BEIJING – The scene of a capsized cruise ship with hundreds on board is one of the longest and most famous rivers in the world. The Yangtze has dramatic cliffs, peaks and waterfalls that are often featured in Chinese paintings, but its importance goes far beyond that to its role as a major transportation artery that created some of the county's biggest cities.
The Chinese name for the Yangtze translates as "long river," and, at 6,300 kilometers (4,000 miles), it is China's longest and the world's third, behind the Nile and the Amazon. It flows west to east from the glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau to the financial hub of Shanghai and out to the East China Sea.
It sometimes floods during the summer monsoon season and parts of it are heavily polluted from industry and agriculture.
For centuries, the Yangtze was the key route for transporting goods in China, but parts of its waters were dangerous for junks to navigate because of rocks and fluctuating water levels.
Nowadays, it is still a busy river that contributes to the economy of the cities and villages within its reaches, including five of China's largest cities, such as the former capital of Nanjing.
The Yangtze is a top tourist attraction in China, and boats offer mostly four- or five-day trips to and from the metropolis of Chongqing. Slow-sailing cruise boats offer spectacular views and short stops at historical and cultural sites, such as the world-famous Three Gorges Dam and the more mysterious Fengdu Ghost Town, which got its reputation from a local folklore. Tourists can also walk within an ancient city called Jingzhou with city walls and battlefields that are described in the Chinese literary classic "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."
Further west on the upper reaches of the Yangtze is the scenic canyon Tiger Leaping Gorge, about 240 miles (385 kilometers) from the Tibetan border, which ranks among the deepest gorges in the world. It is named for a tiger that is said to have escaped humans by leaping across the fierce waters where the canyon narrows.
THREE GORGES DAM
The river's best-known attraction abroad is the world's largest hydropower project, the Three Gorges Dam, built to control flooding along a stretch of the river in Hubei Province. The cruise ship that capsized Monday night had not yet reached the dam from its starting point in Nanjing. The dam started operating in 2003 after nine years of construction. The dam has been controversial because of geological and ecological concerns and the hundreds of thousands of people relocated to make way for it, but authorities say it was the best way to end centuries of flooding along the river.
China's worst floods in recent history were in 1998, when 4,150 people died, most along the Yangtze.