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In addition to shared borders, the landlocked provinces of Sichuan, Hubei, and Hunan and the municipality of Chongqing have in common the world's third-longest river, the Chang Jiang ("Long River," aka Yangzi), whose navigable reaches start in Sichuan, thread through Chongqing, and roughly define the border between Hubei and Hunan. Now China's heartland, this region -- home to the Chu, Ba, and Shu cultures -- was for centuries a land of exile and colonization for the ruling kingdoms of the North China Plain. The Qin (221-206 B.C.) banished thousands to faraway, inhospitable Shu (present-day Sichuan), and China's most famous martyr, Qu Yuan, was exiled to the southern edges of his own Chu kingdom where he drowned himself in the Miluo River (in present-day northern Hunan).

Five hundred years later, this same swath of central China was the battlefield on which the rulers of Wei, Shu, and Wu contended for complete dominion over China. Many sights along the Yangzi commemorate the heroes of those 60 years of turmoil known simply as the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). By the 3rd century, Buddhism and Daoism were spreading rapidly through the region, and many of the hundreds of temples that dot the sacred mountains of Sichuan, Hubei, and Hunan were constructed at this time.

The heartbreaking catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan on May 12, 2008, killed over 68,000 people and caused damages to capital city Chengdu and attractions Wolong Nature Reserve and Dujianyan city. While signs of damages can hardly be found in Chengdu a year after the disaster, the reconstruction of Wolong Nature Reserve and Dujianyan is expected to be completed in the end of 2011.

Travelers come to this part of central China to see the Three Gorges -- the spectacular 242km (150-mile) channel comprising Qutang, Wu, and Xiling gorges -- and with China's equivalent of the New Deal underway, new airports, rail lines, and expressways are opening all the time, making travel to remote areas much less trying.

If the Three Gorges are on your itinerary, try to leave yourself a few days on either end to explore Chongqing and Wuhan. And a day trip from Chongqing to the Buddhist grottoes at Dazu is well worth the time. Sichuan is best explored over 2 or 3 weeks. Use Chengdu as a place to leave extra luggage and to return to for a break and some urban sightseeing before going out again. In Hunan, do the same with Changsha.

October and November is the best time to visit Jiuzhaigou and other natural scenic spots in the region. During summer, June to September, it is sweltering and sultry, and rains continually. Note: Unless otherwise noted, hours listed for attractions and restaurants are daily.