My husband and I fulfilled his lifelong dream of touring China in booking and going on the VRC cruise Imperial Jewels of China in March 2013. First off let me state that the ultimate success of our trip is largely (if not completely) due to the professionalism, intelligence, and humor of our tour escort Jimmy Liu. He could easily work for a multinational corporation and almost everyone in our group could easily imagine hiring him as an employee. Despite never having visited a country where English is spoken his command of the language, the vernacular, and his understanding of the comparisons between our represented English speaking countries' and his lovely China was impressive! His goal was to present China to us and let us make our own decisions about the country of which he is so proud--a fellow member of Jimmy folk said that Jimmy is 100% communist and 100% capitalist--in other words so neutral that he let us form our own informed opinions--thanks Jimmy!
We began in Beijing and took a private tour of the Temple of Heaven, Beihai Park and other Beijing venues not covered by VRC--this is highly NOT recommended by VRC as they want you to rest if you are on the forced overnight--but we were not sorry we did this--this might have been our only opportunity to visit Beijing (but hopefully not) and we didn't want to miss a thing--although we did bow out of the last thing on our private guide's agenda--the Lama Temple sadly--(we got to our hotel the Ritz Carlton Financial Street at 1 a.m.!). The evening meal was on us so I made a reservation (a month in advance) at the Black Sesame Kitchen in the Black Sesame hutong and would strongly recommend this as an amusing way of spending an evening in Beijing--incredible food and intelligent conversation. Our first tour with Viking was Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City with a buffet lunch at the Nikko Hotel. If you don't believe the information VRC provides you about the level of fitness necessary to successfully navigate this trip this is where the blank hits the fan. We had a lovely elderly couple with us (although our first encounter with them did not indicate this). They were from Florida, with mobility issues, dressed in sandals with no socks on an extremely, extremely chilly Beijing March day. Jimmy gently suggested to them that our 3 mile journey from one end of Tienanmen Square to the other end of the Forbidden City was going to be too much for them and they finally relented and hired wheel chairs with a pusher. I am in my early 60's and in EXTREMELY fit condition (I work out with a personal trainer and she would tell you I'm in good shape for a 40 something) and this was a very intensely physical visit. DO NOT go on this trip unless you are in good shape or are willing to forgo trips that require this or are willing to hire help if necessary!!!!! We soon realized that this couple was unfailingly cheerful and willing to do whatever was necessary to not ruin this trip for the rest of us and we all went out of our way to make things easier for them and they did the same for us. The second part of the day included a mile walk out and back through the summer palace--again a lot of walking and a lot of cold--it would be HOT in later spring or summer. We truly enjoyed our trip to THE wall and found that the lunch served at the Jade Factory was one of the best meals in China while the alternate dinner (we didn't attend the duck dinner) was the worst. Our favorite visit in Beijing was the rickshaw ride through the hutong near the bell tower (I was feeling really hesitant about using a rickshaw until Jimmy told us that the drivers were people who had been laid off from other employment and this is how they now supported their families). We visited the home of an ex-government employee whose niece lives with her and who (the niece) is an artist who paints inside bottles with a one-hair brush. The owner also had a white poodle whose ears had been dyed yellow--really adorable--this was her "baby." The opera was very good--if you are open to another culture's standards--they were extremely amusing although the first opera was a tad long. The star of this first opera is very, very funny. We saw him again while flipping through channels in Shanghai--he must be a star.
Our visit to Beijing was made even more fabulous by the incredible hospitality of the Ritz Carlton Financial Street--particularly Nathan Brown and his staff in the restaurant. Every morning there was a scrumptious buffet with pastries such as I have tasted only in France--and Nathan brought the pastry chef out so that I could give him my compliments! I was trying to find the shopping mall in the basement of the complex--not easy--and Nathan actually walked me out of the hotel and directly to the grocery store I was trying to find--over and beyond any necessity of service! He was very complimentary of the service we would receive in shanghai at the Portman Ritz Carlton and while it was efficient it was nowhere near as personal as the service we received in Beijing--thanks Chef Nathan! I enjoyed talking food to him (I am a self-confessed foodie) and exchanging information about travels and family.
The transfer from Beijing to Xi'an was efficient (just be prepared to be patted down by security--everyone is). The domestic terminal in Beijing is clean and comfortable and our plane was modern and although the overhead bins were somewhat smaller than our usual standard they adequately held everyone's carry-on luggage. We were met with an incredible tour guide in Xi'an (can't remember name) who was funny and had a great knowledge of the city and the warriors. We absolutely loved the Tang Dynasty Show (and I had been quite resistant to this show) and of course the warriors--you have to see to believe! While we were grouping up to board buses again for the airport we noticed that the sky had gotten yellow--sand storm--we transferred to Xi'an airport and had lunch at an airport restaurant--pretty good--then boarded flight only to sit on the runway for quite some time while the storm blew around us--we could barely see the plane next to us--again overheads adequate--plane clean and comfortable. Once off the ground quick flight to Chongqing and quick ride through the city--unlike earlier arrivals who sat in heavy, heavy traffic. I was actually the very last passenger to board--Jimmy's group always seemed to be the "sweeper" group making sure all was okay. We found out that the storm was generally over most of the north of China and had blown the roof off the international terminal at Beijing airport! Our luggage did not get there as early as we did but thanks to CC we had packed an extra set of clothes in our carry-on luggage and were able to take a quick shower and change before dinner--much moaning in our group of those who were not as well prepared as us. As many have said the land cruise and the ship are like two different trips--we immediately relaxed attending briefings for life on board and our daily excursions--much shorter and less intense than our days in Beijing. We loved our visit of the Pagoda, the trip to the dam (and were lucky to be there on a day of pretty high visibility), the trip on the smaller boats through the Lesser Three Gorges, and our trip through the locks--we were the only passenger ship allowed through downstream as they were repairing the locks--Viking came through for us!! No buses!!! Our school trip was heart warming and touching and a highlight for those who attended (many people in our group opted out of this one and it was disheartening to see the disappointed looks on the faces of the children who did not get to share their seat with a "big nose"). The captain had to put the pedal to the medal to make it to Wuhan on schedule (a gentleman had a medical emergency--nothing to do with the ship or China and had to be med-evaced to the hospital during the night) but we made it on time and to one of the highlights of the trip--the Hubei Provincial Museum with its bells and ancient artifacts (oh and the passenger was fine and met us in Wuhan). We then headed to the Wuhan airport and our last intraChina flight. This was the least convenient of all of our flights for many of the passengers--boarding was rather chaotic--very, very small overheads-there was no room for my husband's carry-on bag--luckily one of the attendants found a space--lots of moaning and groaning. Then we arrived in Shanghai. Dinner on our own on VRC's tab in the R-C Portman--very good but kind of lonely after all the tables for 8 on the river--we quickly made plans to have breakfast with some good friends we had made. Enjoyed our day of touring in Shanghai--especially YuYuan Gardens and market, the Bund (not enough time spent there), visit to the rug factory--very expensive but good Mongolian barbecue lunch. I felt the trip to the Shanghai Museum would have been better with some guidance--we were left on our own with vague instructions to start at the top and work our way down--I personally found that the exhibits on the lower floors were more interesting and since I really knew little about any of it some guided instruction would have been helpful. Our last night we had the second worst meal in China before we went to the acrobats show--a lazy Susan dinner with no explanation of what we were being served and our guide--wonderful Jimmy--running back and forth between our tables to be sure we were getting what we should be and that we understood what was being served. The acrobat show was incredible. And then it was over...one thing I forgot to mention was that I had issues at the hotel in Beijing with employees using the club lounge above us as a break room and waking me at 1 a.m. every night and our Jimmy intervened for me (after indifferent response by the front desk when I finally figured out where the noise was coming from--and also a very drunk neighbor on our floor running up and down the hall for at least an hour while the hotel employees sent up to deal with him cowered in a service closet across the hall from us) and we were upgraded to a suite on the 40th floor of the R-C Portman--VRC takes care of its passengers!!!! :) It took me a month to get used to having to do ANYTHING for myself once I got home--I was so used to a standard of service that it was difficult to come back to reality. This was our first cruise f any kind and I understand that VRC is the one to beat in China--I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of China in a minimal amount of time--we figure we traveled at least 2217 miles in 12 days. By the way, I started by saying that this was my husband's lifelong dream--in the course of our trip it became MY lifelong dream too!