The Yangtze flows through myriad different ecosystems and is the natural habitat to species endemic to the area, some of which are critically endangered, including the Yangtze River Dolphin, Chinese Alligator, Finless Porpoise, and Chinese Paddlefish. The Chinese have used the river for thousands of years (it first became significant under the Han Dynasty around 206 BC), for water, sanitation, irrigation, transport, and industry, however, as it’s the intensified agricultural production and industrialization along its banks in recent decades, that has resulted in serious pollution and loss of lakes, wetlands and other natural habitats for wildlife. Some sections are now protected nature reserves, including a stretch flowing through western Yunnan’s deep gorges that form part of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas.
With the rise in tourism in China, cruises along the Yangtze departing from Chongqing became hugely popular, especially through the spectacular Three Gorges area between Chongqing and Yichang, although that route changed when the Three Gorges Dam project began. There are different classes of boats although most foreigners do a multi-day all-inclusive cruise with shore excursions on a luxury four- or five-star boat.
Few tourists go beyond Chongqing, although the more intrepid travellers doing the Yunnan tourist trail will visit the river’s upper reaches around Lijiang. While the rapidly modernizing Chongqing is a gritty, chaotic port city that appears to hold little of interest at first glance, there are a handful of historic sights, pleasant waterside dining, and a tasty pork and seafood based cuisine – the highlight of which is its famous hot pots and its must-try spicy red soup called ‘hong tang’. While the Chongqing and the Yangtze might not be the prettiest of places, travellers continue to flock here, determined to get a taste of this colossal river before it’s too late.