I was pretty sick after Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou – probably thanks to the water cooler in the hotel room – and when we flew on to Chongqing I basically crawled into bed on the cruise ship and went to sleep. After two weeks of wood-like Chinese beds it was pretty much the best thing ever to have a comfortable mattress and a comfy duvet in a quiet place and I slept like a very stationary log which has had a hard week at the office.
And it was very welcome to have the option of edible breakfasts (cereal!) and Western food when we wanted it. After two weeks of Chinese food, we wanted it. My travel dudes had gone and had what one described as possibly the best pizza in her life… something to do with being pizza, and in China after a long time not eating western food :).
The Yangtze is both wide and deep and an immense amount of water goes down it in flood season. Power generation was really only a secondary thing for the Three Gorges Dam – the main priority was to control the huge floods, which have killed many locals over the years.
So it's broad but now calm, and with the villages down near the old water level long moved up the cliffs and any remnants submerged entirely, it's pretty homogeneously modern-built along its length – mostly dull concrete apartment buildings, not true replacements for the village houses the old tenants used to farm next to.
There are enormous slopes leading up to these new settlements with stairs formed in the middle of the concrete-reinforced slopes – a sign of how much higher the river will still get when there's heavy prolonged rain.
The cruise went from Chongqing down through the Three Gorges and the Three Gorges Dam and docked at Yichang (we disembarked here, but you can carry on all the way down to Shanghai if you have the time – and money).
It's not cheap and though really nice, you really do need to think about what you're getting for your money. Personally I was pretty happy to have somewhere to rest and recuperate for a day, and then relax for a couple more.
The river cruise itself was though in some parts disappointing, firstly in that it was drizzling or raining almost continuously (this was the height of summer) and some of the things I most wanted to do, such as go up the Little Three Gorges off the Mekong River – reputed to give you a taste of what going through the big Three Gorges was like before the water level was raised so high by the dam – were cancelled due to the high water flows.
Still, we went up the Mekong itself to have a look – almost as brown as the Yangtze and also with drifts of sticks and garbage collecting in the slow parts of the river, which is always disheartening.
I think it'd be good in better weather.
Secondly, the dam was a bit disappointing to visit. We didn't go through as early in the day as had been originally planned and so it was more like midnight – we missed the approach to the dam, sadly, and woke up inside the first lock.
But ok, going through the locks is damn cool – no complaint there. They fit 4 boats the size of your cruise ship into each lock at once, with less than a metre either side in our case.
We were followed in by a Dragon Cruises boat, whose prow is sculpted into a dragon head – it is definitely an odd feeling to wake up inside a giant machine, go upstairs into a yellow-lit concrete box and discover that you are being followed by a giant dragon head with people in the mouth and a searchlight on top.
Now, it takes 4 hours to go through all the way, so we couldn't wait up for that, so we didn't get to see the dam from the downwater side, where you could actually see its height.
Here's where it get stupid. The boat had tied up some way downstream of the dam. We got up early for the 7am bus trip back up to see the dam, or more precisely, the dam's visitors centre.
But the visitors centre is sited by the upstream side, so you still can only see the top part of the dam, the bit above the high-side water level, not the impressive full height of it.
Oh, and it's 7am, so the river will inevitably be covered in thick mist, so although it's an epic 2km across, you can only see the first 200m or so before it disappears into a blanket of water.
So you're basically getting up to go and not see the dam, because some noob put the visitors centre in a poor place for viewing and you're going at the wrong time of day. Oh, and the visitors centre has a total of two small boards giving you some interesting info on the exceptional achievement of building the dam.
I learnt far more about it from the documentary that happened to be on TV on the Qantas flight over to China.
Disappointing. I'd say do not bother going to Yichang to see the Dam if it's expensive. Worth it if you have a practical way of getting there or just need a big break on a friendly cruise ship though – we went with Victoria Cruises, on the Victoria Selina (old but refitted inside and nice). Note that this is the US-owned one – not to be confused with the other Victoria Series Cruises which is Chinese-owned and reportedly not as nice. Certainly no complaints about service, food, or creature comfort on ours – a welcome break.
The Three Gorges themselves are somewhat scenic, but it's nowhere near as dramatic as it was before the water level was raised. Cool, but not super-cool. Hope you can go to the Little Three Gorges. And just relax and enjoy hanging out on the cruise ship, which we did.
After disembarking in Yichang we went straight on to the train station and caught a sleeper train up to Xi'an, best known for the terracotta warriors.