My wife and I chose Viking - and, specifically, their "Imperial Jewels of China" itinerary, for our first trip to China. Overall, we are glad we did so. Though it was not without concerns and drawbacks.
To be clear, the experience of visiting China for more than two weeks was fabulous. We have been fortunate to travel well. This was probably our most interesting, brain-stimulating adventure. The scope of change and the pace and magnitude of development are astounding. As are the many inherent contradictions.
While both my wife and I wrote extensively about our travels and observations, let me limit this to our Viking experience. Much of this review will focus on the shortcomings and concerns. But let me be clear that our experience was very positive in many, many respects. We were perhaps more adventurous than many in our group; but not adventurous enough to tackle two weeks in so foreign a place as China entirely on our own. Viking provided the opportunity and the structure for us to have this experience.
A few notes on the positive side of the ledger.
- Our guide, Kobe, was first-rate in so many ways. Others in our group who have been on more guided trips remarked that he was the best guide they had had - anywhere. He was knowledgeable, personable, able to relate to many unique and different people, focused on the details when he had to be, and someone whom it was always a pleasure to be around.
- Viking gets very high marks for meticulous and detailed organization. There were roughly 200 people (almost all Americans, Canadians or Brits) on this journey, divided into eight groups of about 25 people each. This is no small undertaking and everything seemed to work seamlessly from our perspective.
- The hotels at which we stayed in Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai were all first-rate in all respects.
- Through no fault of Viking, we had missed our day in Wuhan (called "the Chicago of the Orient") due to heavy fog on the Yangtze which forced all river traffic to hold in place for nearly 18 hours. Viking unexpectedly decided to make it up to everyone a day later by chartering a boat for a nighttime cruise of the Huangpu River through Shanghai. Seeing the Bund at night from the water was a real treat. Booking this for 200 people was a class move on Viking's part.
I could go on with positives and compliments. But let me turn to the downsides which I hope will be more instructive for Viking.
- Only six days of this 15-day trip involved the Yangtze cruise. Yet nearly all of the communications from Viking following our booking focused exclusively on the cruise. There was virtually no mention of the equally or more interesting land portion of the itinerary before and after. So much so that my wife and I checked into our Beijing hotel without really knowing where to meet or whom to contact. Viking would be advised to treat this as a unified, 15-day expedition instead of putting virtually all of the emphasis on the river piece.
- We decided to fly into Beijing one day early to have 24 hours to explore on our own (as well as to sleep off a bit of jet lag). For this privilege, Viking charged us a $200 "deviation fee" ($100 per person). Yet Viking provided absolutely no services related to this "deviation". In fact, we had to book our own transport from the airport to the hotel at a price of roughly another $100. When I inquired of Viking's main office as to the rationale for the deviation charge, they really had no answer.
- Of most annoyance to us and many others in our group, on four separate occasions Viking paired a buffet lunch (usually very average and nondescript) with some kind of factory showroom tour and controlled shopping opportunity. These were respectively for jade, tea, silk and terra cotta figurines. Clearly, this is a case of Viking getting reduced-cost or free lunches in return for bringing a captive audience to a showroom. From talking with others, Viking is apparently renown for this practice in many locales. That doesn't make it right or advisable or anything that I and others liked.
- It would have been nice to have at least one or two unscheduled evenings and the chance to find dinner on our own. Especially in Beijing which is famous for its cuisine. On the whole, the food on this trip was decent and certainly plentiful but undistinguished.
- The ship (the Emerald) was quite adequate, but past its prime and not up to Viking standards elsewhere. The dining room is ill-placed on the second level instead of up top with a view. The ceiling in the dining room is quite low which makes it very noisy and hot (with somewhat variable air conditioning). Our cabin was fine, but nothing more than that. Corridors are narrow and floors are somewhat uneven. There is really only one outside deck. A number of nooks and crannies which could make for nice sitting areas are instead given over to onboard merchants selling the usual Chinese fare at vastly inflated prices. I understand that much of this is a function of Viking being required to use Chinese ships. And that a new ship is under construction. Nonetheless...
- I am familiar with the usual tipping procedure on cruises whether with Viking or other lines. But the process here was needlessly confusing. We try to be generous tippers, but the number that they added to our onboard bill was exorbitant. Also, there was an ambiguity as to whether this sum also included our guide for the full 15 days. We opted to reduce what we did for the ship's crew and to deal separately and privately with our excellent guide.
- Lastly, this is a tricky one, but it needs to be said that our group (and seemingly each group) included people of widely varying physical abilities. Three of the 25 people in our group used wheelchairs or walkers. In no way am I suggesting that folks with such disabilities shouldn't be included in such trips. In fact, I admire their courage and tenacity in continuing such adventurous travel. (And I come with three joint replacements of my own.) But Viking should be more transparent with prospective guests as to the limitations this will cause for others. Why not attempt some selective grouping so that those who are more fit and adventurous can undertake and explore a bit more?
That's more than enough. Again, let me make clear that the positive far outweighed the negative with respect to Viking and this trip. Despite the number of words I gave to each in this review. But there are plenty of each. Final word of advice: If you haven't been to China, go. Whether with Viking or some other group or on your own. It is a fascinating place and much of the future is taking shape there.