The Imperial Jewels cruise from Beijing to Shanghai was our second trip with Viking. After cruising with them on the Danube, my expectations were very high. They were exceeded in every way from booking through our return flight home. I made our reservation direct with Viking including airfare. By using the Viking Air Plus Service, we were able to confirm the direct flights we wanted as soon as they were available from the airline. Even 320 days in advance, Viking's response to my request was 'no problem'.
The other advantage of booking airfare through Viking was the included transfers and extra night in Beijing. About 6 months before departure we were notified that our hotels were the Ritz Financial District in Beijing, Westin in Xian, and Portman Ritz in Shanghai. All three were ultra plush with outstanding rooms, food, and concierge services. Checking in and out was seamless. We never had to wait for keys. Luggage always seemed to take a little longer but it was never a big deal.
We arrived in Beijing on a rainy Tuesday afternoon and were greeted by Viking as soon as we exited customs. Those scenes of Beijing with thousands of bicycles are long gone. They have been replaced by horrible traffic jams. Since the official tour program didn't start till Thursday morning we had an extra evening and full day to explore on our own -- something we are very comfortable doing. Tuesday's rain led to a beautiful blue sky on Wednesday. We took the subway to the Temple of Heaven complex which is a huge park area with several different ornate temple structures. The temples are spectacular but the added bonus was all the locals doing Tai Chi, playing cards, singing and dancing. They really take advantage of the beautiful park. There were more locals there than tourists.
We then took the Subway back to the hotel to meet up with some friends for lunch at the Whampoa Club. It's an old courtyard house in the middle of new office buildings about 3 blocks from the Ritz. The Concierge made us a reservation but none of us was prepared for the 'WOW' factor of this place. We had a huge fancy private room just off the main courtyard. It had a sitting area and a big round table set for only 4. The food was probably the best local food we had on the trip and that's saying a lot. After raving about the clean, efficient, and cheap Subway (about 32 cents one way anywhere in the system) we all headed for the Lama Monastery. It's a huge complex of buildings and courtyards and also very interesting. We were really glad we took the subway because the rush hour traffic was in full swing. We heard from others that it was an hour plus to get back to the hotel.
There are only 2 optional tours in this itinerary: Peking Duck & Opera in Beijing; and Tang Dynasty Dinner & Show in Xian. Based on other reviews we decided against the Opera. So Wednesday evening we went to 'Duck de Chine' for Peking Duck. We were going to go someplace else but the Concierge said that this was really the best place. They were roasting the ducks over wood fires which made the restaurant smell really good. It was an older courtyard building that was probably originally someone's house. We ordered a duck and broccoli with Garlic. It was more than plenty for 2. The duck comes with pancakes, little sesame buns, hoisin sauce, and some thinly sliced radish, carrot, and celery. When the duck is presented they bang a gong and announce 'Your Duck has arrived'. The chef then carved it at our table and arranged it on 2 plates with the trimmed meat under the crisp, but still greasy skin. It was a terrific dinner and we were glad we had a chance to try the famous duck. But I also think it's an experience that doesn't need to be repeated.
Viking assigns a guide to a group for the entire trip. Thursday morning we met Daniel and the other 26 people in our group. Since you travel together, tour together, and mostly eat together you tend to get pretty attached to your group. Daniel was outstanding and I can't imagine any guide being better. Fortunately we didn't have any problem individuals in our group. Everyone was good about meeting times and moved at a decent pace. Plus the VOX headsets they use make guided tours a pleasure as you don't have to gather around close to hear the guide.
All aspects of the tours and meals in Beijing went like clockwork. The sites are amazing, big, and crowded. But timing is everything and we tended to visit the sights early before the crowds of Chinese tourist became overwhelming. This was especially true at the Great Wall where we had the section toward Mongolia almost to ourselves. As we were leaving, hundreds of Chinese School groups were charging toward us. Timing is everything!
Our blue skies were long gone as every day the smog got progressively worse. By the time we left Beijing on Saturday you could barely see a few blocks down the street. Our morning Rickshaw ride was really fun and tour of the Hutongs very interesting. It really showed the contrast between the old neighborhoods and the new high rise apartments. We then had an afternoon flight to Xian and the Tang Dynasty show that night. Everyone who attended both shows said the Tang Dinner & Show was ten-times better than the Duck & Opera. We definitely made the right choice. The next morning we headed out early to the Terra Cotta Warriors. Once again, timing is everything and we were in and out before it got really crowded. Even the guides remarked that they expected heavier crowds.
We were then off on a flight to Chongqing to meet up with the Viking Emerald. The flights within China were always easy due to both our guide and the Viking staff. Luggage disappeared then reappeared without us having to do anything. Daniel always had our boarding passes so once we got through security all we had to do was walk on the plane. All the flights were about 1.5 hours and wait time was much less than if we'd been on our own.
The Viking Emerald was new to Viking in 2011 but was an older ship that was totally refurbished. Everything about the ship was fantastic including the food and wine at dinner. They poured Beringer Chardonnay and Cabernet as their house wine. It flowed freely at both lunch and dinner -- in addition to beer. The breakfast buffet had a huge variety of items and always included Chinese specialties like noodles and dumplings. Eggs, omelets, French toast, and pancakes were prepared in the dining room by 4 or so cooks. The only item ordered from the kitchen was Eggs Benedict, which we had several times. Lunch had 3 entree choices in addition to the soup, salad bar, buffet items and Chinese options. Dinner also had 3 appetizer, entree, and dessert choices. Plus you could always have a steak and Caesar salad if nothing else sounded good. Everything was so outstanding it was hard to abstain. The Beef Tenderloin, Rack of Lamb, and Lobster Thermidor were especially good and cooked perfectly.
The staterooms all had balconies, a couch, a desk area, and a good size bathroom with a glass enclosed shower. The only item missing was a refrigerator. You also had to make sure to close the balcony doors correctly so the top sensors matched up, otherwise the air conditioning system thought the doors were open and would not work.
We once again had great weather when we went on the small boat tour through the Lesser 3 Gorges. It was a perfect day as we sailed toward the Dam on Tuesday evening. Then the FOG came in. The Chinese authorities stopped all traffic going through the locks and ship traffic backed up quickly. Viking used their connections to jump the Dam lock queue and we managed to go on the Dam tour on Wednesday while waiting for our turn. But the fog came back, the locks shut down, and we didn't get through till early Thursday evening. By then there was no way we could sail to Wuhan so we docked right outside the locks, once again in heavy fog. We ended up missing Xiling Gorge, the stop at the Viking School, and Museum in Wuhan. Viking made alternate arrangements to get us to Wuhan by bus so we could catch our flight to Shanghai. Because of this detour, we saw a different view of the Chinese countryside that we would not have normally seen. Seeing all the farmers in the rice fields plowing with their water buffalos was pretty amazing.
Saturday in Shanghai was busy from morning till night. Viking certainly made the most of day there. The grand finale was the Acrobat show which was ideally located adjacent to the Portman Ritz. Only 8 of our group of 28 were headed home. The rest were off to the Guilin and Hong Kong. We would have liked to have gone to Guilin but since we had already been to Hong Kong the additional cost seemed extreme. So we were off to the Airport Sunday morning and even arrived early back in San Francisco.
This was probably one of the best trips we've taken. I could not even imagine going to China with any company other than Viking. From start to finish everything was first rate!