This trip is the perfect way to see China. If you want to experience some of the breadth and depth and majesty of China—its history, culture, and natural beauty—with the convenience of English-speaking guides and the pampering of Viking Cruises personnel, then this IS the trip for you. Viking organizes everything and executes pretty much on schedule (for those things under its control). You have to unpack and pack several times. You stay in 3 hotels. You have 3 internal flights and the cruise on the Yangtze River. China is a BIG country. But you get to travel to several impressive places in China. And you get to meet really nice, interesting people—your fellow passengers. We had mostly Americans on the trip, but also some from Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. We made lots of new friends.
My intent is to write a review that will give you insight and tips to help in planning your trip. I read reviews on Cruise Critic about the Imperial Jewels of China trip before I left home, but I learned many things on my trip that were not covered in those reviews. Hopefully my tidbits will make your vacation more enjoyable and memorable.
Yes, it’s a Communist country, but the people were friendly, and the guides were open in talking to us about the good and the bad. For example, we learned from some of the female guides that they are not interested in having a second child, even if it is allowed, because of the cost of raising a child in China. I guess some matters are never as black and white as we might suppose. We were a novelty in some places; Chinese citizens asked us to be in their photos. We saw some of the challenges as China tries to modernize and provide for its people without causing future shock to its 1.3 billion inhabitants. Realize that a small city in China means one with 4 million inhabitants. We saw pollution in the cities: lots of people and lots of cars being driven (in addition to the coal plants) leads to pollution; visibility was sometimes several miles. But it wasn’t really bothersome, probably because of the time of year we visited (late October). The only time I had an issue was in Chongqing at the airport. You could drive an hour away and not have so much pollution. We also saw blue skies in several of the cities. We saw wind turbines and nuclear power plants. There just aren’t enough alternative energy sources for all the people yet.
I liked the order of our itinerary for the 13-day Imperial Jewels of China trip, starting in Beijing first and ending up in Shanghai. In Beijing and Xi’an, there are some places where you walk a couple of miles for sightseeing. You have a lot of energy at the start of the trip, and you can relax when you get to the river cruising portion of the trip. And there is not a lot of walking in Shanghai at the end.
This is my 2nd Viking River cruise. I did one last year in Europe (Cities of Light trip). I would rate that trip as a 9.5 out of 10 (downgraded due to an execution/transportation issue in the last city). In comparison, I would rate the Imperial Jewels of China trip as an 8.5 out of 10—still very good. The planning, communication, and execution was just a little better on the European river cruise trip. As previous cruisers, we are members of the Viking Explorer Society. We had a special reception on the ship and received a special gift (aquavit glass).
The ships for my two trips were a little different. The Category A verandah rooms on the Viking Emerald were larger (by 45 square feet) than the verandah rooms on the Viking longship (Odin) I traveled on last year in Europe. The Emerald is bigger than the Odin, and has more facilities (e.g., gym, spa, shopping). It has 4 passenger decks and an additional sun deck, with 128 cabins (256 guests). The Odin has 3 passenger decks and an additional sun deck, with 95 cabins (about 190 guests). The Emerald is not built or owned by Viking; it is leased by Viking from China’s Century Cruises (it is technically the Century Emerald ship). The “fit and finish” of the Odin was a little better.
The trip itinerary was as advertised with 2 exceptions. First, those passengers who did the Viking transfer from the Beijing airport to the Beijing hotel were notified about an optional tour to the Summer Palace on Day 1. (They were flown in by Viking a day in advance, on Day 0.) My wife and I did our own transfer, and also arrived on Day 0. We learned about the tour at the last minute from some of the other passengers. Viking knew we were arriving a day early, but did not attempt to notify us about this tour. Second, on Day 2, there was supposed to be the optional excursion to attend a Peking opera show. Our tour escort told my group that Viking had dropped that show, and instead substituted a Kung Fu show “based on previous passenger feedback”. No one in my group opted to attend the show, possibly because we had an early flight the next morning to Xi’an. Or, we didn’t get enough information on the show—just that it was a Kung Fu show. I learned from other travelers who attended the show that it was more choreography than a martial arts demonstration (as the name implied). Viking should have notified passengers about this change, prior to departure, when they mailed us the booklet on “Itinerary & Departure Information”. Notification of new optional tours and of changes to existing optional tours is an area of improvement for Viking Cruises.
The passengers were divided into 7 tour groups, each with a tour escort who stayed with the group for the entire trip. Each group used its own bus for city tours and transportation to the airport for internal flights. You’re told the name of your tour escort during your transfer from the first airport in China, or you find out at the first hotel if you transfer on your own (a piece of paper was slipped under the door of our hotel room). Due to the number of passengers, they stayed at either of two hotels in most of the cities.
There were 3 internal flights: from Beijing to Xi’an, from Xi’an to Chongqing, and from Wuhan to Shanghai. All flights were on large Boeing or Airbus aircraft (not Russian-made aircraft), on either China Eastern airlines or on Sichuan Airlines. The flights were comfortable and ran on time. The seating configuration was typically 3-3. Not all groups flew at the same time. The tour escorts took care of getting boarding passes for you. Viking staff took care of the checked bags, both delivering them from the hotel to the airport and picking them up at the airport (and then delivering to either your hotel or to the ship).
Here are the flights my group took:
Flight at 7:45 am to Xi’an, 1 hour, 40 minutes long. I forget the type of plane.
Flight at 2:10 pm to Chongqing, 1 hour, 15 minutes long. Airbus 320.
Flight at 12:30 pm to Shanghai, 1 hour, 30 minutes long. Boeing 737.
Information provided by Viking prior to departure indicated a 20 kg weight limit for a single checked bag with a single carry-on bag allowed on the internal flights within China. As the tour escort told us, the airlines are a little flexible: you could check a bag that weighed a little more (on the last flight, my bag, with souvenirs, weighed 22 kg). You could also bring 2 carry-on bags onto the flights, as long as they could fit into the overhead compartments or underneath the seat in front of you. Carry-on bags were never weighed (thank goodness)—nominally a 5 kg limit.
Due to Chinese aviation rules, lithium batteries are only allowed in carry-on luggage. Lighters and matches are NOT allowed, even in checked bags. Liquids (except for prescription drugs) must be put into checked luggage; this is very different than rules in the USA.
It took a long time to get the luggage after our afternoon flight to Chongqing. We arrived at 3:25 pm. We boarded the ship by 5:00 pm. We were told our luggage would be delivered to our cabins on the ship by 7:00 pm; it arrived later than that, for unknown reasons—a disappointment. This is another area of improvement for Viking.
My tour escort liked to get to the airport in the morning or in the early afternoon, so that traffic was not too bad—typically it was about an hour drive to the airport, or from the airport to the next hotel or to the ship. Box lunches were provided on two of the drives to the airport (stopping in town to eat would have meant a late afternoon departure, with a possibility of a flight delay). We ate at the airport at Xi’an prior to our flight to Chongqing to go to the ship. The food was good.
The hotels that Viking selected were very good. For my group, the hotels were: the Kerry Hotel in Beijing, the Hilton Xi’an, and the Westin Bund Center in Shanghai. All are 5-star hotels with staff that mostly speak and understand English.
There is one time zone throughout China. So you never had to reset your watch during the trip.
You are provided a quantity of 2 bottled waters per person per day on the buses for your city tours or transportation to/from an airport. With all the traffic in the cities, expect for the bus trips to take an hour or more to get to where you’re going (e.g., Forbidden City, Three Gorges Dam, hotel from airport). Typically the tour escort or local guide would give you some educational or cultural information about the city during the commute.
You’re provided with a Vox box and earphone at the start of the trip. Your boxes are tuned to a pre-designated frequency for your group. The tour guide at a site you’re visiting speaks into a master unit, and you can clearly hear his or her narration while you walk around and follow your group (follow the “lollipop”, the Viking sign with your group letter).
You tip the driver and the local guide typically on the last day in each city. Your tour escort will let you know if the local guide is only for that morning or afternoon. It’s better to tip in local currency (Yuan/RMB).
One area of improvement for Viking Cruises is ensuring that hotels know how to contact tour escorts when problems develop. My tour escort gave my group his mobile phone number and told us his room number at each hotel. However, when I contacted the front desk to reach my escort (Jack) to get his help with a problem with my hotel room in Shanghai, they had no idea who Jack was. They told me there was no Jack in the room number I gave them (because he was registered under his Chinese name, not as Jack). They called his mobile phone for me, but couldn’t reach him. I called the room number, but there was no answer and I got a recorded message in Chinese that I couldn’t understand. I had to wait until the next morning to describe the problem to the tour escort, but he helped me sort it out with the hotel Duty Manager, and followed up to be sure the problem was taken care of.
You are given opportunities to shop at state-run stores (terra cotta figurines, furniture, embroidery, tea). Using your credit card at such stores is considered safe. At other stores, they may photograph your credit card and use the information later to make an unauthorized purchase.
Change money before you get to the ship, such as at one of the hotels you stay at (or from an ATM, or bring Yuan currency, aka RMB currency, from home). Currency exchange is not allowed on the ship. The Reception Desk can provide change for you, so that you can get smaller bills (Yuans).
Sparkling wine (from South Africa) was served at breakfast. Beer and house wines (from Chile as I recall) were served at lunch and dinner. You could upgrade to the Silver Spirits package (for 990 RMB per person for the 5-day cruise, but both people in the room had to buy the package), and then get wine and beer throughout the day, with a bigger selection of wines, as well as cocktails. I figured out that if you got more than 2 glasses of wine a day outside of meal times, then the package saved you money.
Access to Google and Google products is blocked in China (includes Google search and Gmail), as of June 3. This affected a number of the passengers, both in the cities and on the ship. Internet searches with alternate search engines, such as msn.com, would work. You could email from another kind of account (e.g., Apple mail, AOL mail) to Gmail accounts. You just couldn’t receive from your Gmail account.
There was Wi-Fi on the ship; ask the staff for the password. You needed to be in the bar area, on the 5th or 6th decks to get reception. Reception was spotty at times and uneven. If you waited patiently, you could probably receive your emails or send text messages. The ship did provide an Internet café with 6 computers. Access to the Internet was more reliable through those computers.
There are no refrigerators in the Category A verandah rooms on the ship. There were refrigerators on deck 5 in the suite rooms.
We took advantage of laundry service on the ship. It worked well. Turn in clothes in the morning and get them back in the evening. (This was also true at all the hotels in China.)
The cabin did not have universal adapter plug sockets (updated). You needed to use a travel adapter plug: Outlet Type G (British BS-1363), Outlet Type I (Chinese CPCS-CCC), or Outlet Type A (Chinese Non-Grounded Class II). Curiously, this information was not provided in the booklet on “Itinerary & Departure Information” that Viking sent passengers before departure.
The dining room attendants, the cabin steward, and the bar stewards—all Chinese—made an effort to learn your name and remember your likes and dislikes. My wife and I felt pampered.
The ship’s staff was excellent. We particularly liked Program Director Terry Lei who gave informative and interesting presentations, with a little humor on the side. We loved the Minority Costume Show and the Crew Cabaret Show (the skit taking place in a men’s bathroom is unforgettable!) in the evenings. We enjoyed learning Tai Chi for our morning exercise; Master Tom demonstrated and River Guide Ben translated for us.
Remember to apply for a China visa prior to your trip. I contacted Viking Cruises to find out whom they recommend (Generations Visa Service), and I contacted my travel agent to get her recommendation (A Briggs). We used Generations Visa Service, because we got a discount for doing 2 people at once (my wife and I). GenVisa has worked with Viking Cruises and had all the hotel information necessary for filling in the visa paperwork (you will have to contact either your travel agent or Viking to confirm exactly which hotels you’ll be staying in).
From a passenger perspective, hand sanitation practices on the ship did not appear to be that good, compared to other cruises I have been on (both ocean and river). The hand sanitation dispensers only provided a very, very small amount of sanitizer if you put your hand underneath the device. I think some passengers just stopped trying to use the devices. We were in confined spaces at the beginning of the trip, on buses and planes. By the end of the trip, it seemed like over half the people in my group had caught a cold and cough from someone else. My wife and I both actively took preventive measures to not get sick, but to no avail. That still didn’t dampen our enthusiasm and enjoyment of the trip, though.
There were shops on two of the decks on the ship. One sold typical Chinese souvenirs, including pearls and jade carvings. One was a Chinese tea shop. In another you could get a custom-made Chinese gown or shirt. Another shop featured an artist who could paint a scene or do calligraphy at your request (within reason). We ordered a scene of the Great Wall of China, with fall colors, as a memento of our trip.
We liked all of the included land and shore excursions. That’s one main reason we select Viking Cruises—no extra fees and high-quality tours. The Beijing Hutongs tour via rickshaw and visit to one of the (artist) families living there was one of our favorite excursions of the trip. Another favorite was the scenic cruising on the Goddess Stream (Lesser Three Gorges).
There were optional excursions: Peking opera show in Beijing (replaced by a Kung Fu show that we didn’t attend), Peking duck dinner in Beijing (recommended if you’ve never had the duck), and Tang Dynasty Dinner & Show in Xi’an (recommended).
Unlike for our previous European river cruise, it appears that Viking is now providing tours during post-trip extensions in Shanghai, as well as in Guilin and Hong Kong.
The Cruise DVD included photos and videos of passengers on the river cruise portion of the trip. It also included “canned” scenes from some of the optional excursions (e.g., Tang Dynasty show) from previous trips. It did not, however, include scenes from the Kung Fu show that was substituted for the Peking Opera show. The videographer just learned on this cruise that Viking had dropped the Opera show. He had no video of the Kung Fu show to put on the cruise DVD; instead, he included video of a Peking Opera show from a previous trip. The DVD DID include actual scenes from the ship passengers’ visit to the elementary school in Jingzhou on Day 10.
You could purchase an alternative to the Cruise DVD package (cost of 249 RMB). You could get higher-quality images with the Blu-ray package or the USB (thumb drive) package (cost of 325 RMB). All included video, a photo disc, and a map of the trip itinerary.
Although it involves a little more effort, you can save money by doing your own transfers rather than paying Viking Cruises for the transfers. In Beijing, the cost of a taxi from the Beijing airport to the Kerry Hotel was 115 RMB (about $18 US) in the late afternoon. In Shanghai, the cost of a taxi from the Westin Bund Center to the Pudong airport was 201 RMB (about $32 US) in the early morning. As I recall, Viking was charging about $60 per person for the transfers. Be sure to contact your first hotel in China and ask for the name and address of the hotel in Chinese to print out and show the taxi driver at the airport, who probably doesn’t understand much English.
I found several items useful to pack for the trip. For the air pollution: lubricating eye drops (we took Thera Tears), saline nasal spray, cold medicine/antihistamine (we took Sudafed and Mucinex DM), cough drops, and a carbon-filter face mask. Other items: Kleenex (to use as emergency toilet paper; the tour escort also had Kleenex available at rest stops), antiseptic hand wipes, hand sanitizer, moisturizing hand and face lotion, lip balm, stickers (to give to small children as gifts), tea tree oil, Tide to Go stain remover pen, insect repellent, and good walking shoes. One thing we could have used occasionally was a white noise generator app on our smartphones, for sleeping at night. (We installed an app after we returned from the trip.) We did not need to use our anti-diarrheal medicine or electrolyte drink tabs (for dehydration). Read Less