It would take months - many spent trying to navigate the red tape on the Yunnan-Tibet border - to walk along the banks of the Yangtze River from source to sea. But passengers at a London airport are completing the trek in just two minutes, thanks to a sound installation on Gatwick's 180-metre-long Skybridge.

No less than 160 speakers along the terminal link emit 100 hours of sounds taken from 35 locations on the Yangtze's 6,300km-long slosh to the sea.

The audio segments mimic the real-time conditions of the Yangtze as the installation is programmed to react to the time of day and the weather on China's longest river, says sound designer Nick Ryan.

"I wanted to design an immersive audio installation that could relocate listeners, for an instant, to the banks of the Yangtze, giving a tangible sense of its pace, beauty and diversity," he says.

Rapids on the Yangtze's higher reaches, ripples from the middle wetlands, farming and industrial activity along its banks plus scores of other ambient sounds can be heard.

Large-scale photographs of everyday life along the river hang on the walls of the Skybridge, setting the scene.

The Yangtze runs west to east across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, down through the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, past Chongqing - by some counts, the world's most populated metropolis - through Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui and Jiangsu, where it joins the East China Sea.

The Yangtze Basin is home to 480 million people, one-third of China's population. It is one of the country's most important economic engines and accounts for 40 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product. But its biodiverse freshwater and terrestrial ecosystem is under threat. During the past 50 years, environmental degradation has blighted much of the 1.8 million sq km area of the watercourse, according to the WWF.

In October, it was reported that 70 per cent of its middle reach wetlands had vanished.

One sight and sound missing from the river today is that of the "Goddess of the Yangtze", the Baiji freshwater river dolphin, which was declared extinct in 2007.

The Gatwick installation was commissioned by HSBC and WWF as part of a joint environmental protection, wildlife and water programme.

"I believe that sound, and the act of listening, can transform our sense of place and, thus, ourselves," says Ryan.