Hiking & Village Exploration/Cruising the Grand Canal/Visiting Suzhou, Nanjing & Shanghai


Snaking its way down from the lost horizons of Tibet, the Yangtze gathers speed and surges across the green valleys of the Chinese heartland, churning red-brown with iron-rich earth, swelled by hundreds of roaring tributaries, and emptying quietly into the East China Sea some 4,000 miles from its birthplace. The sinuous, sustained journey of the "Great River" makes it the third longest in the world, after the Nile and the Amazon.
One of the river's best-known stretches is the Three Gorges, a region steeped in Chinese folklore where roiling waters take hairpin turns between sheer limestone mountains. Countless travelers pass through these storied, mist-laden gorges, but most rush through on fast-moving ferries, rarely stepping ashore to get a feel for the people and the life along the river.
Not so on our river journey-we'll take the time to wander into abandoned towns graced by 350-year-old Ming Dynasty architecture and walk ancient tow paths where, until the late 1950s, laborers pulled junks upriver against the Yangtze's raging current. We'll also investigate several of the beautiful smaller gorges on Yangtze tributaries. Our small group size (no more than 10 people) gives us great mobility and the chance for serendipitous encounters.

Into the Chinese Heartland

Scenes along the way will include lush promontories swirling in mist, homes adorned with Ming Dynasty wood carvings, scattered farmhouses surrounded by terraced fields of potatoes and wheat, graceful ridge top pagodas, fishermen casting nets from the shore, old men smoking foot-long pipes, women cooking on charcoal woks along the river's edge, and local markets where vendors sell all things bamboo, from baskets to shoes. The Yangtze carries three fourths of China's river commerce, so we'll see an abundance of traffic on the main gorges, from long barges to little sampans loaded with ducks bound for market.

Before the Deluge

An important note: One must see this part of China now or never, for the Three Gorges will soon vanish beneath the waters of the colossal Three Gorges Dam, China's most massive engineering project since the Great Wall. The dam will create a 370-mile-long reservoir that will inundate 1400 villages, entire large cities, and some of China's most fertile agricultural land, forcing nearly two million Chinese from their ancestral homes.

Suzhou & the Grand Canal

Before we get to the gorges, we'll spend a day enjoying Shanghai, a resurgent city with an infamous colonial past. We'll get a sense of Shanghai's colonial hey day along the Bund, with its neo-classical buildings that once housed European banks and trading houses.
Moving to Hangzhou, a city set on China's famed Grand Canal, we'll have our first view of this 800 mile-long, hand-dug waterway that by 600 A.D. connected the Yangtze and Yellow River basins. The Grand Canal is considered to be China's other great engineering marvel, after the Great Wall. While not beautiful in itself, the Grand Canal provides an intriguing scene, with its flotillas of commercial barges juxtaposed against the tea plantations and silk farms along its shores.
We'll take an overnight cruise down the Grand Canal to reach Suzhou, a charming city of moats, arched stone bridges, and classical gardens built during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Suzhou has been prosperous for a thousand years, and its 16th century atmosphere still exists despite new development. Our next stop is the beautiful, wealthy city of Nanjing, China's capital before the Communist revolution in 1949, with its tree-lined boulevards stretching along the banks of the Yangtze.

Exploring the Gorges, Hiking the Towpaths

A swift hydrofoil ride from Nanjing takes us upriver to the start of the Three Gorges. To explore in and around the gorges, we'll use small, shallow-draft boats to make it easier to get on and off the river at sites of interest.
We first travel through the Xiling Gorge, once known for its treacherous rapids, now tamed by dredging and blasting. Here we get our first experience of hiking the Yangtze's infamous towpaths. For many centuries, the only way to get boats upriver was to man-haul them, and that chore was accomplished by harnessing crews of 40 or 50 men, called trackers, to bamboo cables hundreds of yards long, which in turn were attached to boats. The trackers struggled along a narrow track carved into limestone walls, hauling the boats against the furious torrent. Tracking was a dangerous business, and one misstep often meant a fatal plunge to the churning river below.
Our walk along the tow path of the Xiling Gorge leads us to the tiny trading town of Peishi, which still displays lovely Ming-style buildings with post-and-beam construction and upturned tile roofs. After an overnight in Peishi, we hike the tow paths of the second main gorge, the Wuxia (Witches' Gorge), a fantastic, narrow canyon lined by twelve jagged, cloud-piercing peaks soaring to 3,000 feet.
Before coming to the third main gorge, we take a diversion into the Lesser Three Gorges of the beautiful Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze. Boating up the Daning as far as we can, we'll pass the Dragon Gate Gorge, see some cliff paths dating to the Qin era (3rd century BC), and visit the Ming dynasty village of Dacheng. The next day, we explore an even smaller set of gorges, the bamboo-lined canyons of the Least Three Gorges, where we'll pole through shallows in a small sampan. The bird life is rich here, and with luck, we might see one of the famed golden monkeys of Sichuan.
Finally we return to the Yangtze to enter the last and most spectacular of the main Three Gorges, mist-filled Qutang Gorge, the shortest and narrowest-a mere 350 feet wide at its narrowest. We'll get our last experience of the gorges on a memorable full day's hike along dramatic paths cut into Qutang's precipitous sandstone cliffs.

Homeward Bound

At Fengjie, at the end of the Qutang Gorge, a speedy hovercraft takes us up the river to Chongqing, China's largest city, and we return to Shanghai to catch our US-bound flights.

Time - October
Duration: 21 Days
Land Cost: Please Call

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