Yangtze River Cruise / Three Gorges Cruise

The Yangtze River cruise through the Three Gorges that starts in Chongqing is one of the best-known attractions in China. However, impressions of the Three Gorges Cruise are mixed. Some are underwhelmed by the scenery and the various attractions that passengers stop at on the way. Others feel the scenery is suitably stunning and beautiful to make it a worthwhile adventure. The most common recommendation seems to be that the cruise might not be worth going out of your way for, but if it more or less fits in with your travel plans and you don’t have huge expectations then you should enjoy it.

The Yangtze River Cruise Routes

Three Gorges CruiseThe most common route for the cruise is from Chongqing to Yichang (the Three Gorges are between these two cities). Most cruise ships will do this as a three night-trip, departing Chongqing late evening on Day 1, and arriving in Yichang mid-afternoon on Day 4.

However, some boats will continue past Yichang to Wuhan, or even as far as Shanghai. But extending the cruise to those lengths would be more of an option for cruise-lovers than for ordinary sightseers with no real affinity for boat trips.

It’s also possible to do the cruise in reverse (Yichang to Chongqing). This takes a bit longer (four nights instead of three) since you’re heading upstream, but it can be a bit cheaper.

Another option is to shorten the cruise by taking a hydrofoil, starting in Wanzhou and going as far as the Three Gorges Dam (with a bus on to Yichang). This also takes you through all three of the gorges and the actual boat journey takes about six hours.

Yangtze River Cruise Boats

There are a number of options for cruising the Three Gorges.

1. Internationally-owned cruise boats. This is the most expensive and most foreigner-friendly option. Accommodation on the boat is in two-person cabins. Prices on these cruises start at about $500 (Chongqing-Yichang) per person, twin share. Prices vary depending on the boat, the time of year, and the class of cabin. You will pay more than $1000 per person in high season, for the best class of cabin on the best ships. Be sure to check which of the side excursions (if any) are included in the price.

2. Chinese-owned cruise boats. These cruise ships are significantly cheaper and also quite comfortable, however no English will be spoken. It is important to carefully check the itinerary for any cruise you book to make sure it stops anywhere you particularly want to see, and that it sails through all three gorges during daylight (if this is important to you). Prices on these cruises (with no extra inclusions) start at $50 for a bed in a 6-bed cabin and $160 for a bed in a private two-bed cabin. Cruise packages will cost more than this if some of the excursions are included.

3. Hydrofoil. Taking the hydrofoil allows you to cruise through the Three Gorges in a single day. There are several departures in either direction each morning, between about 7:30am and 12:30pm. Heading from Chongqing, you’ll need to take a bus to Wanzhou (about 3 hours) from the Chaotianmen Bus Station, before getting on the hydrofoil. It’s then a 5-6 hour trip on the hydrofoil before you end up at the Three Gorges Dam. From there it’s a one hour bus ride to Yichang. The entire trip, including buses, costs about ¥400.

The hydrofoil makes stops near the major attractions, and you can get off along the way. But if you choose to do this you will need to pay for each segment of the trip separately. Many people choose to stay overnight at Wushan or Badong and do side trips from there (see below).

The hydrofoils are passenger boats and not purpose-built cruise ships. There are small decks that you can stand on to take in the views, but otherwise you’ll be sitting inside and enjoying the scenery through Perspex.

4. Tour from Yichang. Tours that visit the Three Gorges from Yichang are becoming more popular, too. A general package includes a morning tour of the Three Gorges Dam, afternoon hydrofoil to either Shennong Stream (Badong) or the Lesser Three Gorges (Wushan). Overnight in either of those places, then do a morning tour of them. Then take the afternoon hydrofoil back to Yichang.

You could do this independently easily enough as well.

The Yangtze River Cruise

Following is an outline of the standard itinerary. It will vary depending on the boat you take and the time of departure. Always check the itinerary of any cruise carefully before you book to make sure it is suitable for you. Further below, the attractions that are mentioned in this outline are explained in more detail (including admission fees).

Chongqing to Wanzhou
Three Gorges CruiseThis is generally the first day of the cruise and is sort of the lead-up stretch to the Three Gorges themselves. You’ll probably be taken to one or two ‘attractions’ of moderate interest such as Fengdu Ghost City, Snow Jade Cave and Shibaozhai (Precious Stone Fortress). Really though, you lose very little by skipping this part of the cruise and starting your journey in Wanzhou instead.

A little past Wanzhou is the Zhang Fei Temple. Very few international cruise ships will stop here.

The Three Gorges
The actual Three Gorges part of the cruise will often be kick-started by a stop at Baidicheng (White Emperor City). This spot affords great views of Kuimen (Kui Gate), the entrance to Qutang Gorge. In fact, this is the vista that appears on the 10 Yuan note.

You’ll then set off through Qutang Gorge, which is only 8km long but impresses by the height of the cliffs and the narrowness of the passage.

After the end of Qutang Gorge, the next stop is likely to be Wushan. Cruise ships will often stop here so that passengers can take a side cruise in smaller boats through the Lesser Three Gorges. Many travellers consider this one of the highlights of the trip. Some cruises will skip this stop in favour of a stop at Shennong Stream.

After Wushan the cruise enters the Wu Gorge. The Wu Gorge is about 40km long and features sheer cliffs with jagged peaks.

After exiting the Wu Gorge, the next possible stop is at Badong for a tour of the Shennong Stream (probably only if the cruise did not stop for the Lesser Three Gorges side-cruise). Many travellers also report this trip as a highlight of the cruise.

The cruise then enters Xiling Gorge. The third and final gorge doesn’t offer the same stunning scenery as the previous two but is much longer at around 80km.

Exiting from Xiling Gorge you reach the Three Gorges Dam, which is a stop on just about every tour. Hydrofoils will terminate here and you will need to take a bus to Yichang. Cruises will continue on to Yichang (or further).

Attractions on the Three Gorges Cruise

Cruise ships will make a number of stops along the way at various attractions, some of questionable interest. The exact stops that are made vary from cruise to cruise. But below are the most common stops:

Fengdu – Ghost City: Fengdu was flooded as part of the Three Gorges Dam project and so was part of this Taoist temple complex, which has been rebuilt higher up. This is another of those attractions that has far more interest for domestic tourists, since Fengdu appears in classical Chinese literature, etc. For most foreign visitors, it isn’t worth the ¥80 admission fee.

Fengdu – Snow Jade Cave: Alternatively on the Fengdu stop you might be taken to Snow Jade Cave. This is one of those karst caves with the stalactites and stalagmites lit up with bright lights – pretty much the same as Reed Flute Cave in Guilin or the ones at Halong Bay in Vietnam. Admission is ¥70 and it’s interesting enough if you haven’t seen something similar before.

Shibaozhai (Precious Stone Fortress): This is basically a 56m pagoda that boasts some nice carvings and sculptures. Before the Three Dams Project, it sat high on a massive rock. Now it’s on an island, only just above water level. Admission fee is ¥50 and it’s all a bit ho-hum.

Zhang Fei Temple: Zhang Fei was a legendary general from the Three Kingdoms Period. The temple built to honour him has a history of some 1700 years. The temple was moved and reconstructed at its current site in 2003. Its former site is now underwater. Admission is ¥40, and while it’s an impressive enough temple, you could take it or leave it.

Baidicheng: The name of this temple complex translates as White Emperor City. Positioned at the entrance to Qutang Gorge, the origins of this complex date back almost 2000 years. Like many of the attractions noted here, it is now surrounded by water and has far more significance to domestic tourists than it does to foreigners. Admission is ¥70.

The Lesser Three Gorges (Wushan): The Lesser (or Little) Three Gorges involves a detour in a smaller boat along the Daning River. Many tourists feel that the scenery at the Little Three Gorges is even more impressive than on the main cruise. Certainly, if you only take in one of the attractions on the Three Gorges Cruise, it should probably be this one. The transfer for the cruise through the Lesser Three Gorges happens in Wushan. The cruise takes around four hours and costs about ¥150.

Shennong Stream: Cruise boats will generally stop at Shennong Stream if they don’t stop at the Lesser Three Gorges and a side trip down this other Yangtze River tributary from the town of Badong receives equally rave reviews. There are little gorges along here as well and you are taken along in sampans steered by locals. Tours along here cost about ¥150.

Three Gorges Dam: The infamous Three Gorges Dam is now a major tourist attraction. It’s an undeniably impressive structure. The Three Gorges Dam ‘Scenic Area’ offers a couple of viewing platforms and a garden that displays some of the machinery used for construction. Admission is a bit pricey at ¥105.

Buying Yangtze River Cruise Tickets

Cruises on the luxury boats should probably be bought in advance to ensure you get a place, though you could try your luck when you arrive in Chongqing. You’ll generally get tickets cheaper by purchasing through a travel agent than if you try to purchase directly through the cruise company.

Tickets on the Chinese cruise boats and the hydrofoil can be bought on arrival in Chongqing, but try to get them one or two days before the cruise if possible. There’s a ticket office at the Chaotianmen Docks, or you can check out prices and offers at one of the many travel agencies around. Your hotel will also be able to organise tickets (though they might charge a commission on top).

Transport to and From the Three Gorges Cruise

For information on transport to Chongqing, and getting to the Chaotianmen Docks in Chongqing, see the Chongqing transport page.

For transport from Yichang, you have the following options:

Flights: There is a daily flight to Beijing (¥1300) at 16:20, while there is also a 10:35 flight six days per week and a 18:00 flight three days per week. There are daily flights to Shanghai (¥1080) at 15:35 and 19:15 as well as a 10:35 service some days. It can be difficult to get discounts off the full rates on these flights. The daily flight to Guangzhou (¥960) at 21:40 is more likely to have discounts of 30% or so.

Other destinations from Yichang Sanxia Airport include Chongqing and Xian (three days per week) and Chengdu (five days per week).

For a greater variety of flights and bigger discounts, your best bet is to take the bus or train to Wuhan and fly from there.

Buses: There are buses heading all over China, but the only really sensible destination from Yichang by bus would be Wuhan (about 4.5 hours, tickets around ¥150). If you do take the bus to Wuhan, you will have a greater variety of flights with more discount fares open to you.

Train: You can also get to Wuhan by train (about 5 hours, ¥100). Services to Beijing, Shanghai and Xian also pass through Yichang station, but generally you’d be better off flying.