Rolling on the River

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On the Yangzi
Oct. 20-21

After our busy days in Beijing, many of us thought that this river trip would be a time to kick back and be lazy. I thought I would catch up on writing the blog, which anyone who is reading it carefully knows is being written several days after the events described. (I’m actually writing this in a hotel in Shanghai on the last day of the trip; the bus leaves for the airport in an hour. I’ll finish it on the plane to Chicago.) I will continue these posts for a few days after returning to the States, until my blog catches up with my body and my circadian clock has returned to normal. There is so much to write about and so little free time—even on a river cruise. Let’s pick up where we left off on the Yangzi.

After our first day on the river, we stopped for the night at Badong, a city that has a curious history. In ancient times, it was part Ba, an independent state, and was located on the north side of the river. During the Song Dynasty (920-1279), it was moved to the south bank. With the advent of the Three Gorges Dam, Badong was rebuilt about 2 miles upstream on the south bank, opposite Guandukou, with which it is now linked by a brand new cable-stayed bridge.

Badong Bridge

The cable-stayed bridge at Badong is one of many new spans over the Yangzi.

We saw a lot of new and under-construction bridges over the Yangzi. Raynor Shaw reports that the first bridge across the river, built by Russian engineers at Wuhan, opened in 1957. In 1989, there were just six spans between Shanghai and Chongqing—compared with 28 over the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and Minnesota. By 2003, there were 26 bridges over the Yangzi, with a dozen more in the planning stages. It appears that the Chinese have settled on a few basic bridge designs that are adapted to each site. They favor both classic suspension and modern cable-stayed bridges with similar concrete towers. I grew up in Pittsburgh, a city of rivers and bridges, and have always loved their various designs. One of the best primers on bridge types is a Pittsburgh-based Website.

There wasn’t an opportunity to go ashore at Badong; the ship was tied up at a floating dock about 25 meters off the riverbank. Later in the evening, just below our room’s balcony, some of the crew and the dockhands played mahjiang, laughing and shouting as the games progressed until about midnight. Mahjiang is a lively game, and everywhere it is played it seems to draw a crowd of six or eight onlookers who kibbitz in animated fashion. (The game does not seem to be played by women—at least in public—but is popular with men, who play it in parks and along city streets.)

On Oct. 20, we got underway around 6:45. Shortly after a buffet breakfast, we entered the Wu Gorge, where the waterway narrowed between steep cliffs—so narrow that a sign on shore announced a no-passing zone, for the ships. There was just enough room for one line each of upstream and downstream vessels. Looking at the slope of the mountains on either side, you can follow the angles in your imagination a couple hundred feet down to banks of a much different river.

The Victoria Queen fell in line behind a small freighter. Traffic on the Yangzi is heavy, and we saw all manner of craft.

Cruise boat

Cruise boat.


Fast hydrofoil river taxi, probably Russian built.

There are many coal mines in the hills outside the gorges, and their black product is brought by truck to the river for transport. Giant coal bins cling to the steep slopes, where barge-like freighters nose in to the shore to nestle under cantilevered conveyor belts spewing coal. A lot of hand labor is still involved, both in feeding the conveyors and distributing the heavy cargo, which rides in piles on the open decks of the freighters. In this way, the Yangzi transported nearly 900 million tons of coal in 2005—mostly to power plants.

Coal ship

Bulk carrier, unloaded, near Wuhan.

Loading Coal

Loading coal. The storage bins ar high above the ships, but that will change when the water level rises further.

Coal bins

More coal bins along the slopes.

The weather was fair and warm as we slid under the shadows of twelve peaks—six on each bank—that have names like Climbing Dragon, Facing Clouds, Gathered Immortals, Flying Phoenix, and Assembled Cranes. Each represents part of a myth about Shennu Feng (Goddess Peak), on the north side of the river. This goddess is the Yao Ji, the 23rd daughter of the Queen Mother of the West, who, with her 11 handmaidens and the aid of Da Yu the Great (who jumped over from the Yellow River to help out), tamed the 12 dragons that were making life difficult for boatmen on the Yangze.


Children make their way to a river landing for pickup by a ferry, probably headed to Guandukou or Badong for school. There was no sign of a village, so they must have hiked over the mountain.


I remember learning about atmospheric perspective in art school. Here’s the perfect example.

Steep Banks

The mountains rise steeply from the water. Again, you have to imagine this view from the river before the inundation—about 300 feet deeper in the gorge.


I had to tilt the camera to get this peak in the frame. The riverbank is at the lower right.

The Goddess Peak is near the upstream end of Wu Gorge, and the goddess herself is but a pillar of rock atop an escarpment—pretty hard to see in the prevailing haze. Considering the many disasters that befell river travelers before navigation improvements began in the 1950s—with the blasting of the worst rocks in the Xiling—the protection of a stony goddess was probably a good thing.


The famous Goddess Peak. The goddess is the single spike of rock to the right of the two sharp peaks on the left. There are lots better pictures of this in the guidebooks.

Exiting the gorge, the Victoria Queen docked at on the north bank at New Wushan. Old Wushan, a rough-and tumble river town that traced its history to the latter part of the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1027 BCE), was abandoned in 2002. It’s impossible to travel this waterway without thinking of what has been lost beneath the milk chocolate colored waters of the Three Gorges reservoir.

Here, most of the ship’s passengers disembarked to explore the DaNing River, a tributary, and its Lesser Three Gorges. I stayed behind to write, so others will have to report on that adventure. (Hannah took care of that. Here’s the page.)

New Wushan

New Wushan. Notice the big sign that says “175M.” That’s where the high water mark will be when the Three Gorges reservoir is completely filled. Similar markers were seen all along the valley.

We were underway again by about 1:30 p.m. The scenery was less spectacular but no less interesting, especially the river craft and shore industries. The plan was to sail through the night to reach our next stop, Fengdu, by morning. Finally there was a chance to relax a bit. I did some more writing and spent some time on the ship’s computers, trying to send an earlier post over a dial-up connection that went through the cell phone system along the river. At 230 kbps, it was a tedious business. At dusk, I sat on my balcony with Ellen, sipping Chilean wine that I had bought in Yichang.


One response to “Rolling on the River

  1. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

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