IN 1896, the 64-year-old British adventurer Isabella Bird set out from Shanghai to journey to the source of the Yangtze. Travelling by river boat and basket chair, she was abandoned, nearly froze and faced an angry lynch mob before she reached her destination. The round trip took her 18 months. Late last year, passengers aboard the river's newest ship completed 1,370 kilometres of Bird's odyssey in four days and air-conditioned comfort. Travelling downstream from Chongqing to Wuhan through the Three Gorges, the East King, run by Holiday Inn, is a floating capsule of Western luxury. Where Bird once battled with officials, faced long delays and had to be towed through the rapids by human pack-mules, modern tourists view the sometimes grim reality of life on the Yangtze from a picturesque distance, disembarking occasionally for a closer look. The China that Bird describes in The Yangtze Valley And Beyond (Virago) seems to have been a more colourful place than the drab country which crowds the river banks. Where she encountered brightly dressed mandarins in traditional robes and naked boat trackers, today's travellers meet green-suited comrades, grey-suited businessmen and Mao-suited peasants. Even the river has dimmed from the bottle-green that Bird described to a soupy red-brown flow which swirls and boils around the fat, flat-bottomed boat. Aggressive agricultural policies and deforestation in its upper reaches have laden the river with silt, to which industrialisation has added its quota of pollution. It is a journey which must be made sooner rather than later: in 15 years, a 600-km long lake will drown the area under 110 metres of water when the controversial Three Gorges Dam is completed. The gorges which so spectacularly direct the force of the Yangtze through three provinces - Sichuan, Hunan and Hubei - will become little more than islands. VIEWED through the smog from Chongqing wharf, the three-storey East King looks strangely out of place among the more traditional traffic of a Chinese river. With tinted windows and sleek white panelling, the boat is like something out of a 1960s sci-fi movie. A similarly hi-tech sliding car will one day take passengers down the steep river bank, but for the time being they must make their way down the slippery old steps manned by hawkers selling steamed eggs and men toting baskets of bright green vegetables. After picking their way across rusty barges and wobbly gang-planks, passengers are welcomed aboard by warm towels and an enormous cylindrical chandelier which dangles in the grand two-storey lobby. Later, from the top deck and alarmingly close to the ear-splitting blast of the fog horn, passengers watch as the boat leaves the dock and heads into the haze. This is the season of mists. Even when the city pollution clears downstream, and the slums and wharfs are replaced by fields and villages, the river retains its mournful haze. Pictures shown during the welcome slide show and lecture are of a more cheerful place. Taken in early summer, they depict a river turned golden by sunshine with clear blue skies and stunning scenery. Outside, the only splashes of colour in a grey and brown world are provided by pink and red-clad children and - further down the valley - ripening orange groves. The Yangtze is a busy river. Tiny sampans laden with fishing nets bob up and down in the wake of an endless procession of coal barges, commercial boats and passenger ferries, their route defined by marker buoys. On the banks, every square metre of fertile soil is cultivated, crops clinging tenuously to steep slopes in stripes of russet and gold, tended by farmers-cum-mountaineers in black baggy trousers and straw hats. Villages are crammed on to one bank or the other between the mountains and the river; there are no bridges to allow them to expand to the opposite shore. Factories - every bit as dark and satanic as the old Lancashire mills - leak poisonous-looking substances, staining the banks black. Early on the second day, the cliffs of Qutang Gorge, the first of the Three Gorges, loom out of the greyness. Heralded by strong winds which bring tears to the eyes, the gorge is sheer and rugged in some places; laced with faults and creepers in others. Every peak has a legend, every shallow a story. And while facts can be hard to come by, tales of princesses, gods and warlords, warrior poets and hermit scholars seem more fitting to the almost mythical dimensions of the landscape than geological and historical information. The boat makes its first stop since leaving Chongqing at Badong, below Wu Gorge, giving passengers a chance to have a closer look at the banks which have been slipping past at about 28 km/h. Boarding a bus, we head for the hills on unmade mountain roads. Fortunately, a 'first A-class' driver is at the wheel to negotiate the U-turns and pot-holes and honk at the pot-bellied pigs to scare them off the road (tip: sit on the right for views, the left for security). As the mist lifts, spectacular scenery is revealed: in the foreground are small mud houses with thatched roofs and porches stacked with drying tobacco, behind them are terraced mountainsides and beyond that a view of the valley floor, thousands of metres down. The bus finally comes to a halt at the top of a flight of 400 steps which lead down to Shennong Stream, one of the Yangtze's clean, clear tributaries. The lazy or the infirm can be carried down in sedan chairs but most make the descent through the forested gorge on foot because, as one Beijing tourist puts it: 'The chairs are more frightening than the stairs.' At the bottom, 10-metre 'pea' boats and boatmen from the Tujia tribe are waiting. Wearing straw shoes, '70s-style athletics shorts, Mao jackets and singing traditional songs, the men steer, pole and bail their way through the narrow, sheer-sided gorge back towards the Yangtze. The boats grind over the stony bottom or bump into the rocky banks; sometimes the boatmen have to pole them along, at others they steer through white water between boulders. High on the cliff side, square holes, each about 10 centimetres across, are cut into the rock, appearing and disappearing all the way to the Yangtze. Two thousand years ago, the hand-cut holes were used to anchor a plank road. Further downstream, Tujia coffins can be seen wedged into caves in the cliffs. Every 20 minutes or so, our Yangtze-bound boats pass gangs of boatmen dragging their vessels back upstream. Harnessed to the heavy, wooden boats by cloth yokes and 10 metres of rope, the men are bent double by the strain. The downstream journey takes two and a half hours, with a break for more singing and dancing in the Tujia settlement of Bazhong, and seven hours upstream. Engines would make the boatmen's lives immeasurably easier, but would be nothing like as picturesque for visitors' cameras. And they would shatter the peace that cloaks the stream with its kingfishers, dippers and other bird life. The stream, the gorge and the tribesmen will disappear when the Three Gorges Dam is completed. At the mouth of the stream, one of the boatmen points to a small yellow field way up on the hillside that marks the future water level of the area. Day three and the East King puts in at the small town of Zigui, home of the 'Chinese Shakespeare' Qu Yuan, the warrior poet who inspired the Dragon Boat Festival. Not much of a warrior (he seems to have been on the wrong side) and not much of a poet either, judging by the translation of his ode to an orange which was proudly recited at a 'temple' erected in his honour, he is nonetheless revered in the area. Distraught at the failure of a military plan, circa 270 BC, he drowned himself in a river. When the local people couldn't find his body, they threw dumplings for the fish to eat and beat the water with oars to prevent them from taking a bite of the dead poet, and so the Dragon Boat Festival was born. His tomb, complete with a (presumably empty) coffin, is on view at the back of the temple and will be moved, along with the town, 45 km downstream when the Three Gorges Dam is completed. Perhaps more interesting is the local market where foreign visitors are still met with curious stares by townspeople who break off from haggling over fish or vegetables to smile and then hide from inquisitive cameras. Much of the produce is brought to market in woven cane 'backpacks', baskets with two shoulder straps, which are used to cart everything from firewood to babies. In addition to the food, the market also boasts a couple of Tsim Sha Tsui-style boutiques with Western fashions and yellow-haired cardboard models, a video game parlour, the ubiquitous pool tables and a blind fortune teller. A couple of brooms made of brightly coloured rags hang outside the fire station and at the medical centre, a nurse beckons us over to watch a man having his head massaged. Back aboard the East King for the journey through the third and longest gorge, Xiling, passengers have a chance to relax with a drink in the observation bar or possibly book a massage with Dick (really), the ship's masseur. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in The King's Restaurant which offers delicious Chinese and Western food and some of the best desserts in the East, courtesy of chef Reimund Pichlmaier and his staff. The roll of the boat can make drinking soup a tricky business and the juddering as it passes over a shoal is something of a challenge to the crockery, but if it wasn't for the movement it would be hard to believe this is a ship's dining room. After lunch, and beyond the last of the Three Gorges' landmarks, the prosaically named Ox Liver and Horse's Lung formations, the immense scar that will one day be the Three Gorges Dam appears. Destined to be the world's largest hydroelectric dam, the Chinese Government claims it will supply up to 20,000 megawatts of electricity and provide flood control in the river's middle and lower stretches. In the process, 32,000 hectares of farmland will be drowned, 1.2 million people displaced and the Three Gorges lost forever. Not surprisingly the scheme has attracted an equally large amount of controversy. It will not be the first dam across the Yangtze. At Yichang, where the mountains of the Three Gorges melt into the flood plain, the Gezhouba Dam has been producing hydroelectric power for years. Below the dam, the river becomes wider, slower and more meandering with constantly shifting sandbanks. Cows and cyclists appear on the banks, green-grey strips of land dividing the murky sky from the murky river. The highlight of the final day is a morning trip to Yue Yang Tower, a military tower which has been destroyed and rebuilt many times since its first incarnation in 210 BC. The latest version is a beautiful wooden construction surrounded by gardens complete with shops selling souvenirs of Jerusalem and Mauritius alongside the more conventional umbrellas and fans. On the final leg of the trip, the East King chugs through a classic Chinese river scene: flat banks, calm waters, mist and numerous tiny fishing boats rowed by standing oarsmen. Fishing nets on bamboo frames line the shore and dangle from houses on stilts. By local standards, these fishermen are wealthy with private houses and cars, and enough influence to be able to have more than one child. Late in the afternoon, the mist becomes tinted by pollution, factories replace the cows on the banks and the industrial city of Wuhan comes into view. HOW TO GET THERE The East King, soon to be joined by a sister ship, the East Queen, takes four days to travel downstream (US$1,060) and five days upstream (US$920). Prices include all meals and shore excursions. A 35 per cent discount is available until the end of April. For more details call the Holiday Inn Worldwide reservation office on 2735-2808.