The Three Gorges, the People's Republic of China
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Photo: Annie Fitzsimmons
The Three Gorges, the People's Republic of China

Great Trips: Sailing China’s Three Gorges

China plans to build more than 50 new airports in the next five years, and its population — with nearly 500 million Internet users and counting — is becoming more “global” each day. But to grasp what China meant and means today, you have to get out of the big cities and go rural. Nine hundred million of China’s 1.4 billion people live in the countryside.

China’s bucolic side will feel at once familiar and foreign. Want to step into a landscape painting? Sail through the Three Gorges region on the Yangtze River, famous for its recently constructed dam, the largest on Earth.

The dam, which is about 5 years old, has had an incredible impact on the region’s people and ecology (many villages had to be moved to make way for the new circuitry of the river, and water levels have risen, covering the bases of once-exposed mountains), but the potential for exploring the river valley by boat has made this area a new travel hot spot.

I booked a three-day cruise on the M.S. Yangzi ExplorerM.S. Yangzi Explorer by Sanctuary Retreats, departing from Chongqing, which is — with 33 million residents — arguably the world’s largest city (ever heard of it?). Okay, the people are spread out over an area the size of England and it takes eight hours to drive across with no traffic…but it can still claim the title. As an added bonus, you’ll set sail at night when the skyline is lit up.

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Chongqing, the "largest city in the world." Photo: Annie Fitzsimmons

For Western travelers, the Yangzi Explorer is far and away the most comfortable ship to travel on without a sticker-shock price tag. Every room has a balcony, which I took advantage of daily to gaze at the curved swallowtail Chinese roofs and white bloc-style architecture that characterize relocation towns near the dam. I loved the engaging lectures they offered on the cruise (such as “China, The West, & The Mao Years”) — and the early morning tai chi lessons, taught by the ship’s doctor.

Though I was anxious to see the colossal dam, my most memorable experiences happened on the ship, sailing through the Three Gorges, surrounded by thick, cool air and hearing the river water lap against the boat. Early morning brought us through the dramatic Qutang Gorge, followed by the Wu Gorge (or Witches’ Gorge), and finally the longest gorge of Xiling, where the dam is. Your first glimpse of the dam comes at night as the ship sails through five locks.

It was originally thought that the Three Gorges Dam would provide for 12% of China’s electricity needs, but due to a voracious appetite for energy, it can supply only 3%. Media accounts in the West have been decidedly negative, typically focusing on families that have been forced to leave their homes. But of course, nothing is black and white, and there is always another side. It was on a shore excursion to Fengdu where I met relocated families who were glad to move (payment from the government helped). I also learned about the intense flooding that has killed millions in the region, which the dam has alleviated.

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Relocation home in Fengdu. Photo: Annie Fitzsimmons

The final shore excursion takes you to the best place to view the dam (and take photos of it) along with an exhibit about its construction. The hazy weather didn’t dampen the excitement of seeing something I had heard about for so long. As with most things both applauded and condemned, the dam is worth seeing in person. But it felt even more significant to see the unspoiled terrain of the Three Gorges.

Annie Fitzsimmons is a New York-based travel and hotel writer. She is a frequent contributor to publications that share her love of exploration and discovery. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @anniefitz and on her personal blog, Hotel Belle.