For Western travelers, the Yangzi Explorer is far and away the most comfortable ship to travel on without a sticker-shock price tag. Every room has a balcony, which I took advantage of daily to gaze at the curved swallowtail Chinese roofs and white bloc-style architecture that characterize relocation towns near the dam. I loved the engaging lectures they offered on the cruise (such as “China, The West, & The Mao Years”) — and the early morning tai chi lessons, taught by the ship’s doctor.
Though I was anxious to see the colossal dam, my most memorable experiences happened on the ship, sailing through the Three Gorges, surrounded by thick, cool air and hearing the river water lap against the boat. Early morning brought us through the dramatic Qutang Gorge, followed by the Wu Gorge (or Witches’ Gorge), and finally the longest gorge of Xiling, where the dam is. Your first glimpse of the dam comes at night as the ship sails through five locks.
It was originally thought that the Three Gorges Dam would provide for 12% of China’s electricity needs, but due to a voracious appetite for energy, it can supply only 3%. Media accounts in the West have been decidedly negative, typically focusing on families that have been forced to leave their homes. But of course, nothing is black and white, and there is always another side. It was on a shore excursion to Fengdu where I met relocated families who were glad to move (payment from the government helped). I also learned about the intense flooding that has killed millions in the region, which the dam has alleviated.
The final shore excursion takes you to the best place to view the dam (and take photos of it) along with an exhibit about its construction. The hazy weather didn’t dampen the excitement of seeing something I had heard about for so long. As with most things both applauded and condemned, the dam is worth seeing in person. But it felt even more significant to see the unspoiled terrain of the Three Gorges.
Annie Fitzsimmons is a New York-based travel and hotel writer. She is a frequent contributor to publications that share her love of exploration and discovery. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @anniefitz and on her personal blog, Hotel Belle.