We did the 3 week cruise tour with Viking River Cruises in late April/early May of this year. The experience was exhausting but in a good way - it was a good way to see to much of China and Tibet in a very short time.
Our group of 66 was divided into to two groups of 34 and 32 people with each group having their own guide throughout the tour as well as having 'local' guides at every stop. We had great access to many of the museums and temples. The highlights for us were the Terra Cotta Soldiers and Tibet. The other highlight was a rural school in China that Viking River cruises supports through donations. The children there were the same as everywhere and as most on the cruise were grandparents, a great time was had by all.
Luggage was never an issue - porters took care of all the larger bags and once we arrived in China, our responsibility was to have the larger suitcases packed and outside our hotel rooms by the designated times. Weight was only an issue flying out of Tibet. But be aware that you are not allowed to carry previously opened liquor in your larger suitcase. Dear hubbie had his Crown Royal confiscated and one of our fellow travellers lost his expensive scotch.
This is not a tour for the faint of heart - it's go, go, go with very little down time, even when you get on the river cruise part of the trip. There is a lot of walking involved, much on uneven ground and with many steps up and down the various museums as well as to and from the river boat. Personally, I suffered from mild altitude sickness when in Tibet so my participation there was somewhat limited to level ground, slow walking. My husband was able to fully participate and for him, the highlight was the climb up the Potela (the winter palace of the Dali Lama).
The positives were the hotels we stayed at, the guides and the staff while on the Emerald. They were great. Once they knew your name and your preferences in the bars and dining room - these were not forgotten while on board the Emerald. Special kudos to "Lois", the bar manager, whose memory for names and preferences astounded us.
The down side - the food - we had read some negative comments about this previously but took it with a grain of salt. However, the ongoing 'family style' meals in local 'restaurants' got old very, very fast. This meant round tables with lazy susan delivery of various dishes of unknown origin to be shared - nothing wrong with the concept but the food was not inspired and seemed to be the same at every meal. Considering what was paid for the tour, I would have expected better food and restaurant choices than Viking provided. Our best 'local meal' was on our own in Shanghai where we went into a local establishment and ordered by pointing at the menu. Food was good, service was fast and polite, despite the language barrier.
As well, many of the stops involve what we jokingly refer to as the 'jewellery factory' - a compulsory factory shop. While I don't mind shopping, I prefer to shop in the markets and buy from local artisans in the local market places. On the discussion board I had read that the tailor on the Emerald would make anything you asked for if you asked early. I took a pattern with me and asked - No, was the answer. Only willing to make traditional clothes - no variation from what was being displayed.
That being said, breakfasts in the hotels were good (we were put up at two Fairmonts, a St Regis in Lhasa and a Hilton in Xi'an). Best supper (other than on the Emerald) had to be the fixed menu supper at the Fairmont Peace in Shanghai. The worst meal - well, we didn't go but stayed back at the hotel and had a very nice supper in the dining room at the St Regis - sorry, but I wasn't feeling well and the last thing I wanted to face was another 'interesting' (our guide's word not mine :-) )meal.
Also, word of warning regarding the flight to Lhasa - you have to be up by 4:30 AM to get your breakfast and catch your early morning flight!
I did enjoy this tour but think people should made aware that there are things Viking could do to improve things - more free time in the cities visited and less structured time, better restaurant picks and better flight times to Lhasa (0430 wake up call - UGH!!!). And if this is a trip you're considering, start exercising now. Lots of walking, lots of steps (uneven in many parts). Great trip but exhausting.