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Misty, sheer-walled gorges, the world’s largest dam and a nightly banquet of food make this Yangtze River cruise the highlight of a trip to China.

As the old boatman poles our wooden canoe along Shennong Stream, I gaze at the mountains soaring above this spectacular waterway and listen to our delightful Tudja guide singing the haunting folk songs of his people.

This idyllic side-trip is part of a three-day cruise along China’s Yangtze River on Oriental Emperor. The cruise, which begins in Chongqing and ends at Yichang, offers glimpses of parts of China so remote that getting there is an adventure.

To reach Fengdu, that intriguing Taoist pilgrimage site, with its Ghost Tower and spine-chilling images of Hell, we have to take a chairlift that swings high above a wilderness of bamboo, ferns and spruce. The pagodas, pavilions and ornamental pools of White Emerald City are perched so high on a mountain-top that some of us opt to be carried up in bamboo sedan chairs.

Naturally, the highlight of the Yangtze cruise is sailing through its three gorges. I’d been told that since the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the river’s higher level has detracted from the view, but as we enter the majestic, misty world of Qutang Gorge, I hold my breath.

Qutang is the shortest but most dramatic of the three gorges. The gentler scenery of Wu Gorge reminds me of a delicate scroll painting, until we come to the rugged peaks that tower over the river.

In between excursions, I sit on deck watching vessels ply the mighty grey river. We pass cruise boats, huge container vessels, hydrofoils and long barges ferrying iron ore, coal, and silt dredged from the river floor. Many villages along the river were flooded during the construction of the dam; therefore, most of the buildings on the riverbanks have been newly built.

Life on board Oriental Emperor is very pleasant. Emma, our efficient Chinese river guide, gives mahjong lessons; the chef teaches us to make spicy Sichuan hotpot and the captain invites us onto the bridge to explain the navigational challenges of cruising the Yangtze.

Though the rest of the staff speak very little English, they can’t do enough for us. It is always a pleasure to return to the ship from an excursion and find them lined up along the floating pontoon to welcome us back. Our standard cabin, which is spacious, comfortable and air-conditioned, is cleaned twice a day. The lunches and dinners resemble banquets: at one meal, I count 15 different dishes. When Emma asks our table whether we have any suggestions for the chef, our reply is unanimous: less food!

Apart from our Australian group of nine, the majority of the passengers are Chinese, and one of the pleasures of this cruise is meeting Chinese people, who we find extremely friendly. Among the families I befriend, some have children who enjoy practising their English on us; one, a delightful seven-year-old called Mary, even becomes my email pal.

Our cruise ends with a tour of the Three Gorges Dam. Our guide, who overwhelms us with statistics, describes it as the biggest, longest and most powerful dam in the world. So the cruise ends, appropriately, with superlatives.

Booking details

Oriental Emperor carries 180 passengers. The cruise is included in Peregrine Adventures’ ‘Essence of China’ tour. Phone 1300 854 500 or visit http://www.peregrineadventures.com/china

To book the three-day cruise, go to www.yangtzethreegorges.com.

Viking offers a six-day Yangtze cruise on Viking Emerald in its 12-day ‘Imperial Jewels of China’ tour. Visit www.vikingrivercruises.com to find out more.

Words: Diane Armstrong