - even by pointing - you won't starve.
That last one was quite humorous. I pointed up a storm to get an outstanding coffee cherry flavoured latte at Starbucks then a Big Mac on one of my last days - shockingly, the Big Mac's taste was almost identical.
CRUISE Yangtzi Explorer staff are on a much-needed break during the Christmas holiday period. The four-night cruise from Yichang to Chongqing will restart from March 18, 2018, while the first three-night Chongching-Yichang cruise starts on March 22.
RATES It costs from US$1235 a person twin share, which includes accommodation, all meals during full sailing days, drinks (house wine, local beer, soft drinks and water), onboard activities (dumpling making and calligraphy classes among them) and scheduled shore activities.
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