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The Yangtze River flows for nearly 4,000 miles through the heart of China, essentially dividing the country between north and south and offering a relaxing way to escape China’s traffic-choked streets and urban air pollution. The full-length river cruises cover about 1,400 miles of the 4,000.
You don't have to miss out on China’s two major cities: many cruise itineraries start either in Beijing, China’s capital, or Shanghai, its most vibrant city. Yangtze River cruise itineraries often include multi-day visits to both on either end of the river voyage.
If you start in Shanghai, you can explore both old colonial-era Shanghai, along the waterfront Bund District, as well as the ultra-modern new city (using your ship as hotel and restaurant). If you start in Beijing, sightseeing includes the 15th-century-era imperial Forbidden City, huge Tiananmen Square -- regarded as the center of the Middle Kingdom -- and a trip to see part of the Great Wall, which lies outside the city.
Once on the cruise itself, the itinerary may include a stop in the ancient Chinese capital of Nanjing and another at Suzhou, known as the “Venice of the East” for its network of canals.
Yangtze cruises of whatever length all stop at the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydro-electric dam project. While extremely controversial during its construction because it displaced more than a million people -- as well as flooding archaeological sites and altering the landscape of the scenic Three Gorges -- it's still an engineering marvel.
The ships all sail in daylight through the Three Gorges, which, though flooded by the dam and are now a reservoir, remain a scenic wonder. The Three Gorges are Xiling -- the longest -- Wu (which includes the gorgeous 12 Peaks), and Qutang, where you'll pass by sheer cliffs.
The river ships typically stop at villages along the route to visit pagodas, sacred mountains and other sites.
Some itineraries cover just the distance between Chongging and Yichang, which includes the Three Gorges. These take four or five days, depending on whether you're traveling downstream or upstream (Chongqing to Yichang is downstream and the faster trip).
Some longer Yangtze itineraries (approximately 11 to 16 days), will split more land time with time afloat.