Along the Yangtze River
The Yangtze has been an important transportation route with major cities along its banks for several thousand years.
Chinese civilisation first developed along the Yellow River (Huang He) and shortly thereafter spread to two other major areas — the lower Yangtze basin and the rich agricultural lands of Sichuan a thousand km or more up the river. As the main link between those areas, the Yangtze has been important through most of Chinese history.
Many of China's greatest cities lie along the Yangtze. Except for Shanghai — which was unimportant until the 19th century China trade made it one of the world's great cities — all of these have existed for millennia. Listed from the mouth up the river, they are:
The river extends far beyond Chongqing; its headwaters are deep in the Tibetan mountains. Few tourists doing the Yangtse route follow the river much beyond Chongqing. However, travellers on the Yunnan tourist trail see some of the upper reaches of the river near Lijiang.
Several other ancient and important cities are not actually on the Yangtze, but readily accessible from it:
Of course there are dozens of smaller cities as well.
Shanghai and Nanjing have major international airports and connections to almost anywhere. The other major cities on the route have airports and good connections within China, but not many international flights. KLM fly Chengdu-Amsterdam, but that may be the only exception.
The most famous part of this route is the sensational boat cruise through the Three Gorges area between Chongqing and Wuhan. With the recent enormous Three Gorges Dam project, this route has changed considerably but it is still definitely worth doing. However be careful of the different types of boats and classes within those boats. Traveling on a Chinese tourist boat in 'first class' may not be your idea of 'first class' (one traveller complained of "rats everywhere"). In addition, the only choice for food may be the boat itself for up to 3-days. As such, bring supplies, particularly snacks and drinks for the voyage.
While one reviewer suggested not to take the Chinese Tourist boat (since they stop at destinations at 6am, expecting all passengers to get out and look at the scenery, then arriving at 4am at the final destination and throwing everybody off the boat), another reviewer had a positive experience despite not speaking any Chinese.
One company at the high end of the market is Orient Royal Cruise.
The lower Yangtze areas — from Wuhan down through Nanjing and Suzhou to Shanghai — traveling by boat is also an option, but here it is not essential. There are good rail and road connections throughout the area. See High speed rail in China for Nanjng-Wuxi-Suzhou-Shanghai-Hangzhou routes.
Be especially wary of thieves on the cruise boats, using any technique from picking pockets to crawling in portholes to rifle luggage.
Chengdu is a hub for visiting southern China. From there, you can: