If you plan to take a Yangtze River cruise, plan ahead and make sure the accommodations match your expectations.
A Yangtze River cruise was not on our itinerary when we landed in Beijing as part of a yearlong around the world trip. And although a Yangtze River cruise should be high on any traveler’s itinerary in China, you’ll want to learn from our mistakes.
After a few days in Beijing during late November, escaping the frigid temperatures became a top priority. I tossed the guidebook to my wife and said, “We have to be in Hong Kong in about three weeks. Find some place we can go that’s warmer.” An hour later, she suggested a cruise down the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges.
We’d been roughing it for many weeks and the idea of a cruise was highly appealing, especially to our kids. They had never been on a cruise before, but many of their friends had. Talk quickly turned to hot showers and fluffy towels. What’s not to love about a cruise?
A quick flight from Beijing found us in Chongqing, a tiny city by Chinese standards—a mere four million people. In Chongqing, a local travel agent handled our reservations for our cruise. From Bolivia to Tanzania, we had great success in using local travel agents for making on-the-spot arrangements. In general, local travel agents offer better prices, know the region intimately and the profits stay in the area instead of going to corporate headquarters half a world away. I didn’t see why it would be any different in China.
This reasoning turned out to be a mistake. The difference is that other local travel agents we had used successfully were in the business of serving Westerners, not the local population. In China the local travel agents serve the Chinese.
It isn’t as though I was expecting a mint on my pillow every night, but the expectation level of the average Chinese tourist is just different than mine. We could have easily coped with the peeling paint and musty carpets in our ship’s cabin, but no heat, no hot water, plumbing that gushed water onto the bathroom floor, and the Chinese Olympic Spitting Squad made what would have been a beautiful experience a bit less so. Insult to injury came when we were locked out of the observation decks when we sailed through the most scenic areas. Only those willing to pay an additional fee were allowed out on the decks.
Even though the adults were miserable, I learned something important on that cruise; kids are very adaptable. Ours were content that they had an en suite bathroom and wouldn’t have to share it with anyone down the hall. I didn’t have the heart to explain that they should be as miserable as I was.
My advice? Book your Yangtze River cruise through a reputable tour operator that caters to Western tourists; they are all over the Web from the big names like Abercrombie & Kent to budget travel guru GAP Adventures. We’ve talked to many travelers who have had wonderful experiences on a Yangtze River cruise; if you do your homework and get referrals and photos of the cabins, you’ll be fine.
No description of the Yangtze River would be complete without acknowledging the 800-pound gorilla every cruise operator would love to wish away—the Three Gorges Dam. Displacing legions of people and flooding scenic areas, the dam is considered by many to be an environmental disaster in the making. Of course the same can be (and was) said about many dams scattered around the Western United States. The dam not only provides electricity but also controls a river that once was wild and prone to seasonal flooding. Environmental controversy aside, the Three Gorges Dam is an impressive engineering feat worthy of a visit and the gorges that are now partially submerged are still worth ogling.
On the upside, a cruise through the Three Gorges can be thought of as a green-scenery, flat-water, version of the Grand Canyon and it will remain that way even after the controversial dam is completed. Apart from the scenery, your ports of call will give you an opportunity to experience local culture ranging from festivals to peddlers selling lunch. Bring a camera and a handful of memory cards.
Up The Yangtze A dramatic feature documentary came out recently on the environmental impact of the three Gorges Dam called "Up the Yangtze" ( ). The gargantuan and hotly contested symbol of the Chinese economic miracle, provides the epic and unsettling backdrop for a disquieting insight into life inside the 21st century Chinese dream.