I will try to stay on matters relevant to prospective travellers and not to dwell on incidentals. A few specifics that may set a framework: we travelled from June 20-July 5, 2013, from Shanghai to Beijing with extension to Guilin and Hong Kong; Im 68, overweight, but long ago athletic, and my wife is 57, not athletic, but generally fit. I wont try to cover everything but will focus on pros and cons, each in chronological order.
- Vikings organization from airport(s) to hotel(s) to boat. Worriless.
- The Tour Escort system, which always give you a bilingual person to rely on and learn from. (Ours was Gao, and he was a mensch.)
- The extremely high quality of all hotels.
- The Shanghai Museum. Limited but a great way to fill the 75-minute slot available. Ceramics/porcelain the highlight for me, followed by painting; wife favored the bronzes. As much archaeology as art, but learning about Chinese history through artifacts became a valued layer of our trip.
- The boat in general (the Viking Emerald). Service excellent, food good, and lecturer (Daniel Peng) informative and witty. Laundry was fast and fairly priced.
- The staterooms. Ours was high-end (Deck 5) since we booked late (April) and it was the one that happened to open up, but I believe even the least expensive are good and all have picture windows and balconies (dont expect to use the latter much in the heat and humidity) as well as good bathrooms and showers. Storage a bit short for hanging sweaty clothes.
- Fellow passengers. Generally open, good-spirited sorts. We travelled by ourselves but never lacked for good meal companions, although we did find ourselves averting our glances from people whose life stories we already knew and scanning for tables with people who looked interesting.
- Casual dress. Shorts the norm. In the heat and humidity, its a relief never to have to dress up.
- The Hubei Provinical Museum in Wuhan. We arrived in late afternoon, in a hurry to get to the boat, and only had time for a quick concert on replicas of musical instruments recently unearthed from the tomb of Yi (the king of the Zeng Sate in the Warring States Period (476 BC - 221 BC), then a quick tour of rooms with original chimes and other artifacts, but exhibit was impressive and musicians were skillful.
- The scenery after the Three Gorges Dam. Youre in the mountains now.
- Smaller boat ride through the lesser Three Gorges. This stretch (and especially the later trip on the Li River in Guilin) reminded me of one of my favorite travel experiences ever, sailing through a fjord in Norway.
- Shibaozhai Pagoda on the Yangtze. Very scenic. I cramped a calf on walk to it and didnt climb Pagoda, but wife tells me it was great, and it looked great from outside.
- Chongquin Zoo. We saw seven pandas, which our cheerful local guide Romy told us was exceptional.
- Terra Cotta Army Museum in Xian. Words cannot describe. Truly one of the wonders of the world, along with, on succeeding days
- Great Wall in the Badaling Hills outside Beijing, and
- The Forbidden City. These last three sights epitomized the best feature of our trip: being transported into a different world and culture and history. The adjoining Tienamin Square didnt do much for us. Mainly a big, empty space with a strong sense of Mao.
- Foot massage in Guilin (were now on the extension and our escort is Jimmy, who was also very good). Another extremely likable, cheerful local guide, Lisa, arranged this. All but a few of us signed up and none regretted it.
- Li River Cruise from Quilin to Yangshuo Village. The dimpled, sandstone mountains were spectacular.
- Spectacular cityscape from Victoria Peak over Hong Kong and downtown Kowloon.
- The 8:00 to 8:18 PM light show from the highrises on the bay was also delightful, and we were lucky enough to catch it on a clear day from a terrific 29th floor restaurant, Aqua (not on tour itinerary).
Before I turn to cons, I should note that weather makes a huge difference, and we lucked into good weather in Hong Kong, on the Li River, in the Lesser Three Gorges, and on several other days. Heat, humidity, and smog are givens for most of the trip, at least in summer, but we were able to see nearly everything clearly (or through a scenic mist) and never felt a need to don our masks.
- lunch and dinner at local Chinese restaurants in Shanghai. Truly mediocre (and I love Chinese food back home in Los Angeles). I feared that this would become the norm, but the rest of the local restaurant stops were better.
- Acrobatic show after dinner in Shanghai. I kept nodding off, and I dont think it was all the fault of the jet lag. The acrobatic routines were, well, routine, and the music was mind-numbing. A far cry from Cirque de Soleil.
- Endless bleak landscapes of pre-fab looking highrises, most of which didnt seem occupied (whos doing the planning here?). Downtown Shanghai and Beijing are spectacular, but we came away from busrides through other areas grateful we didnt live there.
- The Three Gorges Dam. We used to apply a standard with our sons (now grown and not on this trip), If we wouldnt do it at home, why do it here? and weve never gone to the Hoover Dam. Then, for the Three Gorges, you add in the heat, humidity, and fog/smog that makes it unlikely youll see much. Guide joke, They say there are two kinds of days here, foggy and very foggy.
- The Viking School in Yueyang. The children are adorable and the cause is probably worthy, but its painful to think of the kids being required to perform for the Westerners (ours had come in on a Sunday, just for us). Also, this morning excursion is the only event of the day. I cynically pictured Viking Executives sitting around brainstorming, What can we throw in for people in the long, dull stage of the cruise before the mountains? I know, lets help fund a school!
- The scenery before you get to the Three Gorges. All bleak and flat. Look, theres a sandpile!
- The walk to the Shibaozhai Pagoda. Although the Pagoda is at water level a short distance from the boat, they routed us to it through a steep, two-block climb through a gauntlet of hawkers then a similar descent. This was when I tweaked my calf.
- The stop at the jewelry store on the Hong Kong tour was endless. Id felt mildly peeved at the shopping opportunities at a silk rug and embroidery outlet in Shanghai, but I was fuming by the time they let the captive audience out of the jewelry store. True, Im not a shopper, but they could have told us, Youve got half an hour, and shoppers and non could have been satisfied. As it was they kept us for over an hour until the last person stopped showing any interest in the over-priced baubles.
A few general impressions. We had a great time. We wanted to escape our routines, and China and Viking certainly provided that, and in as much comfort as it would be reasonable to expect. The five internal flights in China got to be complicated and tiresome, but Viking handled them smoothly, and I accept that they were necessary for us to get as rounded a tour as did. Well definitely be looking through our Viking catalogue for future river cruises, but well also be checking other companies. Cruisecritic provided a helpful resource for this trip (amazing how you can sort out a consensus through the few people who loved everything and the few people who hated everything), and we expect to use it more broadly.