Scenically the most beautiful section of the Changjiang is the 200km/125mi stretch between Fengjie, a small town 260km/160mi east of Chongqing, and Yichang in the province of Hubei. This stretch used to be difficult to navigate, and during high water not possible at all, because of its raging torrents and numerous shallows. To move up-river, boats had to be towed. Blasting of the underwater shallows has now lessened the dangers.
From west to east, one behind the other, lie the three famous and picturesque gorges known as Qutang, Wu and Xiling.
At a number of places the river, a mixture of raging torrents and dangerous shallows, winds its way through the gorges which are lined with rugged cliffs and high mountain peaks. There are many places of interest to tourists.
A sight-seeing tour of the Three Gorges and the historical and cultural monuments can be made only by boat. As a rule the excursion will commence in Chongqing and pass through Changzhou, Fuling, Fengdu, Zhongxian and Wanxian to Yichang.
Between Zhongxian and Wanxian lies the fortified Treasury (Shi Bao Zhai), a 50m/164ft high rock plateau. An unusual, pagoda-like staircase tower catches the eye, which was built into the rock face by the Emperor Jiaqing and forms the only access to the plateau. The twelve-story construction is the tallest building of its kind in China. On the summit is the Hall of the Heavenly Son (Tianzi Dian), a temple with a statue of the Buddha and a stela (upright slab) inscribed with the temple's construction history. Legend has it that at one time rice would fall every day from a small hole in the rock and thus provide food for the monks. It was this ''treasure'' found in the rock that gave the temple its name. When some monks tried to enlarge the hole the rice stopped flowing.
On the opposite bank from the town of Yunyang stands the Temple of Zhang Fei Miao, dating from the Northern Song period (960-1127). It was erected in memory of General Zhang Fei, who is said to have been murdered here by mutinous army officers in the year 220.
Qutang Xia Gorge
In the Qutang Xia Gorge, the narrowest of the three gorges, the banks reach a height of between 500 and 700m (1650 and 2300ft) and the mountains as much as 1000-1400m (3300-4600ft). The narrowest spot, known as the ''place of the monk with his head hanging down'', is only 100m/300ft wide.
The gorge is 4km/2.5mi from Fennggjie and is about 8km/5mi long. At its entrance the ruins of the City of the White Emperor can be seen on the north bank of the Changjiang. It was given this name in AD 25 when - according to legend - Gongsun Shu, the founder of the town, saw a white mist rise up out of the Bailon (White Dragon) spring, and thereupon named himself the White Emperor.
Close by stands a temple with the same name (Baidi Miao), dating originally from the late 7th C. It is famous mainly for its 70 or more stelae (inscribed pillars) from the Sui period (581-618) and the statues in the main hall (Mingliang Dian) of Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, who lived in the time of the Three Kingdoms (220-280). Shortly before his death Liu Bei, ruler of the state of Shu, named his chancellor Zhuge Liang as his successor. The temple was built as a memorial to this act of confidence and trust. Guan Yu and Zhang Fei were famous generals who served with glory under Liu Bei.
Near the Fengxiang Xia the visitor should note the wooden coffins protruding from a rock. In ancient times the inhabitants of Sichuan used to safeguard the coffins of their deceased relatives by placing them in natural crevices or hollows in the rock or on massive wooden beams anchored in stone.
Wu Xia Gorge (Witches Gorge)
The Wu Xia Gorge is 40km/25mi long in all; the western part belongs to the province of Sichuan, while the eastern section is in Hubei province. Because of the twelve mountain peaks along its bank - the highest being Fairy Mountain, dedicated to Yao Ji - and the superb panoramic views, this is regarded as the most beautiful of the three gorges.
At the beginning of Wu Xia Gorge, near Wushan, the Daninghe river joins the Changjiang. From here visitors can make excursions to the Three Little Gorges (Longmen, Bawu and Dicui), which total 50km/30mi in length.
Ancient coffins can be seen from the river in Bawu Gorge; these are stored some 500m/1650ft up in caves in the steep cliffs along the east bank.
In Dicui Gorge, with its lush vegetation of bamboos and trees, there is an imposing waterfall. A ''boat coffin'', an example of an old burial custom, is housed in a hollow in the steep mountain face.
On Fairy Mountain, dedicated to Yao Yi, there stands a 7m/23ft high stone pillar in the shape of a woman, which is known as Fairy Peak. According to legend Yi, daughter of the Mother of Heaven Xi Wangmu, helped Da Yu, the ruler of the Chu kingdom, to prevent the river from flooding so frequently. Love blossomed between them, and Yi stayed one night with him in the Gaotang temple, of which now only a few ruins remain. At the northern foot of Fairy Mountain, on a flat rocky ledge known as the Shoushu Tai terrace, she is said to have given Da Yu instructions on how to tame the river.
Near Fairy Peak lie the Peak of Pines (Songluan Feng) and Peak of the Immortals (Jixian Feng). On a steep mountain face below the latter stands a stele inscribed in a beautiful calligraphic hand with the words ''Chong Ya Die Zhang Wu Xia'' (''Wu Gorge with rocky faces one above the other and mountains one behind the other''). Legend has it that this inscription was the work of Zhuge Liang (also known as Kong Ming), the strategist and chancellor of the state of Chu during the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280).
Xiling Xia Gorge
Xiling Xia Gorge, 450km/280mi east of Chongqing in Hubei province, is nearly 80km/50mi long, making it the longest of the three gorges. It has some dangerous shallows, heavy rapids and numerous reefs. Its bank are strewn with countless rock formations with the strangest of names - these include the Gorge of Military Writings and The Sword (Bingshu Baiojian Xia), where can be seen a rock protruding from the ground like a sword (General Zhuge Liang is said to have hidden here a textbook he had written when he was unable to find a suitable successor), the Gorge of Ox Livers and Horses' Tongues (Niuganmafei Xia) and the Gorge of the Yellow Cow (Huangniu Xia). At the bottom of the latter stands a temple with the same name, which dated originally from the Han period (206 BC-AD 220) and was rebuilt in 1618.
On the north bank, about 50km/30mi east of the exit from the gorge, lies the little town of Xiangxi (Fragrant River), named after the river which flows by it. A legend has grown up around this picturesque name: more than 2000 years ago Wang Zhaojun lived here; she was a beautiful woman who washed her garments in the river and thus in the course of time gave the waters a lovely fragrance.