Asia’s longest river is the lifeblood of China
The Yangtze River meanders through central China, sustaining life and giving way to rich biodiversity. It crosses diverse terrain, from valleys to mountains, limestone gorges and even wetlands, making it both an important water source and transportation route.
But Asia’s longest river isn’t just any body of water; its banks are dotted with stunning natural sights, historic pagodas and traditional tribes. A cruise down the Yangtze is a true delight.
Here, the top 11 attractions you’ll see along the Yangtze.
Baiheliang is an underwater archeological site by the Yangtze in Fuling, displaying some of the oldest hydrological inscriptions in the world. For years, the ridge was submerged during summer and autumn, but every few years during winter, the water would subside, revealing rare carvings and water-level markings dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Nowadays, the 1,600 metre-long ridge is permanently under 43 metres of water, thanks to the Three Gorges Dam. In 2009, the site was opened to the public as an underwater museum (China’s first and also known as the White Crane Ridge Underwater Museum), allowing visitors to tour the site and view the ancient inscriptions.
2. Qu Yuan Temple
Built in the 9th century to commemorate a beloved poet of the same name, Qu Yuan Temple and its distinctive red and white entrance is a stand-out attraction in Yichang. The temple currently sits on the banks of the Yangtze, however, over the last thousand years, it has been destroyed, reconstructed and relocated several times. Inside the complex, there’s a statue of Qu Yuan, his cenotaph, many halls and of course, exhibitions of his work. It’s a beautiful place to learn about the writer and the history of the Chinese Warring States period.
3. Three Gorges Dam Site
Touring the Three Gorges Dam site is a chance to get up close with one of the largest construction projects ever completed. The world’s largest hydroelectric station is five times larger than the Hoover Dam and produces 20 times more power. While the dam was completed in 2006, it was first conceived way back in 1919 as a measure to prevent deadly flooding. Nowadays, the Three Gorges Dam is used for both flood control and power generation and is truly a sight to behold.
4. Ship Lift
If the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam wasn’t impressive enough, it’s also home to the world’s largest and most sophisticated ship lift. When the dam first opened, ships had to pass through a series of locks, much like the Panama Canal. The new lift, launched in late 2016, uses a sophisticated cable and motor system, slashing crossing times from four hours to just 40 minutes. This efficient lift system allows for increased traffic, saves time, and lowers both power demands and carbon emissions. Find a spot at the back of the ferry to glimpse the best views of this engineering marvel in action.
5. Tribe of the Three Gorges
The Tribe of Three Gorges is a treasured spot along the Yangtze, and one of only a few places untouched by the Three Gorges Dam project. Wander the scenic area, past fishing boats and through the village for a taste of Ba and Shu culture. Along the way, you might see dancers, musicians playing old string instruments and people clad in traditional clothing. The experience paints a lovely picture of ancient life by the Yangtze.
6. Shennong Stream
One of the Yangtze’s main tributaries, the Shennong Stream, is famed for its emerald green, unpolluted waters. It flows through three gorges – Mianzhu, Parrot and Longcangdong – and passes by lush vegetation, caves and steep limestone peaks. Board a local wooden boat for a tranquil trip down the stream; if you’re lucky, you might even spot some monkeys.
7. Hanging Coffins
While you’re cruising down the Shennong Stream, keep your eyes peeled for hanging coffins. Suspended high on a cliff face, the coffins are thought to contain the remains of ancient Ba people, ancestors of China’s Tujia ethnic minority. Some say they were hung because higher coffins were considered closer to heaven; others point to a correlation between coffin height and a prosperous afterlife. Regardless of their motivations, it’s still unknown how the heavy coffins were hung in the first place.
8. Lesser Three Gorges
Downstream of the Daning River, the Lesser Three Gorges is another picturesque part of the Yangtze region. Explore the waterways of the Longmen, Bawu and Dicui gorges on a wooden sampan boat, taking in the spectacular natural landscape. This area is known for its waterfalls, springs, limestone peaks and caves, and is a relaxing respite from your Yangtze River cruise.
9. White Emperor City
Located atop Baidi Mountain on the northern banks of the Yangtze, the temple complex known as the White Emperor City is not new to the spotlight. This storied spot was once the settlement of a soldier named Gongsun Shu, who proclaimed himself the White Emperor and decided to build his own city. Wander the remains of the city and enjoy views of the Qutang Gorge, a sight celebrated on the back of the 10 RMB note.
10. Shibaozhai Pagoda
The Shibaozhai Pagoda is an architectural gem nestled into the side of a cliff. Located in Zhong County, this red, wooden structure is 12 storey-tall and inscribed with fascinating details about past Chinese dynasties. If you’re planning to scale the pagoda, be prepared for stairs. But although the climb requires a good set of knees, the views from the top are worth the workout.
11. Fengdu Ghost City
At almost 2,000 years old, you would struggle to find a place older (and more unusual) than the Fengdu Ghost City. This eerie complex of old shrines, temples and monasteries isn’t your regular religious attraction. The so-called City of Ghosts is dedicated to the dead; its frescoes depict hell and instruments of torture, while its statues are modelled after Gods of the underworld. Despite its creepy subject matter, the Fengdu Ghost City features some magnificent Chinese architecture; take a guided tour to learn about each structure and the three tests of the underworld. Just don't forget to don your walking shoes; the city is big and full of stairs.