ON the morning of my second day on the Yangtse River, I saw a human corpse floating face down in the swirling brown water. After I had overcome the initial shock, my tourist instinct took over and, I am ashamed to admit, I quickly snapped a photograph. Standing alone on the top deck of the cruise ship, for a few moments I wondered what action I should take, before racing on to the bridge to try and communicate what I had seen to the crew. Alas, none spoke any English, and I was politely shooed way, by which time, I realised, the body would have been swept far from the ship in the torrents of the Yangtse and could probably not be found again even if it were searched for. When the shell of another unfortunate soul swept close by the ship at about the same time the following morning - this time in full view of many of those on board - I was no less surprised. Murder victims? It would be intriguing to believe so, but in view of the river's infamous floods the chances are they had simply drowned. And the waters in the upper reaches of the river are certainly fearsome, appearing not so much like water but, in their red-brown opacity, like steaming, boiling hot chocolate with undercurrents swirling and bubbling to the surface. Even in broad daylight with help at hand, a person's chances of survival in parts of the river should they fall in would be slim. And while one tour guide tried to play down the two bodies, claiming them exceptional, a waiter on board the ship later confided: 'We see them all the time.' While gruesome, these human remains somehow helped to put into perspective the fact that we were travelling along the greatest river in the world's most populous nation. And the Yangtse certainly is huge. After the Nile and the Amazon, it is the world's third largest river, and indeed in China is more commonly known as 'Chang Jiang', or 'Long River'. From its source in remote Qinghai in China's northwest to its mouth at Shanghai it passes through eight provinces and covers a distance of 6,300 kilometres. Regal China Cruises now runs the largest cruise ships on the river, having imported three 424-foot German-made vessels. By Chinese standards they are luxurious, each with 150 crew and deck-side, air-conditioned accommodation for 258 passengers. Each boat has two dining rooms, a disco-cum-ballroom, a bar, karaoke and mahjong rooms, sauna, fitness room, hair and beauty salon, business centre and ship's doctor, while all berths have en-suite bathroom and are equipped with mini-bar, television and IDD telephone. Service is friendly and helpful, though not all staff are fluent in English. Food, which was adequate though not exceptional, is included in the fare, while drinks are charged at Lan Kwai Fong prices. Evening 'entertainment' on board is kitsch, consisting mostly of karaoke or 'ethnic dance' performances from various crew members, but then no one goes to China for the nightlife. In any case, the mostly middle-aged American passengers loved it. The three ships operated by Regal China certainly stand out when compared to the other boats plying the Yangtse, with their chief advantage perhaps being the wide decks which run their full length and allow passengers to freely move about and enjoy the views. They have a top speed of about 30 knots downstream which, ironically, can be a little too fast, with the banks tending to whiz past too swiftly when you spot something of interest. Our point of departure, Chongqing, though not even the capital of Sichuan province, is China's most populous city, with more than 14 million inhabitants. From here we set sail early in the morning, heading downstream into the mist. Later in the day we made our first port of call at the small town of Fengdu, otherwise known as the 'City of Ghosts', nestled in the hills on the banks of the river. The town is famous for ghoulish legends, and a cable car ride leads up the hillside (affording a bird's eye view of both town and river) to a temple where the 'Gate to the Underworld' can be found. Past the gate, brightly coloured statues depict demons and goblins indulging in horrors against humanity, though the apparent newness of these effigies made one wonder if they weren't Fengdu's equivalent of a theme park. A pagoda at the top has a telescope through which you can see far down the river. Early the next morning saw our passage through Qutang Gorge, the first of the Three Gorges and at eight kilometres, the shortest, though some say the grandest. It is indeed an impressive sight, with peaks towering immediately to either side of the river to heights of 1,200 metres. Along this stretch lies the charmingly named Rhinoceros Looking at the Moon, though as with many of the names given to peaks along the river, to visualise the name requires a great deal of imagination. Later in the afternoon came the excursion which proved to be the highlight of the cruise, and an absolute must when travelling this section of the Yangtse - a trip to see the Lesser Three Gorges of the Daning River, one of the largest of the Yangtse's 700 tributaries. After mooring the ship at Wushan, we boarded sampans, observing as we left the Yangtse a remarkable and distinct colour change in the water, from rich red-brown to jade green, though apparently during the dry season the Daning can be crystal clear. The sampans, though motorised, often require help getting through some of the more turbulent bends in the river from crew armed with iron-tipped bamboo poles, which they plunge into the river bed before heaving all their weight against them. The scenery along the Daning is nothing short of stunning and rivals anything which the Yangtse itself has to offer in this area. Precipitous cliffs tower overhead, and here those with good eyesight can spot ancient coffins hanging hundreds of metres above the water. If it's a hot day, take something to drink - the journey to the quaintly named Double Dragon Town, where lunch is eaten, can take two hours and there are no stops en route. Souvenirs including strange phosphorescent egg-shaped stones can be purchased. After the stop here, the boats may continue further upstream, or turn and race back down to Wushan, in half the outward journey time. Back on to the ship, and in the early evening we passed through the 40-kilometre-long Wu Gorge, which marks the passage of the river from Sichuan into Hubei at Peishi. It was a 5.30 am call the following morning for the final and longest Xiling Gorge, historically one of the most treacherous sections of the river, and indeed early morning fog necessitated our anchoring for an hour, having turned the ship 180 degrees to face the current. Towards the end of the Xiling Gorge can be seen the preliminary work on the controversial Three Gorges Dam, which will cause the Yangtse's waters to rise tens of metres. From here the river passes downstream to meet the Gezhouba Dam, where ships must pass through a lock before continuing downstream. The landscape changes dramatically after the dam, with a wide flood plain beginning to stretch either side of the river, and which proved to grow wider and wider over the next two days. Here it is hard to believe that you are still so far away from the sea, so wide is the river. After the striking topography of the upper reaches the scenery here, though pretty, can become rather dull, with the banks so far away along some parts that binoculars are required to see anything - not that there is much to see as the land is flat to the horizon. For this reason I would recommend travelling the Yangtse upstream. It is slower as the boats are fighting the current, giving more time to enjoy the sights. Plus, the trip will end with the beauty of the upper reaches. In the afternoon a trip to the museum at Jingzhou proved interesting, the most intriguing exhibit being Mr Soi - the preserved remains of a local official buried, we were told with precision, in 167 BC. Mr Soi was discovered in 1975 and his remains (along with separate containers for his innards and brains) can be viewed through a glass screen in the floor. His coffin consists of several consecutively smaller boxes which fit inside one another, and its hoard of riches and superstitious items buried with its owner can also be viewed. That evening we reached the end of our trip at the vast metropolis of Wuhan, central China's largest industrial city and along with Chongqing and Nanjing one of China's 'three furnaces', with temperatures which can reach 40 degrees Celsius during summer. This type of cruise is not for those who like to take it as it comes when on holiday. Scheduling is regimented, with fixed meal times and some very early starts. Of course you don't have to get up, but you will miss things if you don't. In addition, the tour guide rules with an iron rod in China, and woe betide any straggler who wanders off ashore. But if you can afford it, this is a comfortable and hassle-free way of seeing the Yangtse. Regal China Cruises runs Yangtse cruises between Shanghai and Chongqing. Tel: 2739 4290; fax: 2739 1998.