Flight was ok, flew connecting through Toronto (continental) to Air Canada first class. No problems going there, food was all right, dinner was pretty good on the plane, breakfast not so much. Service very good, but not the best, booked through Viking Air.
Arrive in Shanghai to find the Viking crew standing outside, and we were told to wait at an ATM machine as they were waiting on other guests. We waited there for close to 50 minutes (what's that saying about first impressions?). Finally after 20 hours of flying we got on the bus to go to the Portman Ritz. Upon arrival Daniel, our tour guide for the entire trip, proceeded to help us get a smoking room and welcomed us. The hotel was wonderful, and we ate in the Chinese restaurant attached to the hotel. Very good, and something that is easy to miss in this hotel is the 2nd floor bar, where they have live jazz every night from about 8pm till midnight. Also this bar is half smoking, half non-smoking, and it seemed like no one was on the non-smoking side all the night we were there.
The next day, we woke up nice and early to go touring. First we go to some sort of garden, it was very nice looking, and we got some free time to visit the merchants. After that we stopped on the Bund to look at the river and skyline. Then we were brought to the first "Tourist Trap", the embroidery "factory", which was mostly a store with pushy salesman, and a restaurant in the back. The food was mediocre at best, and Chinese (which you learned to hate by the end). After this we went to the Shanghai museum that had some interesting coins and jade pieces, but it was nothing to go nuts about, definitely worth a visit though, and was one of the authentic highlights of Shanghai. At night, we went to an Acrobat show, which was quite good, but between the jet lag, and touring all day, it was very difficult to stay awake.
The following day we were transitioning to the airport to go Wuhan, but not before we got to just one more "Tourist Trap" in Shanghai. That morning we went to the rug-making factory (woke up nice and early for it too). It had 2 people making rugs when you first walk in, then a shopping area easily 10 times the size of the "factory". We had a box lunch, which could not be consumed. We flew to Wuhan, which took off about an hour late and went to a Provincial museum with a remains of a tomb. Definitely a highlight of the trip, and was quite amazing. We heard them play the bells from the tomb. Which was quite nice. We then went to board our ship, the Viking Emerald.
Once on board the ship, we realized this is no cruise like we from the United States are used to. They have no food for long stretches of the day except peanuts, and ramen noodles, however for some reason they offered an all you can drink policy for a very reasonable price (I believe $175 for 4 days, but included premiums like Grey Goose and Hennessey). The room was cruise ship small, but about the same as any regular cruise boat. There was no smoking lounge anywhere, so smokers beware in the bad weather. While there was a Chinese BBQ on the back of the ship, it went completely unused, and the only reason we knew it existed was due to the large sign saying BBQ with pictures of food, that looked considerably better than the food you were eating the whole trip. While on the boat we encountered many poor dishes, and it made me dream of such splendid meals by the great American chef, Colonel Sanders, whose food quality is outstanding compared to his trip (please note, I find KFC to be repulsive). I however digress as we did eventually make it to a KFC next to the Great Wall, not because there weren't good restaurants near the wall, as I am sure there were, but out of desperation for something familiar. The boat did feature a very inexpensive and nice spa, that was a plus, but they offered no enrichment activities, and the biggest show of the week was the crew talent show, which consisted of Chinese chefs trying to sing which in polite terms, reminded me of watching a prison rodeo on TV, where all the prisoners kept smiling while being attacked by a bull.
The Yangtze was very beautiful however, and many of the sites we saw were very good. This includes The Three Gorges, which were stunning, the Dam, the locks, and a beautiful pagoda on a hillside. These tours were quite well executed except for one stop, involving the Viking School. The Viking School was an absolute disgrace that should give great shame to Viking. This insulting school "sponsored" by Viking, consisted of the kids acting as a tourist attraction, in an overly run down school made of depressing of cement, with pictures of the Great Leaders of China on the walls. There is a broken basketball hoop in the courtyard however, and it is questionable the amount of donation Viking has actually made to this school. If I had to guess it was no more than a $1000, and I am pretty sure the buses the arranged to go visit the school outweigh their donation every year. Not only was the condition of the school extraordinarily bad, it was depressing in and of itself to be at such a horrid place on vacation. This may be cold-hearted, but the Chinese people chose to have a communist government, and therefore deserve their communist school, capitalism does not need to fund it, and frankly the funding that Viking gives to the school makes capitalism look bad. But I digress.
After leaving the river cruise we went to a cruise see the pandas, which was ok, and had another awful lunch in a hotel. What was amazing about all of our food stops, is that they only provided you with one glass of soda, and refills could be purchased. For the $14,000 that we paid (without airfare), one would think that soda would be reasonably included. After we flew to Xi'an where we greeted with the Terra Cotta Warriors. This was the highlight of the trip that everyone should see. It was truly fascinating and awesome. They gave us an adequate amount of time there, and it did not feel rushed. That evening we decided to leave our tour (as we really did not want to give Viking any more money), and g to dinner by ourselves. We went to Huili Japanese Restaurant, as suggested by our Amex Concierge. We hired a hotel limo (Kempinski Hotel) for $80 for 4 hours (a brand new BMW 750li), and went downtown for the evening. Our tour guide seemed surprised that we would wander off on our own, but this seemed more like a sales pitch for the event that evening they were upselling. We had a wonderful meal at Huili and would recommend it to anyone. It was the 2nd best meal we had the whole trip. Our meal came to $38 Dollars including tip, and consisted of 7 courses each, and 4 extra large beers. They do not speak English however, but with the help of my phone, we used Google Translate to tell them what we wanted, and it worked perfectly. We then stopped at a Wal-Mart just to see the difference between a U.S. Wal-Mart and a Chinese Wal-Mart.
The next day we flew to Beijing for the last part of our pre-extension trip. We were brought to the "least visited" part of the wall, which felt like the most visited part of the wall. It was packed with tourists, and there is a place where all the tour guides hang all their flags in front of the gift shop next to the KFC, and rows of tourist traps, and I counted at least 15 flags. If you are looking for a private and intimate experience with one of the world's great wonders, look at other tours. After we had our "lunch of local specialties" which consisted of us being paraded through another tourist trap jade factory place, to the back where they had a huge dining room with 10 different tour groups. At this place we had a meal we could not consume, and I was about 30 seconds away from standing up and screaming, but didn't, as many of the people on our trip were clearly trying to make the best of their vacation. I will explain why they did not seem to care later, but once again I digress. We then went to see a recital by the Peking Opera performers, where the duck was quite good, and the performance was quite bad. It was unbelievably annoying and I do not recommend it. We stayed at the Regent hotel in Beijing, where the service was quite excellent, and the hotel was beautiful.
When we woke up, we went to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in extreme heat, and while it was quite fascinating the heat got to me after a while, and of course someone got lost in the group and it took us an hour to find them because they did not have an international cell phone. We then skipped their "lunch" which I am sure was at some sort of tourist trap, and we went for lunch and dinner on our own at the hotel, not trusting the food of Viking any longer. The next day we flew to Guilin to being our Hong Kong extension.
In Guilin we stayed at the Shangri-La, which had wonderful food, and our meals were in the hotel. We went down riverboats once again and experienced the 5-hour trip down the river, in what seemed like part 2 of the Three Gorges. It was truly a waste of time, and we would have appreciated an extra day in Hong Kong. When we did reach Hong Kong, the trip was more to our pace. There was a small introductory tour in the beginning that brought you to the major sites and 2 days of free time, where we had custom suits made, wonderful dinners on our own, and we even took a jet boat to Macau. This was the highlight of our whole trip, and we realized the reason why... Viking wasn't there to mess it up.
While I could not mention everything in the above post, I can say that there were many things we learned from this trip. We learned that as we are seasoned travelers, who have been to over 41 countries, we do not need a corny tour to show what is good, and at the price we paid, could have arranged everything using private cars, first class flights, and our own restaurant preferences. The average Viking guests are traveling upper middle classes, with little to no demands or requests. There are many teachers, retired factory managers, etc. on the trip of their lives, and it shows. There are no repeat performances, there is no chance they would ever come back to China, and this is their dream trip. They are afraid of the unknown, and the tour guide engages this perfectly. This is not a cruise like Crystal, where you discuss the other 40 countries you have been to, or compare notes and complaints compared to other trips you have been on. This group of travelers creates an issue, as they do not demand the service that a truly affluent traveler knows to demand. While this may sound incredibly snobby, it is simply true, which is why I believe there are so many positive reviews of this trip. This trip brought us to 4 tourist traps, which were applauded by the guests around us, while I longingly looked out the windows at the true culture we were missing. We were squished onto crowded planes for short domestic flights of 4 hours after delays (which our tour guide told us were quite common in China), and not made aware that we urgently needed to upgrade to first class (after all, if we had booked it ourselves, it would have been first class, but because they were only supposed to be 1 hour trips, we didn't go through the effort). Looking back however, this trip would not be appropriate to upgrade to first class, as you would likely outcast yourself from the rest of the travelers. This compared to Crystal where it seemed like an echo on the one flight we took from St. Petersburg to Russia, as to why they did not offer a first class option.
This trip is not for the well seasoned, and overall is not a very good trip. The food is repulsive for the entire trip, and we found when we got home we spent nearly $1,000 feeding ourselves. The loads of corny jokes from the tour guides such as "my cousins help you with your bags" and "my cousins have blocked the internet" were sad and desperate attempts, that made me feel like I was in a really crappy travel comedy film you watch during a Tuesday afternoon rain delay for a 3rd rate baseball city. You really need to consider anyone else, or consider doing it on your own, you should be more than able to considering the service provided by the hotel we stayed at. This trip was pathetic, and easily the worst trip I have ever taken, but since I like to end on a positive note, all the hotels were very nice, but Viking did not own them (or the ship for that matter). Also, you never had to handle your bags, as they had porters at every stop (which our tour guide referred to as cousins).