Updated: Sep 28
China Viking Cruise
My husband and I completed a 17-day, Viking River Cruise to China, in November, 2017. It was a phenomenal adventure from many perspectives.
We saw all the major sites: The Great Wall, Terra Cotta Soldiers, Tiananmen Square, Imperial Palace (Forbidden City), Yangtze River, and the Three Gorges Dam, plus the major cities of Beijing, Xian, Chongqing, Wuhan and Shanghai. But, what I will remember most were the most authentic parts of the trip; the people, the sheer size and modernization of the cities and our impromptu visit to the Muslim Quarter in Xian.
Note: Click on the pictures to enlarge, then arrow through for the best representation.
Sacramento to Beijing
We left Sacramento at 9:15 pm, arriving at our Park and Ride, near the San Francisco Airport at about 11:30 pm. After shuttling to the airport and checking in, we waited in an almost empty waiting area until boarding our flight on Cathay Pacific, at 1:55 am. Twelve hours, 3 movies, 6 episodes of Big Bang Theory, 4 episodes of Modern Family, two meals and a snack later, we arrived in Hong Kong at 8:00 am, local time. We made our first mistake of the trip by having a meal at the airport. Two entrees, one water and a soda - $58 USD - and it wasn’t very good, to boot.
Tip: What I learned from this trip. ASK the right questions. We got our air tickets fairly close to departure from Viking Cruises. My husband and I were not seated next to each other so we had that switched. I accepted the travel as noted, without giving it a second thought. I found out after the fact, that for a pretty reasonable amount, we could have avoided the Hong Kong layover and flown directly to Beijing. Others had flown in a day or two before, so were more rested on the first day of the tour and some had gone to Japan or Hong Kong for a few days, pre-tour. All good things to consider when taking on a trip like this.
Our layover was four additional, sleepless hours long and our next flight on China Eastern Air finally departed at noon, and arrived in Beijing at about 2:30 pm. As promised, we and others arriving from different parts of the world were met by Viking Tour representatives who retrieved our luggage and directed us to our transfers to the hotel. The normally 45-minute trip took over 2 hours due to Beijing’s evening commute. Our destination, the Kerry Hotel, was first class and a welcomed sight after being up approximately 30 hours.
Determined to avoid jet lag, we took a walk a few blocks from the hotel and stumbled on 'The Place', a local hang-out with the largest outdoor viewing screen we’d ever seen.
Photos: The Kerry Hotel, Beijing, The Place outdoor eatery area, Beijing, late afternoon commute from airport to hotel
Day 1 –
After the first of our all-included meals for the next 16 days, we met our guide, Chuck, and our fellow 29 travelers, all up bright and early for an excursion to Tiananmen Square and the Imperial Palace. Viking doesn’t give a hoot (and I mean that fondly), that you’re exhausted from traveling from all parts of the world the day before. We were at breakfast at 7:00 am and on the bus by 8.
We started by walking the expanse of Tiananmen Square, which is among the 10 largest squares in the world at 109 acres. It was originally constructed in 1415 and enlarged four times to its current size by the 1950s. The square fronts the Forbidden City (now known as the Palace Museum). We entered through the south entrance and traversed its length (about 1.5 miles), learning the history from our knowledgeable guide. The Palace, one of the largest in the world, has 980 building and over 8,000 rooms. It also houses the largest carving from a single stone; 54 feet long, 10 feet wide and 5.6 feet thick. It weighed 300 tons when it was dragged, over 45 miles, to the palace in the 15th century. Historians have guessed that the clever Chinese poured water to freeze the roads during winter to move the stone more easily. Over 20,000 steps logged today!
Photos: Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City, 300 Ton carved stone slab, first day lunch buffet at the Hotel Nikko
This first tour set the tone for the massive, quantifying numbers we were to hear frequently during our time in China. For instance, Beijing, has a population of about 22 million and was by no means, the largest city we visited; Tiananmen Square can hold over 1 million people; the building of the Three Gorges Dam displaced over 1.2 million people. It's hard to get your head around some of these numbers.
In the evening, we ate in the Kerry hotel’s buffet restaurant, which had an amazing array of just about everything. We followed up the meal attending the only optional tour we purchased on this trip: The Legends of Kung Fu. It did not disappoint and thank you Viking, for the front row seats! (No flash pictures allowed)
Pictures: Kerry Hotel dinner buffet, Legends of Kung Fu evening entertainment
Day 2 – Breakfast at 6:00 am; on the bus by 7!
Two hours by bus to Badaling and the Great Wall of China. We were given two hours to explore, and a choice of walking either the easier, south side or the harder and supposedly less crowded, north side. Due to the fact that it was prime Chinese tourist season, and Monday, when Tiananmen Square and the Imperial Palace were closed, every tourist and national in town apparently accompanied us on our climb of the Great Wall. Despite the crush of people, Viking scored again by getting us through the turn-style in record time.
Photos: The Great Wall with just a few of our friends on a smoggy day
Tip: Advantage tour over independent travel. A group of 30 might seem like a lot to hang out with, but there is a huge advantage to traveling with a tour guide and getting in at the head of a long line is just one of them. Viking (and many others) now use remote headsets which you allow you to hear the guide while you wander off a short way from the group to explore a bit on your own. A really good guide (and Chuck was amazing) can tell you the history, geography, insights and stories that really bring life to what you are simply 'looking' at or attempting to read about in your guide book.
As with most days of our trip, today was a smoggy/hazy/overcast day, so our photos are not as dramatic as we would have liked. The steps on the wall were more irregular and steeper than I had anticipated. They were a mix of two inches to about 12 inches in height. It was explained they were designed that way to thwart the enemy - it did a good job of thwarting my progress as well!
Photos: Jade Factory demonstration and included lunch
We ate lunch at the Run-Ze Jade Garden Restaurant which included a narrated tour of the Jade Factory. The factory guide showed us some exquisite jade pieces and we learned how to distinguish the best grades of Jade, just in case we were tempted to make a purchase, of course.
Our final stop included a stroll through the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs, located in a valley that the emperors chose as their burial place. The beautiful, tree-lined walkway, is guarded by 18 pairs of massive sculptures. At the end, a marble gateway, known as the Great Red Gate, which is more than 400 years old and among the largest stone archways in China.
Photos: Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs
On our late afternoon return, we passed the cauldrons built for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. This picture depicted a number of things: the over $100 million (US) the opening ceremonies were said to cost, the smog that is such an integral part of Chinese daily life and the never-ending construction that caused our tour guides to joke that the ‘Crane’ is China’s national bird (which it is, by the way).
Day 3 – Departure day! Bags out at 6:00 am, breakfast and on the bus by 8:00 am.
Prior to getting on the bus, we took some pictures of the early morning traffic outside the hotel. We were fascinated at the convergence of cars, bicycles, motorbikes and all other manner of transportation that seemed to defy adherence to any basic traffic laws or safety.
Because Viking can’t seem to do just one thing in a day, we had a tour enroute to the airport.
Today’s adventure included a tour by rickshaw through a local Hutong (older neighborhood), where families have lived for generations in housing that was built anywhere from 1279 to 1911. We learned about tea and tea etiquette, saw a master hacky sack champion and visited a local family home to learn about life in the Hutong and a little local history. The homeowner’s niece, who has become a famous local artist, demonstrated her ability to paint intricate designs inside of tiny bottles. The room where we were sitting, is just about the entire house. Showers and toilets are all communal and the best place for locals to hear the latest gossip and news.
Photos: Tea Ceremony, Master Hacky Sack Champion, Hutong Rickshaw ride, Hutong home and Artist
No time for a lunch stop, so we ‘enjoyed’ a box lunch on the bus in route to the airport and our flight to Xian. We flew China Eastern again and noted that we were served a meal/snack on every flight, regardless of time in the air. We never had a delayed flight and every landing was textbook: not even a hop. The airports were state-of-the-art and immaculately clean.
By the time we landed in Xian, we hit commute traffic, which is to be expected when the population is a mere 9 million. We saw huge apartment complexes and nuclear power plants close to suburbs before arriving in beautiful, downtown Xian and the equally beautiful hotel, the Sheraton North. We ate at leisure in the hotel’s restaurant, then took a walk, where we encountered several dance and Tai Chi classes being conducted on a nearby corner.
Day 4 – Chuck’s group, Chuck’s group! Breakfast at 6:30 am, on the bus by 7:30 am.
It was an hour and 45 minutes to the Terra Cotta Soldiers Museum and arriving early ensures good viewing before the crowds arrive.
The early rise was worth it as crowds were thin in the morning and we were able to stand right at the viewing wall. I’ve seen many pictures of the Terra Cotta Soldiers, but there is nothing like looking across this excavation and imaging what it must have been like to not only make this discovery, but unearth thousands upon thousands of these individually carved soldiers. To date, they have uncovered over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots and over 520 horses. All were buried in 210 BC to protect and accompany the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in the after-life.
Photos: Terra Cotta Soldiers Museum, take home a soldier in your likeness!
We ate lunch at the Xian Da Pottery Company and gift shop, where we saw a demonstration on how the soldiers were made. You could even purchase a life-size, carved soldier, personalized with your face or any number of smaller Terra Cotta, jade or bronze items.
We opted out of the Peking Duck Dinner offered that evening and with another adventurous couple, took our guide’s advice to brave the subway to the Muslim Quarter. It turned out to be a highlight of the trip. The lights, the food, the smells, the noise – all combined to make this a wonderfully authentic experience. Our guide had recommended a “famous” local restaurant and had been kind enough to write its name (in Chinese characters) down for us. We showed the paper to passersby who ultimately directed us to the restaurant which specialized in Xiao Long Bao, a type of bun that has soup inside. Grateful for menus with pictures, we ate a delicious meal, then raced back to set our luggage outside the door for pick-up by 11:00 pm.
Photos: Xian City Wall at night, the Muslim Quarter, local restaurant and menu
Tip: We have many pictures with locals. We were amused that they would come up and express an interest in being photographed with us in their pictures. People passing on the street would see we were taking pictures and with an exchange of cell phones, quickly join in on the group. They looked at us with unabashed curiosity and flashed smiles and peace signs; gestures understood in any language.
Day 5 – Morning flight to Chongqing.
Welcome to Chongqing, population 30 million! We will board our Viking Cruise ship here, but since we can’t board until 4:00 pm, we headed to lunch and a tour first, of course! On the way we noted the tremendous expanse of high-rise apartment buildings. Chuck told us that most are referred to as “Ghost Cities” as many of the buildings are unoccupied. We enjoyed a “State Banquet” in the ballroom of the Himalaya Hotel which was not yet open to the public. The menu stated, “The characteristics of the state banquet can be summarized as follows: precious ingredients, carefully selected raw materials, flavor as the essence, finely cut, elaborate seasoning, tender texture, light colors, decently ornaments, and graceful styling….”
Photos: Suburban living, State Banquet lunch, Three Gorges Dam Museum
After lunch, we spent an hour at the Three Gorges Dam Museum, which contained artifacts rescued from the reservoir area before flooding, along with cultural and ancient artifacts of the region. It sits across from the Chongqing People’s Assembly Hall, mixing (like so much of what we saw in China) ancient with modern. Disappointingly, the exhibit on the dam was closed for the day. From there we went to Emperor Yu’s Palace in the Huguang Guild Hall, originally erected in 1759 as a place for immigrants to come to pray, ask for favors and engage in local commerce. Finally, as 4:00 pm neared, we headed to our ship. We were very ready to unpack and stay in one place for more than two days. After muster and dinner, it was nice to relax and watch the lights come alive on the Yangtze River.
Photos: Chongqing People's Assembly Hall, Emperor Yu's Palace tour, Viking Emerald and embarkation, city lights on the Yangtze in Chongqing
Day 6 – First stop, Shibaozhai, a ‘hill,’ along the Yangtze River in Chongqing.
After a leisurely morning that included a lecture on Chinese Medicine and a presentation on the Yangtze, we walked through light rain from the pier to a Buddhist temple where a 12-story pagoda was erected in 1819. Prior to its construction, one would have to ascend the steep rock wall by chain lift to visit the temple. The circular stairwell inside the pagoda housed 99 steep steps and interesting artifacts and statues on each landing. It was a beautiful view from the top.
Photos: Suspension bridge to the Shibaozhai temple, Shibaozhai Pagoda steps and interior, view from the top.
A word about the ship: If you are familiar with typical Viking River Cruises, you will find the China versions are not quite as sleek and elegant as you may be used to. Chinese laws require Viking charter only local ships and labor. That said, the inside was very nice, with well-appointed and comfortable staterooms, one dining room and two lounge areas. Much smaller than the cruise ships we’ve been on in the past, the Emerald held 250 passengers and we had approximately 230 on this sailing. There were no long lines to get on or off, dining and entertainment were only one or two decks above or below and it afforded us the opportunity to better know couples whose company we enjoyed. Not enough can be said about the staff. The young men and women waited on us hand-and-foot, were very friendly and some doubled as the ship’s entertainment in the evening.
Days 7 -11 – Cruising the Three Gorges, Wushan, Ship Locks and Jingzhou.
During the first morning we passed through the Qutang and Wu Gorges, then docked in Wushan where we boarded a Sampan for a one-hour cruise up a Yangtze tributary. We did not let the rain daunt us and opted to stand on the deck of our “sampan” so we could take in the full magnificence of the ravine. In the afternoon, there was a lecture on the Three Gorges Dam, a Chinese painting demonstration and Mahjong lessons from our tour guide.
Photos: Yangtze tributary, Sampan cruise
At 10:00 pm, the Emerald Viking entered the first of the Dam’s five locks; an interesting process. We were amazed at how tight the fit was and how many ships were crammed into the tight space; in our case, five. You can see in one of the pictures that our ship lock models were easily able to touch the lock’s wall. We only stayed up long enough to get pictures of the first lock, because the entire process takes over three hours and, after-all, if you’ve seen one….
Photos: Three Gorges Dam Ship Lock
We spent the night docked near the Three Gorges Dam and took a bus to an observation area the next morning. Overcast and foggy/smoggy skies prevented much of a view, even though the sign that Sal is standing in front of says the air quality was ‘very good’ that day. We were back on board by 11:00 am and continued our scenic sailing through the Xiling Gorge, and Gezhouba Dam Ship Lock before docking late in the evening in Jingzhou. On board, there was a pearl demonstration and an interesting lecture on modern day China. After dinner, the crew performed for everyone’s enjoyment.
Photos: Three Gorges Dam and Observation area, China lectures series, and some of the lovely evening performers, giving their all after a full day of serving the guests
On day 9 (if you are keeping track) we chose a tour to the Ancient City Wall in Jingzhou, instead of visiting the Viking River Cruise School. In the afternoon, Sal went on a Wheelhouse Tour, while I accompanied a new friend to sample different teas. As we cruised, there was also a dumpling-making demonstration and a presentation on Chinese Culture. We found all of the Viking presentations on China interesting as well as candid. Our Program Director, Ben, did an admirable job as narrator and host for all of Viking’s shows and lectures.
Photos: Ancient City Wall in Jingzhou, friendly locals, Wheelhouse tour, Emerald Viking host, Ben, interesting onboard lectures
Welcome to Wuhan, population 11 million and the capital of the Hubei Province. We visited the Hubei Provincial Museum and were treated to a performance of the bronze, musical bells; a replica of the bells found in Marquis Yi of Zeng’s coffin from the 5th century. Back on board, lunch featured local Chinese favorites and the staff dressed in traditional dress representing the many provinces from which they hail. Then it was off on a walking tour to Jianghan Road, a shopping area featuring a mix of local Chinese and name brand stores. Finally, a delicious farewell dinner and a traditional Chinese concert featuring the Wuhan Sapphire Art Troupe; average age 65. We enjoyed the lights of Wuhan with new friends, but turned in early. Bags out by 6:00 am!
Photos: Wuhan by day and night, Hubei Bells and Hubei Bells performance, Jianghan Road shopping area (and Mall Security), Traditional Chinese Luncheon, Wuhan Sapphire Art Troupe
We disembarked early the next morning so the ship could be cleaned and readied for the last Viking group of the season, traveling the reverse route Shanghai to Beijing. Since we were too early to go to the airport, Viking added a quick stop to the Qingchuan Pavilion, a beautiful pavilion and park.
Photos: Qingchuan Pavilion, a beautiful bride-to-be having her wedding photos taken
We ate a box lunch on the bus again on the way to the airport, then ate again on the hour and a half flight to Shanghai. Food, was never, ever, a problem on this trip. Before we arrived at the beautiful Westin Shanghai, Chuck took us to the Bund. Later that evening a group of us walked down to see the famous light show along the water. It was a clear, beautiful night so even though we were tired, I’m glad we made the effort to go. It rained the next day.
The lights of The Bund
The Westin Shanghai , Jelly Fish tank!
Our last day with our Viking compatriots was spent by visiting Old Shanghai and the Yuyuan Gardens. Adjoining the gardens was a massive shopping area where you could buy every trinket imaginable but not nearly enough time to do much damage, thank goodness. Then a Chinese (of course) lunch, and a visit to a silk embroidery and carpet store, where we couldn’t resist getting a souvenir or two. We opted out of the final stop to the Shanghai Museum in favor of a rest. One final Chinese meal, and we were off to see the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe. It was an exceptional show and a fitting ending to a great tour.