On Viking River Cruises' nine-night Imperial Jewels of China cruise tour, we traveled from Beijing to Shanghai, with a three-night sailing on the Yangtze River between Chongqing and Yichang on the Viking Century Sky, a newly launched 306-passenger river vessel. The big appeal of this trip is that it is an extremely comfortable way for Americans to experience China, from Beijing's Great Wall and Forbidden City to the remarkable terra cotta warriors in Xian, and from the Yangtze's beautiful Three Gorges to ultra-cosmopolitan Shanghai. English-speaking guides, gracious staff and five-star Western hotels while on land contribute to the experience -- but the highlight of the trip is exploring the mighty Yangtze River on this casually elegant river vessel with many of the comforts and benefits of a cruise ship.
The journey begins with a flight to Beijing for a three-night stay. From there, guests board an afternoon flight south to Xian for one night. After a second flight the following afternoon to Chongqing, passengers board the Viking Century Sky for a three-night Yangtze River cruise calling at ports near Shibaozhai, the Lesser Three Gorges, and Yichang. A final flight from Yichang takes guests to Shanghai for two nights.
A reverse 10-night itinerary from Shanghai to Beijing includes one extra night on the Viking Century Sky. Many of my fellow travelers added a day or two on their own in Beijing and/or Shanghai. The company also offers two 13- and 14-night programs with its new vessel; one featuring Hong Kong and Guilin, the other Tibet.
International airfare is available through Viking River Cruises, which also arranges transportation from the Beijing Airport. We were met at the expansive, modern terminal by three efficient staff members who gave us our hotel room key, tagged and whisked away our luggage, and accompanied us on the 40-minute bus ride to the Beijing Hotel.
Vast doesn't begin to describe Beijing. Construction cranes dot the skyline and as the city expands outward, two new ring roads are being built to help manage the growth. Amid the rapid modernization, people cling to tradition: couples still practice tai chi and ballroom dancing in the parks, and old men continue to hang their bird cages from the trees. Colorful kites provide relief at the bleak Tiananmen Square, where droves of people wait patiently to pay their respects to Chairman Mao.
My pulse quickened at the first sight of the Great Wall, the fabled 3,750-mile marvel built over 2,000 years by more than one million workers. Our morning climb was made even more exciting by an unexpected hail storm. The throng of visitors remained undeterred and continued the slippery ascent, hoping to tread along a tiny fraction of this historic wonder.
Flooding on the Yangtze River delayed our embarkation in Chongqing for several hours. Tired and visually impaired from dried-out contact lenses, I gingerly traversed the rickety gangplanks in the dark. The moment I stepped onboard, my spirits lifted. The cordial, cheerful crew greeted us with Champagne and canapes. An elevator whisked us to Deck 4 and our attractive cabin, decorated in teak and tranquil hues of rust, gold and green. After an elegantly presented, multi-course welcome dinner (chocolate truffles for dessert), I sank into my cozy feather duvet bed.
The next morning, I emerged from my cabin in search of coffee, appreciating details I'd been too tired to notice the night before -- like an internet cafe, a central skylight, and white, pink and orange floral bouquet in the lobby including birds of paradise and gladiolas. Fresh flowers continued in the dining room on the breakfast buffet, and an elegant orchid graced each table. Like most guests, I made a beeline for the omelet station, where an affable pair of chefs whipped up eggs and pancakes to order. Here I was surrounded by a familiar Western-style breakfast, yet I felt an unmistakable sense of excitement. I was onboard a brand-new ship, in a fascinating country. Couldn't wait to discover what was around the bend.
Thirty years ago, farmers in Xian accidentally uncovered some pottery while digging a well. Today, these celebrity farmers autograph guide books at what's become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The terra cotta army of 6,000 life-size soldiers and horses they unearthed, guarding the tomb of Emperor Qin, is considered one of the 20th century's most spectacular archeological finds. Vast hangars now protect the excavated pits, where the restored soldiers are an absolutely awesome display of 2,200-year-old craftsmanship. Another cultural treasure: the expressive bronze, silver and gold horses, high-ranking generals, and elaborate chariots discovered closer to the Emperor's tomb.
The most memorable moments onboard involved performances by local artists. One evening, we were treated to a spectacular show by a troupe of young acrobats from Chongqing. Despite homemade costumes -- and a disco ball and ceiling lights precariously low for some of their feats -- the youngsters completely captivated us with charm and physical talent. At the farewell dinner, a trio of musicians serenaded us with classical Chinese instruments. The lilting melodies and haunting tones were unlike anything I had ever heard.
Early morning mist enveloped us as we gathered on the Sun Deck of Viking Century Sky to watch the sun rise above magical Qutang Gorge. The shortest, narrowest and most dramatic of the Yangtze's Three Gorges, Qutang boasts 4,000-foot Mesozoic limestone peaks and is famous for its mist and rain. Our cruise director, Steven Shu, pointed out the remains of an ancient plank road cut into the cliffs. This was one morning I didn't mind getting up early.
Starbucks was the last thing I expected to see at the Beijing Airport. From Frappuccinos and KFC to cell phones and personalized license plates, the Chinese are enjoying the results of a liberalized economy. Though many commuters still rely on bicycles, cars are increasingly popular. The traffic in Beijing and Shanghai is frightening -- not unlike the freeways in Los Angeles. I had to keep reminding myself that China is still a communist country.
Onboard, the most startling revelation concerned the galley. According to Viking River Cruises, the Viking Century Sky is the only cruise ship on the Yangtze to boast a dishwasher. Note: Cruise ships calling at U.S. ports wouldn't be allowed to sail without a dishwasher!
I knew that beer is extremely popular in China -- the country brews about 15 million tons a year, some of which we personally helped consume in Beijing and Xian. But it wasn't until the cruise that I was introduced to Chinese wine. Labels like Great Wall and Chateau Mi Shui accompanied our Chinese farewell dinner. While the wines didn't suit me as much as the Australian Chardonnay or French Pinot Noir also served onboard, it was great fun to try these local vintages.
True confession: The best pleasure of the trip was my foot massage aboard the Viking Century Sky. The fun began when I sank my feet in a tub of hot water with a tea bag and pink flower petals. For the next blissful hour, Sam, my masseur, worked magic on my calves and feet. When I raved about the experience to fellow passengers, they expressed equal infatuation with the traditional Chinese and Qigong massages, advertised to improve one's circulation and metabolism.
Makes Me Miss Big Ship Cruising
We were surprised to find a fitness room, an unusual luxury for a river vessel, though it was located in a windowless room. Without a TV or a view to distract us from the process of exercising, and no stair master or running machine, we instead opted to get our workout climbing the 240-step Shibaozhai Pagoda.
What I Wish I'd Known Before
Shopping can be fun, but be prepared for the hard sell. One super-aggressive saleswoman at Beijing's Silk Market cornered me in her stall, boxing me out with a move worthy of Shaquille O'Neil. We learned not to take labels too seriously after a fellow passenger bought a polyester panda tie labeled "1000% Silk." We became adept at spotting knock-offs, from North Face jackets to Tommy Bahama shirts.
Since many items make wonderful, affordable souvenirs (Mao watches, folk art, silk jackets), it's good to carry small bills and be prepared to bargain. By government regulation, boats along the Yangtze cannot exchange money, so it's best to do your banking before you embark. Bring an extra bag along to carry your finds. If you forget the bag, you can always buy a fake Fendi.
The port of Shibaozhai, about 170 miles from Chongqing, is famous for an 18th-century gem: a red wood pagoda clinging precariously to the side of a cliff 700 feet above the Yangtze. It was with some trepidation that I climbed 12 stories to the top. The big payoff: panoramic river views and a promised ticket to heaven.
The following day, we traveled by boat up the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze, to the Lesser Three Gorges. Highlights along the winding maze of narrow canyons and towering cliffs: monkeys, mandarin ducks and the hanging coffins of the Ba people.
We disembarked near the monumental Three Gorges Dam. Though over one million people have already been relocated, the Dam seems to be a source of great pride -- providing hydroelectric power, flood control and improved navigation. When the project is completed in 2009, the Yangtze will have risen 575 feet.
On Ship Rituals
After each excursion, we were welcomed back to the vessel with warm hand towels and cool drinks, a ritual I quickly grew to appreciate. We also looked forward to afternoon tea in the lounge, accompanied by live music from a Hungarian couple and stunning views of the Three Gorges. In a ritual befitting the boat's understated elegance, we began and ended our cruise with Champagne.
--by Susan Jaques, Cruise Critic contributor