Cruising the Yangtze River, Part 1

When we last left off, Eric and I were boarding a flight from Beijing to Chongqing after 3 epic days exploring China’s capital city (if you missed it, check out part 1 and part 2 of Beijing!) Truthfully, the Yangtze River cruise we were about to embark on was the reason we originally chose China as our destination.

See, years ago Eric watched Three Gorges: Biggest Dam in the World, a documentary exploring the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and how it was, in some ways, both beneficial and detrimental to the environment and the people who lived upriver. Then, a few years later, he saw another documentary about the region called Up the Yangtze. Watching these, he knew he wanted to visit the Three Gorges Dam and explore the reservoir and the stunning gorges. So when we decided we wanted to book our first trip abroad, China just seemed like a natural choice.

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We landed at the airport in Chongqing in the evening and immediately went out for hot pot with our travel friends Bud and Vicki. Chongqing and the surrounding Sichuan province are famous for hot pot, so we had to try the local cuisine.

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If you’ve ever been to the Melting Pot, or a similar fondue-style restaurant, you might be somewhat familiar with this style of cuisine. Essentially, you sit at a table around a big boiling pot of broth (ours was split in two–spicy broth on the left, regular on the right) and you get plates on plates on plates of different uncooked meats and vegetables. You drop whatever you want in the broth, let it boil for a few minutes, and then scoop it out onto your plate. You can also custom-blend your own dipping sauce with oils and spices. We spent over an hour enjoying our meal and trying plenty of delicious new things before we headed to the river to board our boat.

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We cruised the Yangtze on the Century Sun, a ship with 6 floors and a capacity for over 300–though on this trip, there were under 200 passengers. Our room had a balcony, where we spent a lot of time sitting with our feet up, watching the scenery go by. We weighed anchor after 10pm. It was late and we were tired, but it was hard to go to sleep with the excitement of embarking on our first cruise, especially as the neon-lit buildings of Chongqing passed by.

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Jet lag was finally starting to wear off, meaning we managed to sleep in until 5:30. We had some pretty bad instant coffee, sorted out our laundry situation, and watched ships pass by going upstream in the dark until it was time for the sunrise tai chi session at 6:45. We did tai chi both mornings that it was offered on this cruise, and absolutely loved it. You sort of feel like a swan and a bumbling idiot all at once when you try tai chi as a beginner, but it it was an incredible exercise and a great way to wake up your body and mind. Bonus, we were on the top deck of the ship and got to watch as we docked at Fengdu and the sun came up, revealing that it was a very foggy day.

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Our cruise had planned afternoon excursions, but each morning there was also an optional morning excursion for an additional cost. Eric and I did both of the optional excursions because we wanted to see as much as we could on this journey! The first morning’s excursion was to Fengdu Ghost City, a mountainside area filled with Buddhist and Taoist temples and shrines. There were two tour groups–the Chinese group and the western group, which was led by an English-speaking guide. Our group for both optional excursions was tiny–me, Eric, and two lovely French women named Michel and Ange–so it was like getting a private tour of the city.

Fengdu is called the Ghost City because it was depicted in ancient Chinese works as the city that all ghosts must pass through to get to the afterlife. We climbed hundreds of stone steps on the lush, forested hill to get from one temple to the next, and it was remarkably uncrowded and serene.

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I could probably devote an entire post just to Fengdu Ghost City–this was my favorite excursion of the cruise and I learned so much about Buddhism and Taoism–but I’m trying to keep this nice and concise, so I’ll just say that this place is not to be missed. If for nothing else but the peaceful feeling of being on a beautiful, quiet green hillside overlooking the Yangtze river, or learning about a way of life that is different from your own, or having the feeling that you’re walking the same path as others have for centuries–it’s worth spending a morning here.

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After the tour, we wandered through a market on the way back to the ship. We found a woman deep-frying some tiny river fish, selling a bowl full of it for a few yuan, but she let us try one–you eat the fish whole, except for the head.

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So we sailed on down the Yangtze and did what came to be our favorite cruising activity–sitting on our balcony, watching the scenery go by, and drinking some of the local beer we got at the markets when we docked.

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After lunch was the captain’s welcome party, with champagne, mimosas, and snacks. The captain and members of the crew came around individually to everyone to have a champagne toast. Eric and I went out to the deck, but as you can see it was still cold, foggy, and windy, so soon we were back inside trying to warm up before our next excursion.

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We docked at Zhongxian, home of Shibaozhai. Shibaozhai is a 12-story temple built against the face of a hill. When the Three Gorges Dam was being constructed a cofferdam–kind of like a reverse moat–was built around Shibaozhai to prevent the rising river waters from flooding the temple. The temple consists of the original 9 floors, plus 3 more that were added on in the middle of the 19th century.

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You start at the base of the pavilion and climb each floor via a narrow wooden staircase. Just about every floor has something fascinating to see, like the Rice Flowing Hole, which was said to give monks the perfect portion of rice to feed them every day. Plus, the big round windows look out onto the river for stunning views.

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On the way back to the boat, we browsed the market stalls and got a gorgeous hand-painted fan depicting Shibaozhai and had it signed by the artist. We got another 6-pack of local beer, a few more little souvenirs, and then headed back to the boat, where we sailed on down the river overnight.

That ends the first half of our cruise down the Yangtze River! There’s so much more to share from this cruise–plus our adventures in Xi’an and Shanghai–so I’ll be sharing more very soon!

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