by Leslie Chang
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
ABOARD THE MV EMPEROR ON THE YANGTZE RIVER -- Shortly after our cruise ship set sail from the Sichuan town of Fengdu on its way down the Yangtze River, its hardworking crew began to entertain us. Four women in harem pants and navel-baring tops performed a lantern dance. The chief tour guide pressed several audience members into a potato race. Three young women danced in hula skirts, one batting her eyelashes at the audience while the other two looked on with dour expressions.
As I got up to leave, I checked my watch: Only 58 hours to go.
For countless travelers, no trip to China is complete without taking the storied cruise through the country's Three Gorges area. This 120-mile stretch of the Yangtze has been celebrated by Chinese poets for centuries, and in recent decades cruises along its steep limestone cliffs and treacherous rapids have practically become an automatic part of the itinerary, along with the terra-cotta warriors of Xi'an and Beijing's Forbidden City. In the past few years, the region has attracted some 60,000 Americans annually.
But now, at a time when travelers can freely visit China's remotest corners and cities like Shanghai are building a cosmopolitan reputation, these trips can feel like a throwback. Westerners accustomed to luxury cruises should expect tight quarters, odd excursions and, for breakfast and lunch, self-serve noodles and other dishes from steamer trays. The cruises have the kitschy feel of other entrenched tourist attractions, from Venice's gondolas to bateau rides on the Seine. And the ships now ply a changed landscape: The world's largest hydroelectric dam is being built here, and when it started partial operation last year the Yangtze's waters rose -- flooding towns and villages, turning much of the once-rushing river placid, and draining the landscape of much of its drama.
At the same time trips on these ships, some state-owned and others privately owned, have upmarket competition. Longtime U.S. operator Abercrombie & Kent now runs three different group tours in China, offering stays at Shanghai's Four Seasons hotel, stops at an out-of-the-way stretch of the Great Wall and access to a pavilion inside Beijing's Forbidden City usually closed to outsiders. (It also has its own, more personalized Yangtze trip, 19 days for $6,685.) Imperial Tours of Carson City, Nev., offers trips for art collectors or families and promises Western tour directors, while Beijing-based WildChina hits offbeat destinations, including panda-spotting in a Sichuan nature reserve.
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20 February, 2004 Copyright 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved