The Three Gorges of Nothing

Trip Start Aug 26, 2008
Trip End Aug 17, 2009

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Flag of China  , Hubei,
Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Because we had not planned our 3 Gorges tour ahead of time, we had no idea of the ferry schedule or departure point. We had hoped to see the 3 Gorges dam and take the ferry at the same time. We arose far too early in order to get to the ferry terminal in time to get tickets for the day.

We found the ferry departure point—an office inside Yichang—and booked the soonest departure. From Yichang, it was an hour-long bus ride to the ferry terminal. We waited and climbed down some steps instead of paying 4 RMB to ride the cable car. At the bottom, we saw only large slow boats for long trips up the Yangtzi. We ended up walking through one of the large ferries to get to the hydrofoil, which was moored to one of the larger ferries—out of sight from the shore.

We found that—onboard—the seating arrangement was different from that which had been shown at the departure point where we booked our tickets. After a bit of harsh Chinese, we argued our way into the forward 1st-class cabin with frosty AC, reclining seats, and clear[er] windows. The previous night, we had found a brochure at the hotel which set the price for 1st class hydrofoil tickets at 600 RMB, while our final price had been 300 RMB. Not cheap, but a much better deal than booking through a travel agency, which probably would’ve seen us seated in 3rd class anyway.

The hydrofoils are a business-like affair with 3 sections of row seating. The seats are rickety and many are broken. There is a fair amount of room as it is still a boat, despite skimming over the water, but we would not call it spacious. The Perspex windows are battered and cloudy, offering barely any view to the outside. The smoking deck (a tiny space with room for 4, but only 2 of them can stick their heads out at a time) offers a view for anyone willing to poke their head out into the slipstream. There is a battered and aging engine amidships.

Our hydrofoil motored away from it’s dock a kilometer or so upstream from the Three Gorges Dam. We didn’t get much of a chance to see the dam itself, except for a glimpse to the rear. It looked big and distant. After we pulled away from the dock, the boat sped up until it rose on it’s hydrofoils and we were off. Cruising speed seemed to be around 60km/h, not terribly fast but not pokey either. The hydrofoil ferries are the fastest thing on the Yangtse. We saw several other hydrofoils headed downstream. They are all shaped similarly with lines reminiscent of a flash-gordon rocket. They seem like they are from the 50’s, but they are probably more like 30 years old.

The hydrofoils used to run from Wu’Han all the way to Chongqing, but their route has been curtailed to only go from Three Gorges to Wuzhou. From there, you must catch a 4-hour bus to Chongqing. To be honest, it’s probably an improvement as the scenery along the Yangtse is pretty ho-hum after the gorges.

We motored through all three gorges, starting with the longest and lowest—an 80km stretch of medium-sized hills. There wasn’t much to see besides other river traffic, and even that was sparse. The water was muddy and the air somewhat hazy despite a heavy rain only the day before.

The second gorge was more impressive with towering mountain cliffs rising up to 1km above the river’s level. The hills were draped in greenery and coal mines dotted the riverbanks. We saw several coal barges loading directly from chutes running out of the mines.

The third gorge was short and steep, lined by cliffs that squeezed the river down to just 100 meters in one spot. It was essentially nothing more than a bend in the river as seen from a speeding hydrofoil.

After that, there were 2-3 hours of low river banks covered in terraced fields and the occasional settlement.

Overall, the Three Gorges are underwhelming. The cruise is much like a sail down any other river, a far cry from our journey up the Rhine by boat and by train. While there are multi-day tours which include stops at temples and historic towns, those sorts of things in China scream “scam!” and “tourist trap!” so we steered well clear and were quite glad we did. We were bored with a 600 RMB 6 hour hydrofoil, we can’t imagine how annoyed we’d be with a 4 day trip costing multiple-thousands of USD.

Maybe the Three Gorges were more impressive and interesting before the towns there were drowned by the dam. Today there’s not much to see besides muddy water and coal mines.
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