After talking with a friend who had taken the same cruise one year ago, my wife and I decided to move China up on our list of places to visit.
We just returned from the Viking Imperial Cruise with the Guilin/ Hong Kong extension.
There are many other reviews that will give you an idea of what to expect so I will try to fill in with our experience.
I think everyone in our "group" was humbled by how big China is and how much development has, and is, taking place. It is impossible to explain to anyone or capture in photographs what is occurring there. If you have ever been to Africa and seen the Serengeti and how open and expansive it is and tried to tell someone what it feels like...China is just the opposite!
All the airports are new, and large, and quite a ways from downtown and as you drive in to each there are high rise apartments and office buildings as far as you can see. (Sometimes that's not too far as the air pollution or "mist" as they call it can be bad.)
There are several things to consider when you decide to go. First is the time of year. The weather can be very hot and humid in the summer and along with the possibility of air pollution can make some outdoor tours more difficult. There are lots of tourists at the more popular sites. Most are Chinese that are seeing these things for the first time, along with tour groups like you will be a part of. The hotels all are great, the buses are all air conditioned and have ample bottled water, but when you get off the bus at Tiananmen Square or the Great Wall and it is 98 degrees, humid, etc. it can take its toll and it affects your photos.
The second decision is the direction. Starting in Beijing puts the more strenuous portion of the trip first followed by five days onboard to relax a little.
The difficult portions of the remainder of the trip are the logistics of moving from one city to another. Viking has it down perfect but it still requires getting aboard the bus, usually 45 minute to one hour ride. Getting inside early enough (two hours)to get boarding passes, security checks, etc. 60 -90 min plane ride, checking to confirm everyone's' luggage arrived then another 45 min ride into your new city, registering, you get the picture. Viking handles all this for you.
One thing we noticed were other tour groups we passed at airports having to check and retrieve and load their own luggage on the bus. Viking handles all the luggage from outside your hotel room door to inside your next location. They only have you confirm that your bags have all arrived intact, with no damage before you leave the airport.
The third decision is to evaluate your ability to handle the above. There are lots of uneven steps, ramps, cobblestone walkways etc. in China. The airports are huge, and there is lots of walking!
Beijing is a big city (100miles X 110 miles) lots of traffic. We had planned to go for Peking Duck on our own and skip the opera. We made reservations before we left the States, but the night we tried to go we waited over 45 min outside the Westin in the cab line and only two cabs drove up! The traffic is so bad the local cabs don't want to be tied up in traffic during rush hour. We missed our dinner. The hotel booked us for the following night at the same place (DaDong) but our bus was stuck in traffic and we got home too late to get back in a cab so we flicked it in.
We got into Xian very late because our arrival coincided with the China-Japan-Taiwan flap over the islands and some of the Chinese were protesting and blocking traffic. The traffic in China is terrible to say the least. It is a real thrill to ride in the front of the bus at least once to experience what goes on. They do have traffic laws but our guide said "they are only a suggestion"! Terra Cotta Warriors are impressive. Viking got our group in before it even opened so we had the entire place to ourselves for about 45 minutes,
After two hotel stays, the ship was a welcome chance to unpack for five days. We found the rooms to be great. The bar and dining staff could not be better or more efficient. They are all young, college graduates, most with degrees in hotel management/ tourism.
There is a drink package that is something to consider. It is a one time charge and allows you to have a cocktail or beer anytime you want and they have a better selection of wines they pour for you at lunch and dinner. We didn't sign up before the cruise, but we met some people in the lounge and they had penciled out that it made sense. I don't know if I broke even but I didn't have to keep track.
There is an Internet Cafe onboard, but I never used it. I brought my I Pad and phone and the Wi-Fi worked fine. Before we left, I went to AT&T and paid $5.99 for a one month International Calling Plan, and purchased 250 MB of data for $28.99.
There is a free App called VIBER that allows you to make free phone calls, text, or send photos similar to Skype. The difference is you don't have to have it on to send or receive so it is just like a regular phone. You need to sign up before you leave, and tell anyone you want to possibly contact to also download the app (work, children, grandkids etc.) or it won't work. It was my wife's birthday while we were onboard, and in the middle of one of the Gorges, her grandkids got to wish her happy birthday. Facetime also worked early morning when the ships bandwidth wasn't all tied up. Most phone chargers, camera battery chargers, etc work in the ships outlets without a converter. The plugs are very tight as a type of "childproof" protection.
As far as Viking Cruise I can't say enough about how well organized they are!
They cradle you from the first arrival to your departure and all points in between.
The guides are well informed, funny, and willing to discuss some pretty controversial subjects. We had Francis as our guide from Beijing to Hong Kong and I don't think anyone could do a better job. However, everyone we talked to loved their guide also so I'm pretty sure Viking is very selective. Our Cruise Director onboard, Jin, was hilarious and very knowledgeable not only about China, but World history and China's part in it both past and future. They have a big experiment going on with their financial situation, the "one child" policy, and no one is really sure how it is going to turn out.
China was not on the top of our "bucket list" but after a friend described this same trip he took last year, we decided we should do it while we can. China is rapidly changing and I'm sure people that were early visitors would not recognize or particularly like the vast expansion that is occurring. The Three Gorges Dam was built to provide 10% of China's power for the future but with the growth they are having it is having less and less impact.
The one thing it is doing is allowing China to move manufacturing from the coastal areas, where labor and the cost of living is getting more expensive, to the more inland areas where labor is cheap still and large container ships can now reach to transport goods for export.
Way too long a report, In summary, we never saw a boat on the river that we wished we were on or a tour group that we wanted to trade places with. We could have never seen as many places in the period of time we were with Viking. You can probably go cheaper but I don't think you can do better than Viking!