Best Place to See Old China

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Sometimes lesser is better. While the Yangtze River's Three Gorges get all the attention—and most of the tourists—the so-called Lesser Three Gorges on its nearby tributary, the Daning River, offer more spectacular scenery, with a fraction of the crowds. Long an inspiration for Chinese painters, the Yangtze's limestone cliffs and verdant groves recall a time when the Middle Kingdom wasn't heaving with 1.3 billion people—but it's hard to find peace among the massive tourist boats and grasping touts. Take a detour to the Daning River and hire a motorized skiff to glide past terraced fields, stands of bamboo, and iconic, towering canyons. Unlike the Yangtze's muddy water, the Daning's is limpid, and you can even spot macaque monkeys frolicking in the trees. But don't delay: when the last stage of the Three Gorges Dam is completed in 2009, the rising water will allow huge cruise vessels to enter the Lesser Three Gorges. Then, the only place to savor the serenity of this setting may be in ancient Chinese brush paintings.