how to cruise the yangtze river

How to Take a Yangtze River Cruise [On a Chinese Boat]

If you want to take a Yangtze River Cruise through the Three Gorges but you’re on a budget, then the best way is to take a domestic – Chinese – tourist boat

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We are on a boat moored up at the Jiuwan Stream as I’m typing this. I’m sat in a first class cabin. Ho, ho, I hear you laugh, what about that budget? Ah. But this is a Chinese boat. And yes I know I’m in China and they’re ALL Chinese boats, but there are two types of boats you can take to cruise the Yangtze. I use the word cruise very loosely here. Very, very loosely.

Our vessel
Our vessel

Yangtze River Cruise – Western Boat = $$$

The boats taken by 99% of Westerners are the bigger, “Westernized” boats. They generally leave from the riverbank in Chongqing. They have indoor and outdoor seating, a restaurant, and all the usual comforts of a cruise ship. Prices start at around US $400 for a two night, three day cruise that ends up in Yichang  The prices includes a visit to the Three Gorges Dam, but no other excursions.

Yangtze River Cruise -Chinese Boat = Half the Price

Most domestic tourists take the Chinese boats. Our Chinese boat, the Dong Fang Zhi Zhu, cost us 1400 Yuan each ( GBP 140, US $ 231 ).  That prices is for a three day, two night trip and it includes four ‘excursions’.

“They only have Chinese food”, said the host at the Chongqing Yangtze River Hostel when we arrived to pay for the cruise.  We had booked it with them over email a week beforehand. “Make sure you pack food.”

Buying Snacks for the Boat Trip

Somewhat confused, we duly trotted off to the supermarket and brought along some of the mini “French Breads” that have become a breakfast staple when there’s nothing else, some dried fruit and a pot of noodles each for emergencies.

We’ve been in China 6 weeks in total now, eating Chinese food, so it was puzzling that they felt it necessary to mention that there was only Chinese food on the boat.

Onboard "restaraunt
Onboard “restaraunt

Chinese Food on a Chinese Boat

What they should have said was there is only bad Chinese food and that the Chinese don’t eat on the boat. That would be more accurate. We braved the restaurant on the first night.  We wentfor the “four dishes on one plate, with a bowl of clear Chicken broth, and a bowl of rice” option for 25 Yuan each.

If you’re old enough to remember school dinners in the UK from the 1980’s, then you’ll have an idea as to what it was like. There was a tofu dish, and face it, it’s hard to mess up tofu, but they did.  There was a very bony deep fried fish dish, a green vegetable thing and something that might have been pork.

The rice was good, the soup was interesting. On a boat that was pretty much full, with around 180 passengers, there were 8 of us in the “restaurant”. I’m pretty sire four of them were playing majong and ot eating.

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Transport from Chongqing to the Yangtze River

We’d left from the hostel at 2pm, the two of us and a single Austrian bloke, who turned out to be Florian.  We three were the only Westerners on the boat. We got onto a bus not far from the hostel, that would take us to Wanzhou.  It was a 5 hour bus journey from Chongqing.

The journey would be 4 hours if it didn’t stop for the requisite “hello, shopping” stops.  The first stop was for 45 minutes, longer than scheduled because two morons managed to be back 15 minutes late with no apparent shopping bags in sight. The second stop was an expressway gas station, where the food stalls came complete with rats running as you approached was a mere 15 minute break.

Arriving at the Boat on the Yangtze

It was 7pm by the time we pulled up in front of what looked like another shopping mall, wearing our yellow lanyards and tags. We had become part of the Chinese tourist herding mass. We stayed close to our tour guide.  She spoke very little English, but she carried a flag on a stick and had the obligatory microphone and screechy portable speaker.

We headed down the steep rickety stairs, through the boarding area and walked on board what looked like a rusty old ferry boat.

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Everyone was keen to help, taking our tags and pointing us upwards.

Third Class on a Chinese Yangtze River Cruise

Third class it seems is on the level that you walk in on. In third class you get a bunk bed with five other people and a bathroom between you. Just like a dorm.

Second Class on a Chinese Yangtze River Cruise

Second class is on the next floor up, four bunk beds to a room with a shared bathroom.

First Class on a Chinese Yangtze River Cruise

The “restaurant” and some first class cabins are on the third floor, and our first class cabin was on the fourth floor. The fifth floor is the upper outside deck.

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Our first class cabin has two narrow single platforms on which have been placed mattresses. As Chinese beds go, they’re reasonably comfortable, if narrow enough to warrant thoughtful turning in the night.

We have clean looking sheets, a thin pillow and a duvet. But I’m glad we brought our sheet sleeping bags. There’s a speaker on the wall, that mercifully has an on off and a volume dial.  There is, after all, occasional announcements or tour information or perhaps its just telling us that the restaurant is open.

Worse, there’s constantly piped Celine Dion, in order that you channel your inner Titantic.

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There’s a wall mounted flat screen TV, three electric sockets that have even worked the whole time we’ve been here.  There is air that comes out of an overhead vent, it’s neither hot nor cold, it’s just air.

The windows open, and sort of close, although the glass doesn’t actually fit the frame.

We haven’t had any mosquito problems, but did plug our mosquito zapper in 247 just in case. Although, that said, the mozzies would have had to get past us to get to the zapper.

There are small bedside lights that emit an orange glow, a desk and a small wardrobe.  There are also two stained chairs that look as though someone pissed themselves on them and there’s a bathroom.

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There are no towels, toiletries or toilet paper, so be sure to bring your own.

Private Bathroom in a first class cabin

Our bathroom is old and basic. Well, the whole boat is old and basic. We have a western toilet and the inside of the bathroom appears to be made of melamine, most of which is stained.

There’s a built in sink, with hot and cold taps. And a shower, that seems to mainly soak the mirror and the sink area. A towel rail, more or less directly in the stream of the shower and a few hooks complete the bathroom.

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On a Budget in China?  Don’t be fussy.

“What’s traveling in China like?”, Florian’s parents asked him. “it’s ok” he said, “so long as you’re not fussy”. On $50 a day, we’re not fussy.

This cabin is just like a grungy hostel. It feels kind of clean, but it’s best viewed after I’ve taken my contact lenses out. It’s old and the carpet is raggy.

The bathroom door only shuts if you ram it closed, so when I get up to go to the loo in the night, my neighbors are aware of it and Nige grumbles.

There’s definitely no hot water. Mind you when you turn on the hot tap a murky brown color comes out that looks suspiciously like the river water outside. We take cold showers the time we are on the boat, we’re careful to get none of this water near our mouths.

We wash our clothes out in cold water and hang them on our washing lines, like the rest of the guests. This entire ship is a Chinese laundry.

Clearly we haven’t acclimatized enough to China as we don’t take our laundry up on deck to dry like some others.

“Knowing what you do now, would you come again, or go on the Western boat?” asks Nige. “Oh I’d come on this again, it’s been an experience”, I reply. It’s so bad it’s almost good.

There are no communal sitting spaces

It’s strange that there are no communal sitting spaces, apart from the restaurant, and you very definitely cannot take your own food there. We were told in no uncertain hand signal terms that it was not allowed, when we got back on the boat last night.

Buy Food from Boat-Side Vendors

We were clutching our tofu, rice and cold beer from the vendors on the side of the dock. They sell bargain cold beer at 5 Yuan, which you can’t even get in restaurants. Thats cold I mean, not the 5 Yuan.

I don’t understand what China doesn’t get about warm beer. It’s just wrong in so many ways.

Even on the top, outdoor deck, there are no seats. Just a covered area, an open area and the smallest area at the front, where you can jostle with the Chinese for a view of the front mast and the murk behind it.

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Picnic on the Deck.  There are no seats.

So, we three Westerners took to the covered area and sat cross legged on the floor. We picnic’d on the deck, earning yet more gawps from the domestic tourists, who all appear to eat in their cabins.

Hot Water, Noodles and a Shop

There’s a small shop on board, where instant noodles can be bought for 5 Yuan.  There’s a hot water boiler here on the 4th floor that’s constantly in use.  Each time we visit it and walk back to the cabin, we spot family groups sitting three to a bed, eating, chatting and socializing.

Small shop onboard
Small shop onboard

The Cost of a Yangtze River Cruise on a Chinese Boat

The basic cost of the cruise is 900 Yuan from the Chongqing hostel.  It includes the “only in Chinese” tour guide, and the bus journey down included a lot of commentary.

As we cruise through various parts of the Gorges, there she is again, with her microphone and portable speaker screeching away. It’s easy to follow what she’s talking about as all heads and cameras suddenly swing to the left.  The boat tilts slightly as the jostling for rail space moves left.

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Pay Extra for Excursions

We paid 1400 Yuan in total, for the four included excursions.

The Zhangfei Temple

The first night we went to the Zhangfei Temple, a couple of hours downstream from our starting point. It felt like it was just a temple in the dark. And there were no problems at all with all the guests being back on board by the appointed time.

There are, of course, at each stop, the obligatory vendors, none of whom seem to put much mark up on their goods.  They sell instant noodles, fruit, cooked food, necklaces, bracelets, combs, Chinese swords. Pretty much everything you could think of needing on your average Yangtze cruise.

So if you don’t buy a stash of food to bring with you, you’re not going to starve or be subjected to school dinners for three days.

View from the temple
View from the temple
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Next morning we breakfast on our “French Bread”, instant coffee and anti-malaria tablets in our first class cabin. Florian stands by the rail, smoking with his fellow steerage passengers. His cabin is shared with a Chinese family, the fat old woman snores. He doesn’t sleep much.

Third Class
Third Class

White Emperor City

There was an optional trip on the first morning we wake up on the boat, to the White Emperor City, for another 280 Yuan. We declined and didn’t join the marauding hordes at 0630, staying in bed until they returned at 0830.

Room Service of Sorts

We’re still in bed when there’s a knock at the door, and as I start to get up, the door opens.  A woman comes in, empties our bin and leaves again as I just lie back down and cover my head.

We turned Celine off, but the walls are thin, we still hear the announcements, all the windows are open, the chatter is constant. The snoring of our neighbor can’t be as bad as Florian’s fat old woman, so I resist banging on the wall.

The First of the Three Gorges

Before long we are heading towards the first of the Three Gorges. The water is muddy, there’s a layer of woody scum on top. There is garbage floating just about everywhere. The day is, though relatively clear and I think, well, I’m finally here. I’m on the Yangtze River going through the Three Gorges.  And I’m more than a little under whelmed.

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We stand at the front of the boat, which isn’t really the front, its about 40 feet from the front, but you can’t go any further forward. We hold the camera in the air, we jostle with the others and then we decamp to the stern where we watch the proceedings in reverse, but without a mass of bodies in front of us.

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Visiting the Lesser Three Gorges

Two hours in we are heading to a dock. Here we’ll transfer to a smaller boat and head through the Lesser Three Gorges, the second of our included excursions.

There’s a white board as we exit, detailing the time we need to return to the boat if we’re not taking the excursion. Our “smaller boat” manages to fit all the passengers from the ship on it. Down below it’s rather like an airplane, rows and rows of tightly packed seats. We head upstairs, and find a spot.

We’re supposed to be due back at 17:00, yet we cruise through the rather lovely lesser gorges slowly. We can walk around, sit out on deck, photograph the monkeys, look for the hanging coffins (we don’t spot them) and generally fill up the flash card with more photo’s of cliffs and trees that you can believe.

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Photography Options on Board

We’re given a great performance midway through the commentary.  Early on in the trip  a bloke with a snazzy camera slung around his neck stands up at the front.  He shows us a photo album, we’re shown sample pictures of various locations we assume through the Lesser Gorges.  He then takes a roll of film out of his pocket, and shows us, that this is genuine, real film and he’ll be using that.

I guess flash or SD cards don’t have the same impact on a Chinese audience. About 10 couples shoot their hands up for this fantastic photo taking opportunity. We sit on our hands.

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Finally we arrive at a dock and we’re herded off.

Shopping and Eating Options on Shore

Climbing what looks like the north face of the Eiger on a set of steps in the blazing sun, we head into a line for electric golf buggies. We westerners have no idea where we’re going, but it seems everyone is going. A few minutes later we arrive.

Oh, it’s “Hello, Shopping” and “Hello Eating”.

We feast on fried eggs wrapped in some pancake, brushed with chili, on cold noodles with spices and sugar and on a hot blancmange like thing with a lot of sugar on. We keep an eye on the others (there are two boats docked at the same time, so we need to make sure we follow the right crowd).

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And then it’s back to the buggies. And where we started. Back onto the “smaller boats” and we’re told, as Harry, our new Chinese friend translates for us, to “sit inside and rest”.

We’re upstairs again, there being no seats downstairs by the time we ambled back in, chewing our baked sweet potatoes and sticky rice goop.

A Sales Pitch Commentary

A commentary starts. And goes on and on and on. How can that be we wonder? We’re heading back through the lesser gorges that we already passed through? She’s talking about it again?

Harry admits that the woman talking – wait and now singing – is actually selling things. No one appears to complain, and she gives her pitch for the entire 2 hours it takes to get back to the ship.

Nige finds the on off switch for the upstairs speaker. I believe he earns looks of gratitude from the upstairs passengers, as Harry says that they don’t like it either, but, he shrugs, what can you do? “Probably get thrown out of China” mutters my husband the rebel.

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There are swimmers in the Yangtze

As we’re about to pass under the last bridge at the end of the Lesser Gorges we hear a yell from outside. There are orange balloons in the water. More trash I sigh, saddened by the disregard these people have for their country.

Only the orange balloons are tied to people. To men. Swimming. Putting not just their body in this disgusting garbage laden water, but their heads and their mouths. We westerners shudder collectively.

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Food Vendors Alongside the Boat

There’s a frenzied yell as we arrive back at the ship, the food vendors from the village nearby hadn’t spotted we were on our way back.  They run, across the floating pontoon, balancing trays of fried fish, of potatoes, of griddle cakes, of turtle.

We scoop up rice and tofu and the cold beers and after being denied the restaurant, we head to our picnic on the deck.

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It’s a lovely sunset as we chug through the middle gorge and as the light finally disappears, it’s 19:30 and the deck is empty. We’ll pass through the final gorge in the dark, so we turn in for the night.

There are “things” running across the floor in the bathroom when we get back to the cabin. I take my contact lenses out, keep my shoes on and firmly slam the door.

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Heading to the Jiuwan Stream

It’s an early start on our final day, 07:30, and we’re down below ready to head off on our third excursion, we’re heading up the Jiuwan Stream. To be honest, we don’t really know why, but everyone else is going. We moored here some time ago, so we wake to a cliff view.

We can see the Dragon Boats we’ll be transferring to. We hand over our tickets and get a badly fitting slightly smelly, one size doesn’t fit anyone life jacket.

We take our (wet) seats for the 15 minute scoot down the stream, complete with megaphone “only in Chinese” commentary.

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Arriving at another floating metal structure, we decamp, and head en-masse down a floating walk way. It heads into a smaller gorge, as the end there’s a metal staircase and we follow the crowd.

We climb the staircase and walk along the pathway that we’re told is a Plank Walk (this is no REAL plank walk like Huashan).  Less than 10 minutes later we’re descending again past the vendors, of food and tat and milling around.  Then we realize we’re in an outdoor theatre. We’ve sat at the front. Right in front of the speakers.

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A Chinese Cultural Performance

As the painfully loud, embarrassingly bad performance drags on, Nige has his fingers in his ears, Florian walks out.  We consider that this Chinese cultural performance is quite positively the most dire, excruciatingly bad experience that China has thrown at us.

As we arrive back at the ship, following a return on the Dragon boats, there are fish on sticks and more potatoes waiting from the local vendors. The Chinese stock up. I consider that the fish must have swum in the garbage and wait for my instant noodles.

Heading for our last stop

We’re moving now, heading from the Jiuwan Stream to our final docking point, near to the Three Gorges Dam. The river is muddy again now, strewn with polystyrene, and other garbage, small white houses dot the partly terraced hillsides. If you could make them out properly through the smog and ignore the trash in the water it would be quite picturesque.

We had further Yangtze River experiences when we crossed Tiger Leaping Gorge – you can read more about that here.

Exiting the Boat

90 minutes later we’ve arrived at our final river destination and we’re paying 2 Yuan to go up in the transporter, rather than climbing more Eiger like steps in the very hot midday sun.

Heading to the Three Gorges Dam

We’re on bus 3, our bags are with us, my Swiss Army knife is with the driver and we’re heading to the Three Gorges Dam. If we’d had any alcohol with us we would have had to give that to the driver too. Knives and Alcohol are not allowed in the Dam area. Unless you’re a bus driver.

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There’s an endless stream of commentary. High pitched, loud. Overhead in the bus there are air vents and a big red stop button. Sadly, we don’t think it’s for the commentary.

Our bus takes us past the locks of the Three Gorges Dam and we pull into a building.

We’re told, by a new friend, a Chinese man visiting from Maryland, USA with his aged mainland Chinese parents that we now have a break for 30 minutes.

Then we’re back on the bus, driving 300 meters to the visitor centre for the dam.

We’re herded off, we go through the airport like security scanners. It doesn’t recognize the alcohol in my hand sanitizer so we’re safe, we exit the building… and get on the bus again.

The locks from the bus
The locks from the bus

Then we’re using “open to the brutal sun, burn your hands if you do as you’re told and hold the handrails” escalators.  I hope that are powered by the hydro electric plant here at the Dam, that only delivers 3% of China’s electricity requirements.

More commentary ensues. We gaze at a memorial, to what we’re not sure, then at some bedrock bearing the scars of previous geological surveys, and then we’re looking at a model of the dam and the Gorges. Our exit is funneled through a gift shop. Where all manner of completely unrelated crap can be purchased. We have 20 minutes free time, so we wander, taking photo’s and escaping the sun.

Lock View Point at the Three Gorges Dam

Then we follow our guide, past another “hello shopping” opportunity to the “Lock View Point”, which us three westerners are quite excited about. And we get to see a concrete road and wall. Most definitely not exciting. More “hello shopping” and we’re queuing to buy a ticket for an electric golf buggy.

The tour guide disappears and our Maryland man is stuttering with rage that she didn’t explain and he didn’t know either, but we’re supposed to buy a 20 Yuan round ticket.

Why we have no idea, as it looks like we’re just going one way.

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The 185 Platform at the Three Gorges Dam

One way turns out to be to the 185 platform. 185, one assumes because this is 185 metres above sea level and the level of the reservoir is 175 metres.

There’s another “hello shopping” opportunity and another opportunity to get your photo taken “professionally” in front of the dam. And we’re back on the bus. 10 minutes later, we’ve driven across a bridge and my first thoughts are “oh God, what now?”, as we’re now taken to another gate, and another set of electric buggies – the round trip becomes clear.

Not a round trip then, just a second ticket requirement. Google translate clearly has some major issues.

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Downstream of the Three Gorges Dam

And we’re on the downstream side of the dam, watching folks fishing with huge nets, more photo opportunities, even more “hello shopping” opps and back on the buggies again, to the exit, where you’ll be pleased to see that, even once you’ve exited, there is indeed another shopping opportunity.

There’s even a marked out route through the shop, how quaint we think as we linger in the air conditioning, wondering why we would want to buy a comb, another Chinese sword and yet more bracelets.

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This complex is huge. We’re still within the Three Gorges Dam complex as we get back on the bus, and we head back towards the first security building that we came into.

We have to get off the bus explains Maryland man, because the bus hasn’t been cleared, so we have to go through the Cultural Exhibition Hall, where everything has a price tag. And the bracelets and bottles of water are also cultural.

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Turns out that none of the other buses visiting that day were cleared either, so all their guests have to de-bus too.

Finally screechy, loud tour guide announces her departure, loudly, screechily and jumps off the bus waving.

We are heading now for Yichang and the Jin Ma Tour bus stop.

Arriving in Yichang

90 minutes later we arrive, my Swiss Army knife is returned and we’re catching a bus to the East Railway Station where we’ll send Florian on his way south and back to University.  Now we’re off to the Yijin Business Hotel our home for the night before our train to visit the Avatar Mountains of Zhangjiajie.

Traveling on the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges has been a bucket list item.  Doing it on a domestic tourist boat has made it all the more memorable.  And, of course, affordable!

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