Navigational Pull

A Chinese proverb has it that if you haven’t sailed on the Chang Jiang — the Long River — you really haven’t been anywhere.

Better known as the Yangtze River to foreigners, the world’s third longest river flows through the heart of China from the highlands of Tibet until it empties, after a 3,900-mile journey, into the East China Sea at Shanghai.

Except for professional explorers, most tourists will opt for a much shorter trip, generally a three-and-a-half mile downstream journey from Chongqing (the former wartime capital of Chungking) through the spectacular Three Gorges, and ending in Wuhan.

Beginning next summer, travelers will have the option of extending the trip to the river’s end at Shanghai, a 10-day journey.

We left muggy and polluted Chongqing with some relief to board the MS Victoria Pearl, a comfortable, scaled-down version of an ocean liner, built specifically to navigate the narrow passages of the gorges and the shallow drafts of the rapids.

Chinese artists have rhapsodized and painted the Three Gorges for more than 2,000 years, but for visitors the first glimpse of one of the great natural marvels of the world remains a stunning experience.

On the first full day of our journey, even habitual slugabeds assembled on deck at 6 a.m. for the 15-minute passage through Qutang Gorge, the first, shortest and narrowest of the three.