The earlier reviews of this cruise were spot on: the Viking itinerary is well-organized and operated; the accommodations are very comfortable; the trip is exhilarating but strenuous. Unlike many such tours in Europe and elsewhere, the age profile is not entirely over fifty. My thirty-ish son had compeers to socialize with. As one would expect on such an itinerary, most folks were well-traveled and reasonably fit. This is definitely not a tour for one with physical challenges. July is HOT and HUMID in China and travelers should be prepared for this. Bring sun screen! Viking will keep you adequately hydrated.
We did the Beijing-Shanghai version of Imperial Treasures, which we think is the better of the two options. It affords an extra day in Beijing, during which one might recover from the long flight to China or explore on one's own. Viking makes suggestions on how to spend the day; we chose to go to the Beijing zoo and the Lama Temple. Viking recommends that one take cabs but we used the subway. Apart from the fifteen-minute walk to the station closest to the Ritz Carlton, the subway was very easy to use. While crowded, the cars are amply air-conditioned and both the stations and the train's progress from station to station are well marked. At 2 RMB a ride, it is a bargain. In the evening, we followed readers' suggestions and dined at Black Sesame Kitchen and had a fabulous time. It is located in a Hutong that is far nicer than the one traversed on the later rickshaw ride. The food and the company were a delight and locating the restaurant (following the excellent map they send you) was an adventure.
The first day saw a tour of Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. The first is just a big square and not much interesting. The second was very crowded and we had the sense that the guide was rushing us through, discouraging us from looking here and there on the grounds that there was nothing to see. On the other hand, the so-called summer palace, while in a pleasant setting, really did not have much to see. Since it was a hot, hot day, the lake was really not that refreshing. So on day one, I would have liked more time in the Forbidden City and less or none at the Summer Palace. Perhaps the Temple of Heaven would be a better choice. That evening afforded the option of visiting the Beijing Opera; we were somewhat disappointed with the experience -- a lot of pantomime with not much action.
Day Two was the Great Wall day. For those who wanted to experience the Wall, ample time was given for exploration. For those who just wanted a look, there was, depending on your tastes, too much or ample time for shopping at the very expensive shop that Viking uses as its local headquarters. Lunch involved yet another stop at a shopping venue -- the mandatory jade factory. For the shoppers, this was marvelous; for most of us, boring. At the Ming tombs, there is not a tomb to see, just a pleasant stroll along a landscaped path flanked by statuary -- ok but not exciting. The last morning in Beijing included a stop at the Drum/Bell Tower complex, where there was a tea ceremony cum sales pitch. This afforded a nice panoramic view of the city. The subsequent hutong rickshaw ride was less exciting as the route took us through many uninteresting back alleyways.
On both days, it was fascinating just to drive through Beijing to experience the tremendous growth in the city and the efforts to make the city livable through landscaping. It was a greener city than I would have thought. The Ritz-Carlton is an excellent hotel with the best breakfast buffet I have ever had; the one dinner buffet there was also excellent, although covered beverages are limited to water, tea and coffee (most other restaurants also included soft drinks and beer).
The trip involved three internal flights (Beijing to Xi'an, Xi'an to Chongqing, Wuhan to Shanghai). Chinese airports are large and modern and a bit obsessive about security. Airline equipment is brand new. We were ferried out to the plane by bus in Xi'an; more annoying was having to use an bus in Shanghai between plane and terminal because China Eastern kept pushing people onto the bus past the point of overcrowding. On the other hand, we were all astounded that we received a hot lunch on the short Xi'an to Chongqing flight.
The consensus is that there was too little time in Xi'an -- just an evening for dinner or the dinner/Tang show combo and a morning for the terracotta warriors. The walled city itself merits a tour, especially its famed Muslim quarter. Viking did a great job with the terracotta warriors, gaining us admission before the site was open to the public. The only complaint was that the time we were detained at the shopping/movie building detracted from our ability to adequately tour pits 2 and 3, tours which were very hurried.
We saw little of Chongqing apart from the ride from airport to ship, although the view of its illuminated buildings as the ship departed after dinner was very beautiful. Of the scenery on the ship, the most beautiful was that of the lesser three gorges at Wushan, accessed via smaller tour boats. The visit to the pagoda at Shibaozhai required running a gauntlet of vendors but those who made it to the top were generally glad of the effort. The Three Gorges Dam and locks are impressive of scale and the Chinese government has gone to great expense to make the site attractive and accessible to tourists -- but a dam is a dam and a lock is a lock. The visit to the Viking school affords the chance to see more ordinary aspects of Chinese life and row upon row of new factories churning out goods for the North American market. The children are darlings. Wuhan, with its 19th century European buildings, is a huge and strikingly modern city. The tour visits the Hubei Provincial Museum (adjoining a new and striking art museum) where the highlight is a short concert using reproductions of ancient musical instruments.
With a late afternoon departure from Wuhan, the group did not arrive at the Ritz Carlton in Shanghai until the dinner hours. After a quick buffet at the hotel, a group of us walked to the Bund and back, a trek of two hours that viewed a fabulously illuminated riverfront and the vibrant life and expensive shops along Nanjing Road. With reports of our experience, some did the same the next night after or in lieu of the Acrobatic Show. For the more faint of heart, using the subway or a cab for one-half of the journey would be the way to go. But I would not miss the walk along Nanjing Road one-way.
The one-day tour of Shanghai included the Bund during the day, a visit to a Shanghai-land kind of shopping area surrounding the very beautiful Yu Gardens, and a stop at a silk carpet factory with lunch. The tour terminated with a visit to the busy but interesting Shanghai Museum. On the last evening, there was a meal at a local restaurant and an excellent acrobatic show at the hotel.
The Shanghai version of the Ritz-Carlton was not quite up to its Beijing cousin, although it is pleasant enough. For example, while as in Beijing the covered beverages at the evening buffet were limited to coffee, tea and water, here they were stingy with even the water (bottled water in the rooms was similarly sparse). We had to ask repeatedly for refills and then were reluctantly given only half-glasses!
Food on the Viking Emerald was generally very good to excellent, although some passengers began to experience digestive problems. Selections are more limited than on the ocean vessels but it was certainly very ample and tasty. Service was very friendly and reasonably prompt. Servers know your name by day two. The program director's talks are well done.Our guide, Terry, is a warm, well-informed and articulate individual. I do think Viking could do more to provide local notes for free time in Beijing and Shanghai: a subway and/or city map, directions to the Bund, etc. The only local information provided us included a few suggestions for the first day in Beijing.
Internet was available everywhere -- wifi in the rooms at the two Ritz-Carltons, in the lobby of the Xi'an Hilton and in the 8-station internet cafe on the ship. The ship also has limited wifi capability on the upper decks. Internet in China, however, is slow, perhaps of the government's policy of censorship. We brought plug converters for phones and computers but did not need to use them as all facilities have multi-standard sockets able to take North American plugs.
Viking's air rates proved to be more attractive than anything I could have booked on my own. Beijing and Shanghai airports are far from the central city and so the Viking transfer is a good benefit. Our routing was a bit circuitous but perhaps we should have tried the custom air option. Initially I was given an almost impossible connection in Atlanta, which Viking would not change without payment of a fee. Delta, however, acknowledged that it was not a legal connection and made a no-cost adjustment to the reservation. Viking also misdirected travel documents and refused to discuss the problem with me directly as I had reserved through a travel agent. After three tries, they finally got it right, although a passenger from Ohio still wonders how he got my name tag.
Final observations. China was less exotic than I expected. The cities we saw are very modern and the infrastructure newer than we are used to at home. Many restaurant, shop and hotel names are familiar brands to North Americans. The discussion of the contemporary scene by Viking personnel, who are Chinese, was much more open than I expected in an authoritarian society. This is a testimony to the pace of change and modernization in China. I am extremely pleased with my overall experience.