Rivers have been the life-blood and arteries of nations and continents for millennia, nourishing the land and providing trade routes for humans since the dawn of time.
Towns and cities have grown up around them, while their natural beauty has carved out the land bringing fertility and wealth to places all over the world. They have been fought over and defended and can form a natural divide between countries and territories, people, languages and cultures. In the natural world, they provide habitats to countless species of flora and fauna, as diverse as the landscape and the climate of every region on the planet.
That's why they are so fascinating, and if you get a chance, a trip along a river is bristling with new experiences, whether close to home or in far away places.
A trip down The Yangtze River was a holiday of a lifetime for my husband and I a few years ago, when we celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary. Ever since I was a little girl I'd wanted to visit the Orient and finally it was happening.
Just Cruising the Yangtze
The river trip was part of a tour in which we visited many of China's main sights, including The Great Wall, The Terracotta Army, Tiananmen Square and Shanghai. We travelled with Archer's Direct
(sister company to Cosmos and highly recommended), our Chinese guide 'Jessica' stayed with us for the whole fortnight, (guides often adopt an English sounding name to ease communication) which was brilliant.
The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world, rising in the mountains of Tibet, it snakes its way from west to east for over 6000km (3964 miles) across China before meeting the East China Sea. It is one of the great trading rivers of the world with commerce and industry springing up around it for many centuries and has been described as one of the cradles of Chinese civilization.
Hubby Colin in Shanghai
We first arrived in Shanghai, where the Huangpu River, one of the Yangtze tributaries, flows majestically through the city. After a few days in Shanghai, we travelled to Wuhan and then to Yichang, where we boarded our cruise ship, which was to be our home for four nights.
Margaret onboard Yangtze cruiseboat
The first place you visit is the massive Three Gorges Dam, which (we were told) was initiated under the auspices of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. Work on the first dam began in 1988 and the project was completed in 2009. The Yangtze with its huge volume of water, was an unpredictable river, changing its course regularly and causing natural disasters in its path. Westerners seldom heard these stories on our national news.
You can't fail to be impressed by the scale of the dam, although many villages were flooded and over a million people had to be relocated during its building. The hydro-electricity it produces is a major triumph of Chinese engineering.
The sugarloaf shaped hills of the Yangtze Gorges must be one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. It's almost mystical surroundings evoke a sense of peace and tranquillity, while local fishermen still go out in small boats to catch their daily meal.
Fast Boat Along the Wu Gorge
Further along we changed boats for a ride along the Wu Gorge and joined the Shendong Stream for an unforgettable pea-pod boat ride in the shallower waters of this tributary, powered by the local Tu Jin menfolk. We were told that China has fifty-seven different ethnic groups and the Tu Jin are considered an ethnic minority, in comparison to the majority of the country's Han population.
Tu Jin Guide teaches us the 'Good Friends' song
When we arrived at the pea-pod boat station we were given a little time to browse around the stalls at the top of the river embankment before going down numerous quite steep steps to board the boats. I found it quite daunting looking down from my vantage point near the stalls to the dozens of steps that ran parallel to the river for about a hundred metres like a grandstand waiting for the games to commence, the lower steps touching the water and forming a jetty. I use a cane to aid my mobility and there appeared to be no handrails. Assistance was on hand from my husband but I still felt nervous.
Suddenly, someone took my other arm and helped me safely down the steps. It was an elderly local lady from one of the stalls and I can still remember her strength and calmness as she guided me down towards the embarkation point. An act of kindness I won't forget.
Come on Cambridge
Leaving the Shendong Stream, we rejoined the Yangtze and journeyed towards Chongqing, where the massive Yangtze Basin supports a population of over 30 million people, truly the granary of China. The expanse of water is so vast that it forms its own weather system, with water vapour rising to form rain clouds that soak the land almost daily.
We disembarked at Chongqing, just in time for a heavy shower of rain and experienced a little bit of the city, where we lunched on fried lotus roots and other local cuisine before heading to see the Giant Pandas at Chongqing Zoo.
Local children visit Chongqing zoo
To our delight we were joined by a group of local school children on a trip to the zoo and there was much oohing and aahing when the pandas appeared to woo the crowds. Proving that cute furry animals are a treat for all ages, even if all they do is munch bamboo.
Chongqing Panda Munches Bamboo
Slightly soggy, but happy, we boarded our tour bus and headed for the airport and on to Xian. We had travelled for five days along one stretch of the Yangtze, seen cities, amazing engineering projects, awe inspiring natural beauty, experienced its own weather system and engaged with some of its wonderful people. It doesn't get much better.