Described by author Pearl Buck as "the widest river on earth" it is now hard to equate this statement with the placid waters which now reside upstream from the soon to be completed Three Gorges Dam. Maybe in the summer when in full flood the river does to live up its name but in May-sailing was a "stroll in the Park"for our ship's captain.
I boarded the Princess Jeanie of the China Regal Cruise fleet at Wuhan on the afternoon of the 24th May. The Cruise line proudly boasts their ships are the only European built on the river. Built in Germany in 1993( I was told for Volga River cruising) they are certainly spick and span with the minimum embellishments and decorations. They are European river cruise boats on a Chinese river. The only concession to their Chinese environment is of course the local crew. The cultural entertainment and the Chinese food(toned down significantly for Western tastebuds).
My travel advisor booked me a two berth cabin amidships on the Princess Deck. Fortunately I had single occupancy of the cabin and the second berth was folded up giving me substantial space. The bathroom area contained a sink, toilet and shower which operated in the space between the sink and toilet( the latter shielded by a heavy waterproof shower curtain). It was virtually impossible to to dry oneself in the room and the shower which mat was actually positioned outside the door in the cabin. This area was curtained off for privacy.
Interestingly the ship endeavored to sell "upgrades" to suites-there was an announcement of a "suites sale"-and there seemed to be a bargaining process as several passengers paid different amounts but the going rate was up to 700 USD. I inspected a suite and they were spacious and very attractive-one passenger complained that the TV was in the lounge not in the bedroom.
The main facility used was the dining room. The seating was on either side of a mirrored center block with 6 people at each oblong table. All meals were buffet style served from bain-marie this did create congestion as the food area is in a relatively small space. The food was hot and plentiful and varied-largely "tone down" Chinese cuisine. Chinese pastry cooks are not renewed for their ability to produce mouth-watering desserts and those on this ship were no exception.
The service was excellent-no doubt assisted by the fact that the ship was only two-thirds full. Beer and soft drinks were free with meals and wine was offered but at 5 star prices.
The bar were well-stocked-again at 5 stars prices and were most popular during the "Happy Hours" when discounts were offered and before breakfast when tea and coffee were free.
The ballroom was used for lectures, briefings and demonstrations and of course for entertainment-it has been furnished with bulky furniture which made it difficult to move around. The entrances are both at one end at either side of the stage which made it difficult for people to enter and leave during presentations. I assume that when the ship is full there would need to be two "sittings". All events held here were excellent especially the crew who were very talented in singing, dancing and with musical instruments. All passengers were delighted with this facet of the cruise.
Some river descriptions were done outside at the bow of the ship-seating was limited and sometimes the sound system was inadequate.
I also visited the library-the range of books was not extensive and the magazines several years old-there was no current newspapers. There was also a small gymnasium with two exercise bikes and a treadmill. The gift shop stocked the usual array of souvenir items and clothes-as expected at 5 star prices but still traded well with those who could not face the crowds and bargaining process on shore.
Shore excursions were well-organized and on the ship meeting points were given to ensure there was no congestion. Water was offered at the gangplank at the exorbitant price of 10 yuan for a small bottle. There were three excursions-to the 3 Gorges Dam on Day2-the Shennon Stream on Day 3 and Wanxian on Day4.
The Dam visit was extremely interesting especially the layout in the Information Center but photo opportunities were limited due to poor weather. On this day the ship went through the Gezhou ship lock and then the 4 locks of the Three Gorges Dam itself.
The highlight excursion was to Shennong Stream, an area now much more accessible due to the water level increase. It comprised transfer to a medium-sized boat which traveled for 40 minutes up newly created waterways between well-wooded hills and sheer cliffs one with a clearly visible hanging coffin. Later passengers were transferred to an armada of "peapod" boats( small open sampans) which were manned by a team of rowers who later as the stream became shallow towed the boat by rope to the top of small rapids. The trip back down these was a pleasant ¡°soft adventure¡±. The total trip was about 3 hours.
The final excursion was to Wanxian-a not particularly attractive city and comprised a visit to a museum( hanging coffin), the markets( much the same as anywhere in china) and to the home of a re-settled farmer. The latter was the most interesting and many questions were asked about compensation and re-training methods. The guides on the excursions were well-versed and as the tours were of short duration there was little else they could be judged on.
The passengers comprised two medium sized American tour groups(40+ in each group) an Australian group of 15, an English group of 6 and various other IT and family parties. I spoke to a number of people and some comments were consistent. The average age of the passengers was over 60 and many were well-traveled. Also many were not very active but the crew were always at hand to assist. The service could not be faulted and the ship was extremely clean and well-maintained throughout.
I had previously traveled the Yangtze downstream prior to impoundment on the Dragon. I recall a number of land visits to temples(Fendu) and pagodas(shibaozhai) and that the boat pulling at Shennong stream was much closer to the main river. I also recall the river flow as being much more noticeable and there was certainly no slurries of rubbish which regrettably we ploughed through in all three gorges. The cruise was more interesting then as the demolition process of area to be drowned was taking place-much of this has now been completed. On the plus side the Shennong stream has now become a calm area of water which allows access to some beautiful scenery not previously visible. The Gorges themselves are still spectacular as the cliffs are so high and we were fortunate to have an excellent weather day to really appreciate them. The Dam has made the river more navigable and the constant stream of cargo ships, ferries, other cruise boats and hydrofoils add to the interest.
It is difficult to understand why the cruise started at Wuhan as the first day's cruising was nondescript. I suggest that the cruise should start in Yichang and disembark passengers at Wanxian for a 3 hour bus ride to Chongking( I was also told that the length of the ship was often a problem for its access to Chongking and using Wuxian would solve this problem.) Chongking is not a particularly interesting city for tourists apart from the pandas in the zoo and the cave carving at Dazu. The latter is a "must see" and can be done in about 6 hours.
The Dam itself whilst an impressive structure is not as scenic as other dams parts of the world although what is will achieve is astonishing. Most people wanted to see the Dam itself and experience the beauty of the Gorges-both of these are heavily dependant on weather conditions.
The issue is what do people want-cruise or to see the sights in the minimum times? If they want a leisurely cruise then Regal China-Wuhan-Chongking or vice visa meets their needs. For sightseeing Yichang-Chongking or vice visa is the way.
I still believe that the Three Gorges warrants its "must see" description. The issue of shore excursion is a problem for tourists wanting to visit specific sights and also the likelihood of changes with little or no notification due to river conditions. Cruise seem to alternate between the Daaning and Shennong streams and I guess they are similar and would be highlights for most.