This is an EXTREMELY long report; I don’ seem to be able to anything halfway. Please read it knowing that we are NOT tour people. We don’t like regimentation and we surely do not want to get up at 5am every day of our “vacation”. I have years of experience planning and managing events, and I am quite persnickety. We’ve done many cruise-tours with Grand Circle and Avalon. They have been great, with excellent Tour Escorts. We were expecting “even better” with Viking, and we paid top dollar for this trip. So, out of ignorance, I may be critical of things that are taken for granted on a complex cruise-tour of China. This Trip Report contains mostly my opinions; my husband isn’t quite so critical, but I don’t know what will ever get him on another Viking trip.
Before leaving Emerald, we were given two surveys, maybe one for the cruise and one for the overall trip, we were not sure. I never did know which was which, so I didn’t complete either. I have used those surveys as a template for this report. Not being able to figure out the two surveys rather sums up our experience with Viking’s Jewels cruise-tour of China, which departed Beijing on November 2, 2019. We expected a seamless experience but were very disappointed with the lack of attention to detail.
I’d rate the Emerald a 10, the cruise 8 of 10 and the tour 4 of 10. Overall experience a 5. We have an excellent Travel Agent cruise expert, so no issues booking or managing trip. We found the trip poorly planned, we spent far too much time in places that deserved about ten minutes, we were force-marched out at 8am or earlier for days on end. Some of us flew 15 hours to China and spent 4 hours in traffic getting into Beijing from the airport. Many pax spent far more time than that to get to Beijing.
ENTERTAINMENT Crew did an incredible show one night. Extremely creative and enjoyable.
DAILY NEWS Adequate, laid out the next day’s schedule, could have used more detail, but always delivered on time.
SHOPPING 3 forced-shopping lunch stops were deplorable. One day we dined at a jade factory. One day we lunched at a lacquer furniture store. We were fed below-average to awful food and trapped in these stores for up to 90 minutes after the lunch. We were pestered at every step to buy something. We had no alternative, forced to stay with the group. It was absolutely insulting.
INCLUDED LUNCHES … the Restaurant lunches were fine to very good. Lovely décor, welcoming service, very good food. Food the same at every restaurant, but delicious.
FLIGHTS We flew United’s new Polaris SFO-PEK on points. Quite underwhelming. I posted details on FlyerTalk.
THREE INTERNAL FLIGHTS were fine. Most of us were concerned about security, etc. But our VikingTour Escort did a great job for our first internal flight and we became quite relaxed about them all.
SHANGHAI to HONG KONG to SFO Cathay Pacific Viking’s air desk did a perfect job booking this flight. I was very excited about flying CX but it was merely OK. FAs were robots, they welcomed us, did the drink/meal service and disappeared.
TOUR ESCORT I have had the pleasure of working with many Tour Directors over the years on river and small-ship cruises, all of whom I rate as outstanding. We liked our TEr and enjoyed his company, he was welcoming and friendly. I can only rate him adequate to incompetent as a TE. Communicating details to our group seemed to elude him.
A couple of examples: No welcome information greeted us at the first hotel. The Viking desk that evening was manned by the bus driver with little English. He told to us to show up next morning at 8am. Our TE blamed the hotel concierge for our lack of info. He appeared the next morning at 750 and was mobbed with pax. What kind of a TE arrives the first day with ten minutes to spare? In the rain, we board the bus. Our TE is good on the mic, but he is mumbling about a marathon. Sure enough, we arrive at T SQ, troop through the rain to a barricade. T SQ is closed for a marathon. Nobody knows when it will open. I expect a TE to be top of this kind of information. Another example is our flight from Xian to board the Emerald. The flight was delayed. Our TE disappeared and didn’t come back for hours. What kind of TE leaves his group sitting at the gate for several hours with no information? China is not like Western Europe, where you can manage to communicate somehow. I don’t understand how a professional TE can be so bad with group communication. We spent a lot of time on this trip trying to figure out what was going on.
HOTELS were beyond excellent, JWMarriott in Beijing, Xian Hilton, Shanghai Wanda. 3 nites in Hong Kong on our own; Conrad was great. China has great showers everywhere.
JW MARRIOTT BEIJING CENTRAL is a GREAT hotel, super food, lovely Exec Lounge, extremely hospitable. We checked in a day early, a driver had met our flight and we spent 3.5 hours in traffic. Welcome to China! JWM’s front desk people were difficult, but a manager finally got us checked in properly. (It took 30-45 minutes to check in, and 15 minutes to check out.) The clerks should have called for a Manager immediately when they couldn’t understand us. I would expect Viking to choose hotels with personnel available who can communicate with Americans. The warm hospitality of the Executive Lounge surely made up for the awful arrival.
XIAN HILTON On arrival, we were greeted in the lobby by a row of smiling young ladies in black with long cream-colored jackets – very elegant. I’m a Hilton Honors person, this was an excellent Hilton with a lovely Executive Lounge. Too bad Hilton would not grant me privileges, only the upgraded room. We laughed every time we passed the Lounge, it was always empty. But Viking took very good care of us during our stay.
WANDA REIGN ON THE BUND, SHANGHAI Superlative, absolutely superlative. I agree with the CC reviewer who said it was the best hotel he’d ever stayed in. Reality is even more impressive than the stunning photos on Wanda’s website. 1000% excellent.
GROUND TRANSPORT Excellent, clean, spacious buses, friendly, helpful drivers. No restrooms in any bus, contrary to Viking’s information. With the awful toilets in China, this was a major problem. None of the rides were “too long”.
VIKING EMERALD Our top-deck suite was wonderful but we didn’t use the balcony with the bad air. There was only one dining room, very good food and service, but the noise was awful, it was like walking into a wall of sound; we skipped dinner a couple of times because we just couldn’t face an hour in the din. Even a few little bites set out at the Bar would have helped. I’ve never booked a suite on a cruise ship that refused to do room service for breakfast, very annoying. Food was good to excellent overall, nothing special. Crew seemed great, happy and welcoming, I felt I could ask for anything. Our cabin steward was sweet. But it’s hard to get over arriving to board the Emerald. Three flights of uneven-height stairs with no hand rails, in the DARK. Absolutely terrifying. This is inexcusable.
BEIJING First thing we did was find a WalMart down the street to get some cheap wine. It was a surreal experience that we’ll never forget. Everything in China is huge, but this store was Gi-normous as Peter would say. Unbelievably loud, everyone yapping at full volume, people running all over, brushing by an inch away … we had to laugh because this was just what we had read about. Live people, plus little battery-run megaphones sitting all over the displays, barking at you. Dan engaged a young lady at the jewelry counter to find something in the store, they had an enjoyable discussion using her phone’s translate app. We actually enjoyed our little adventure. We found the Chinese to be lovely people everywhere. And the WalMart wine was quite drinkable.
Once the official trip started, we saw a few things in Beijing area over 2 days but not much else. I had two pages of notes on things to see in Beijing. Our time was badly planned, much time wasted. For example, Forbidden City is an enormous property with seemingly hundreds of buildings that all look the same. All the interesting interior things apparently reside in Taiwan. Why would we want to spend 90 minutes walking past these buildings? Boring … FC worth about 15mins walking tour. Very nice garden at the end of the walk but we rolled quickly through it. The fairly long walk from the bus to the entrance was beautiful, along a lake with our TE telling us how it was for the royals.
Second day in Beijing Because of Sunday’s marathon, this day we were required to leave the hotel at 715am. This is the SECOND DAY of our tour, we’re still getting acclimated and waking up at 3am. But we’re happy to be on the bus … and on our way to the Great Wall! We appreciated the drive around T SQ, walking it would not have been very interesting. It’s a concrete-covered square, there’s NOTHING there except poor Mao in a huge building with his picture on it. The bus rides would have been a fine time to learn about the areas we were driving through, but our TE talked mostly about history; we learned little about today’s China. We were too strung out to even consider that evening’s Kung Fu show. Turned out to be a good decision, people were not enthused.
GREAT WALL Nice short ride, really cool to climb the wall, fairly rough steps and walkways, very windy and chilly; the air felt great and we saw some sunshine. Super group photo and souvenir book. No warning on horrid toilets or advice on how to find one we could use. Our TE just kept telling us to hurry up so we could do the group photo. Most of the women were upset; I was livid. Let’s see, breakfast, then an hour on the bus … and nobody expects there will be no usable bathrooms up on the Great Wall. Too bad, we don’t want to keep the photographer waiting. For me, this cooked it for our poor TE.
SACRED WAY tombs with beautiful gardens, huge animal statues along mile-long walkway, very nice walk. Speakers in the trees jabbered away, telling people what they were seeing.
Before our flight to Xian, the bicycle Rickshaw tour of Hutongs was excellent. Interesting visit to Madam Wang’s home, we were invited in to hear her story about the ancient courtyards, see her house, and meet some family. Lovely walk back to bus along a lake. Flight was great, well organized, half empty plane a bonus. They served a full meal!
XIAN THE WARRIORS Very exciting to “be there”. A couple dozen warriors and several horses had come to San Francisco many years ago and I was wild to see the whole site. In SF, they had presented them in a replica of the excavation; terracotta was all polished and the display very well lit. I found the real thing disappointing. I knew the site had been covered for preservation, but it’s like an enormous warehouse with very little light; everything’s grey/taupe, even the air. 3 “pits” and their contents all looked the same in the murky light. Seeing one of them would have been adequate. Mobbed with people and kids of course. Excellent “museum” quality displays and exhibits at the end. A major issue arose at the end of our Warriors visit. On arrival, we had been whisked away in golf carts to start the tour. Our walking tour lasted for 90 minutes, and without warning we were told that we would be walking back to the bus. People with walking challenges could have rested a bit had they known. Another forced march, a solid 30 minutes. This was the kind of detail that seemed to elude our TE and was the last straw for several in our group.
For the evening, we signed on for the optional TANG DYNASTY DINNER THEATER. The descriptions and reviews I’d read made it sound very special. It was awful. Instead of strolling through vast palace gardens and then into the palace for a performance during dinner, we were all hustled off the bus and into a huge banquet room and quickly seated at tables for six. A beautifully-costumed group of musicians was playing ancient Chinese music on ancient Chinese instruments. Uh, not exactly. They were playing songs such as “Oh Suzanna” and “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain”. I knew we were in trouble. We received beautiful keepsake menus, big bottles of ice-cold beer, and the first courses started arriving. The food was inedible, everyone I talked with the next day agreed. The fish course I had was very good, but many people didn’t like any of it. Soon the performers started singing. The criteria seemed to be the decibel level. Shrieking seemed to rule; nothing melodic about it ... and it went on forever. We spent more than $160 to be tortured in a huge room with a vast group of people and we left hungry. That was the last of the Viking optional excursions that we signed up for.
CHONGQING The airport experience out of Xian was a total disaster. Flight is delayed, our TE disappears for several hours, we sit at gate. Utter incompetence. Nasty box lunches and no guidance on buying snacks or anything to drink. Maybe something we recognized, we could have purchased, like a Coke ... warm soda, yuck. Ice cream was good. I discovered a “facial recognition” board you could stand in front of and it would recognize you and flash up all your flight info. Very cool, I beamed it up about 9 times during the long afternoon. At last our departure time flashed up and I could tell everyone. We joked that the TEs had all been holed up in the VIP Lounge. Plane a third full, very comfy. Lighters/matches are confiscated at all Chinese airports, our TE found a lighter for me at the end of every flight, he was very thoughtful. All airports were modern, no hauling carryons on stairs or any of the other negatives I’d read. We didn’t see anything of Chongqing, but the elevated highways and the beautiful lights everywhere made for a great ride to Emerald. She was all lit up and we were so glad to see her … for most of us, The Emerald was the reason we were here. A hair-raising scramble down crumbling steps with no handrails, hustle in for dinner, and we depart on the Yangtze River!
YANGTZE Floating down the river was just magic. So many of our fellow travelers considered this the primary reason for their trip. Our six days on the Emerald were extremely enjoyable.
SHIBAOZHAI Dan skipped this; I rolled out. We walk off the ship and are informed that it’s a 20-minute walk UP HILL to get to the site. You’re telling us this NOW? Golf carts are there for 20Y, but we don’t know that in the chaos. Drivers are trying to hustle us into their cart. Our TE finally shows up to explain, and I zip up the hill with a grinning maniac who lays on his piercing horn at every opportunity … which is every 6 seconds. I whiz by the locals with fingers in my ears. Temple accessed by “Drunken Bridge” that moves all over underneath your feet, fun. Nice landscaped path winds around, there are buildings “up there”, I think “Really, this is it?” No, no, after the last bend appears the gorgeous temple. We’re now on a huge elevated walkway with plenty of room to drink it all in and wave at people climbing 12 stories to the top … who knows why. Emerald is floating in the distance. I enjoyed just wandering and taking photos, making my way back to the square where my golfcart driver waited. Then the daughter accompanying her sometimes-confused mother loses her somewhere. This is a big space and daughter gets hysterical, several of us are trying to help. Daughter tells me that she left mother with the TE to go climb the temple. I don’t think that he would just abandon mother, so I call him on one of the TEs phones and he quickly shows up. Daughter and our TE tear off on a golf cart to see if she’s gone back on board. Daughter later told me that she couldn’t find him, and one of the other TEs was very dismissive and unhelpful. That set her over the edge, poor girl. Never did find out exactly what happened to mother, but she was fine. Until then, I had just enjoyed being “on my own” and wandering around in the beautiful place, snooping through the vendor huts at the dock.
THREE GORGES Scenery absolutely spectacular. Air still grey but no longer smells, nice to be outside while we glide through this amazing part of China.
SAMPANS UP THE GODDESS STREAM very enjoyable. I had no idea what to expect … a canoe paddled by kids, a fishing boat piloted by an ancient man, a pontoon rigged up from empty oil barrels. The sampans looked very sea-worthy, well-decorated and very cute with huge windows. You could sit out on a spacious back deck as well, what a treat in the clean fresh air! The guide was wonderful, enthusiastic and obviously proud of her home. A huge line of sampans motored up the river; the scenery was indeed spectacular. A super treat for us.
3-GORGES DAM TOUR We were told that we would see the inner workings of this massive structure up close. With the Warriors, this was to be the highlight of the whole trip to China for many of us. Our time at the dam was major disappointment. We were led around to the public viewing sites and the guide told us all about the dam. But we never actually saw anything other than just what anyone would see by visiting this place on their own. I expected a video, a look inside the “works” and some special access … or SOMETHING special. Nada. Viking gave us nothing but the bare minimum. OK, it’s huge. But you can’t see much through the murky air. And everything in China is huge.
JINGZHOU It appeared that this stop was made so pax could contribute to a school that Viking supports. I had notes of several things to see in this city, but there was no information in our Daily News. Tour the school or nothing. We skipped it, desperate for some down time, disgusted with lack of information and exhausted by getting out the door every day at the crack of dawn. We had been very careful with the water, but were both coming down with respiratory issues at this point. This Jewels tour has a ridiculous itinerary, poorly planned, with too much wasted time. People said the school kids were cute.
WUHAN Sailing into Wuhan after dark was SPECTACULAR. Everybody knows about “light shows” but this brilliant, ever-changing display against all the monster buildings lining the river was really something. Not from the balcony, of course, big city = stinky air; we watched from inside our cabin. I think this was the night they served food like sliced pig tails and chicken feet for dinner. Really disgusting. If you want to give pax a true taste of local foods, please do so somewhere tucked away where the rest of us don’t have to see it.
We rolled out the next morning at 8am to see the Hubei Museum. Nearly dark inside, mobbed with people and kids, we tromped around forever looking at bronze cauldrons, etc. How many bronze vessels does one need to see? Stayed much too long, but Hubei Bells performance following the museum was wonderful. Exotic, talented musicians, very well done. This may have been the day with a real lunch at a real restaurant, very enjoyable.
SHANGHAI We arrived after dark. Wanda Reign probably the nicest hotel we’ve ever experienced. I stayed in bed, husband did the tour next morning and enjoyed it somewhat. The forced-shopping stop was at a Silk Embroidery place (which I had been looking forward to) was of little interest to him. Far too much time spent at the Shanghai Museum. They skipped the garden for some reason. The temple was terrific. We skipped the evening acrobats; we’d had enough bad entertainment on this trip.
We were visiting Hong Kong for three days on our own; Cathay Pacific offers a free stop-over. I remain beyond impressed with Viking’s air desk. We were quite concerned about how we’d manage without our TE! No issues, CX is a very good airline.
HONG KONG We were booked at the Hilton Conrad which was affordable with a combination of points and cash. A wonderful choice, from the 57th floor we overlooked Victoria Harbor, and the Executive Lounge was lovely and welcoming. We both noticed the lack of traffic, horn-honking and crowding. The air was usually clear in the morning and the view was spectacular. We didn’t venture far due to our coughing and wheezing. We were there on a weekend, but no sign of protesters. Cathay Pacific Hong Kong to SFO was not as grand as I had expected, but a very comfortable flight. We were both very happy to gobble up some Nyquil, crawl into bed and sleep.