Cruising the Yangtze Day 3: The Three Gorges Dam

Cruising the Yangtze Day 2: The Three Gorges
April 17, 2012
Learning Chinese
April 24, 2012

Cruising the Yangtze Day 3: The Three Gorges Dam

This Post is part of a series. Read: Cruising the Yangtze Day 1: Leaving Chongqing and Cruising the Yangtze Day 2: The Three Gorges

Before touring the Three Gorges Dam, we would have to go through the most complex ship lock system in the world. It is a two-way series of five locks which brought us from about 165 meters down above sea level to 65. (The maximum water difference is 113 meters.) Even though it was around midnight, most of us onboard still stood in the cool breeze on our ship’s deck to watch us and three barges get slowly lowered and shuttled on through to the next gigantic gate.

empty Three Gorges Dam Locks

The Dam—Incredible but not Spectacular

It was really hard to appreciate the magnitude of this engineering feat and difficult to grasp the scale of the project as a whole. When we read the facts, 2.3 km long and 101 m high, it’s clearly one of the grandest achievements of modern engineering and construction. But standing on the sidelines at the viewpoint, it was hard to absorb. The dam is only spectacular when looking at the numbers; it’s not awe-inspiring like a view of the Hoover Dam.

The tour guides were informing us about how the dam was built to control flooding and that electricity generation was just an afterthought. That’s hard to believe. I think this damn was built for one primary reason: hydro-electricity. China’s unprecedented growth is demanding increasing electricity. Secondary reasons I believe are to increase shipping by taming the river and flood control.

The Three Gorges Dam

It appears the government made a good effort to relocate people and move towns and villages further up the river bank. Our guides told us that new homes with modern amenities had been built for them. I couldn’t help but think that this “modernization” was just forcing them into electricity dependency and ensuring them as life-long customers of the hydro-electric station.

It also appears that the government has made an effort to develop tourism along the river. Lots of farmers and countless others lost their former employment and tourism has been seen as a way to restore some of those jobs. That explains many of the cruise ship stops along the way.

The Three Gorges Dam Locks from above

The Third Gorge—Xiling

The third gorge, Xiling is the least impressive. It is beautiful at points but is built up extensively along the way and isn’t as dramatic due to much of the gorge being submerged. It is the longest, however, stretching for 80 km. Before the dam, this part of the river was the most treacherous for passing ships.

Xiling Gorge view



Our ship docked about 40 minutes short of Yichang—another example of the massive scale of Chinese cities—this one with 4+ million. Our guidebook warned us about Yicheng as a “nondescript and scruffy” city, but we found the center and along the river bank quite pleasant. The outskirts of town, were more like the guidebook suggested: drab, industrial, with super-polluted air.

In the center, a park stretches along the banks of the Yangtze and people walk their dogs, play cards on benches, and groups assemble for “live karaoke”. I didn’t believe it when I saw it, but live musicians play as amateurs step up and sing into the microphones. We were greeted with smiles by the mostly elderly people waiting their turn and I have to admit this was one of those moments when I was absolutely loving China.

another ship on the Yangtze

Disclosure: This Yangtze River Cruise is in partnership with  The opinions expressed are entirely my own. 


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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 20 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


  1. Elexandra Harris says:

    Wow! Great photos. The photos of the dam are nice. A perfect view from above. Have a great time there. 🙂

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