Exploring China with Viking River Cruises
Having already experienced a Viking River Cruise in Europe on the River Danube, I was beyond excited to be heading off to China to sail on the mysterious Yangtze River onboard Viking's largest river cruise vessel, the Viking Emerald. Combined with land stays in the bustling capital of Beijing, the ancient city of Xi'an and the super sized city of Shanghai, I was certain the Imperial Jewels of China itinerary would not disappoint, and was sure to be a trip of a lifetime.
With Beijing to be the first part of our adventure we transferred from the airport to the 5* Kerry Hotel, part of the Shangri La chain, which was to be our base for the next three nights, and what a base it was! From the bright and intricately decorated lobby to the soft and spacious luxury rooms with floor to ceiling windows and stunning marble bathrooms, it was tempting to stay in this hotel forever, but as our tour guide Jimmy outlined the days ahead I could not wait to get out there and see it all!
To say this trip started off on a high would be an understatement, with in depth tours of Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public square, and the fascinating Forbidden City, the world's largest palace complex and UNESCO World Heritage site. Adding to that one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen, the Great Wall of China, it was difficult to imagine the trip getting any better! The Great Wall was a personal highlight for me. Travelling to the Badaling Hills section of the Great Wall, nothing can prepare you for the first glimpse as it emerges over the mountains shadowed by the eerie low clouds. It seems rather surreal when you first step foot onto it. Even if you were to walk the full 3750 miles of the Great Wall I do not think you would ever get bored of it stretching out before you. It was a magical experience.
As if these experiences weren't enough during our stay in Beijing we also enjoyed a visit to the sacred Ming Tombs, where the Ming emperors are buried, and a fascinating rickshaw tour through the shanty towns of old Beijing where the locals live out their everyday lives peacefully and contently, away from the hustle and bustle of the ever developing capital city.
From the first few days of touring it was evident to see that our guide Jimmy, who was to stay with us through the entire trip, was exceptional. With 10 years of experience, his knowledge, expertise, interest, organisation and great sense of humour meant that everybody warmed to him straight away and he became a huge part of the trip.
I must also mention the food as with all holidays this is a very important part of the overall experience. We dined at the hotel for breakfast daily, which was delicious and everything you would expect from a 5* hotel. We enjoyed a buffet style dinner at the hotel twice, as well as a fantastic optional evening at one of Beijings best Peking duck restaurants. Here we feasted on a duck banquet, along with other Chinese specialties, over 4 or 5 courses!! Lunch each day was provided in a local restaurant so that it could be incorporated into the days activities and the restaurants used for the land stay sections (in Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai) have all been handpicked by Viking to meet with their high standards.
After an amazing start to the trip it was time to take our first internal flight to Xi'an in central China where we would stay for 2 nights. Thanks to Jimmy and the impressive organisation of Viking, we parted with our bags at the hotel in Beijing and did not see them again until we arrived at our rooms at the Hilton Xi'an. Viking seemed to have the luggage handling down to an absolute tee, and with 3 internal flights throughout the whole itinerary the feeling of knowing you do not need to worry about checking in/collecting your bags just completely takes the stress out of travelling.
The Hilton Xi'an had the most beautiful welcome lobby. It was huge and grand and both modern and traditional at the same time. The rooms were equally as luxurious as the first hotel and it seemed a shame we would only be staying here two nights! During this short stay however, we experienced not only the sights and sounds of this fascinating historical city but also what was most definitely one of the trip highlights, the Terracotta Warriors. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the sight of the uncovered Terracotta Army is one to behold. Buried almost 2000 years ago with the Emperor Qin Shi Huang there are still thousands of warriors yet to be unearthed, but the 2000 that are currently visible are enough to send shivers up your spine. To top off a memorable day we enjoyed a traditional Chinese dinner over the Tang Dynasty show in a local theatre which was great fun.
After another smooth flight transition we arrived in Chongqing, the embarkation point for our much awaited cruise on the Yangtze River.
The Viking Emerald is beautiful. From its huge central atrium that rises up 5 floors to an impressive chandelier structure hanging from the ceiling, to its dark wood staircases and its traditional Chinese artwork throughout. It has a large observation lounge and bar where you can relax during the day and watch the world go by, as well as a livelier bar and lounge on the deck above for those who like a twirl on the dancefloor after dinner! There is plenty of outside space on the sun deck, with chairs, full length sun loungers, and pretty swinging benches. The little touches onboard are really lovely, like the tea tasting workshop and the traditional Chinese arts and crafts workshop. There is even a tailoring workshop where you can get your own clothing garments made out of the beautiful local fabrics. This was surprisingly popular among the guests!
I stayed in a category B veranda stateroom on the upper deck. It was the largest stateroom I have found on a river cruise vessel and the sit out veranda with two chairs was a real bonus as although the sun deck and observation lounges have plenty of space for everybody it was lovely to be able to enjoy the view from the privacy of your own balcony. All the staterooms have verandas on the Viking Emerald so you can enjoy the view from your room no matter which deck you are on. My stateroom had all the standard amenities, bath robes, slippers, hairdryer, L'occitaine toiletries, large white towels, laundry service, wide screen tv etc. It even had tea and coffee making facilities as well as a 24 hour tea and coffee station out in the main lobby. The room was comfortable and completely spotless with it being cleaned twice a day by the ridiculously hard working and friendly housekeeping team. Infact, all the staff members that I came across were friendly and hard working. They would literally do anything for you and I do believe the service to be the best I have ever experienced on a river cruise before.
The whole cruise section of this trip was a highlight in itself, the pace had slowed down greatly from the land stays at the beginning and meant you could really take the time to relax and take in the sights of the 3rd longest river in the world. Sailing through the Wu Gorge and the Lesser Three Gorges was breathtaking, and for the very narrow stretches of the gorges we enjoyed an excursion on a smaller local boat which meant you were just metres from the sheer cliffs and the crystal blue water below.
During the cruise we also enjoyed a unique experience visiting a primary school in a remote town along the river. The school is sponsored by Viking River Cruises themselves and the children were so friendly and welcoming, putting on a performance for us and showing us round their classroom. It was fascinating and heart warming to see, and they loved practising their English on us, and teaching us their Chinese!
I was impressed with the food onboard the Viking Longship when I sailed on the Danube, and I can easily say the food was just as, if not more, impressive onboard the Viking Emerald. The food was quite westernised but with Chinese dishes always on offer aswell. I found this ideal as it meant that if you really fancied a spring roll and noodles for breakfast you could, or you could tuck into bacon and eggs!! The extensive hot and cold breakfast buffets served everything you could ask for and more, and lunch had a just as impressive buffet along with options to order off the menu if you wanted a larger dish. It would be extremely difficult not to find something to your taste. Dinner was a set 3 course meal, with a choice of 2-3 starters/mains/desserts each evening, and I can honestly say I did not have a bad meal onboard this ship.
After such a superb voyage we were all sad to be disembarking the ship in Wuhan on the last day, but this feeling did not last long, as the excitement built about reaching our final destination, Shanghai.
Shanghai was impressive to say the least. Sky scraper upon sky scraper and millions and millions of people, it seemed like another world compared with the serenity of the Yangzte River. Our hotel, The Westin Bund (which was my personal favourite) was just 2 minutes walk from the famous Bund Waterfront where you can stand for hours simply marvelling at the skyline. In complete contrast to the futuristic skyline, we enjoyed a tour to old Shanghai, a tucked away section in the middle of the city where you find yourself amidst the beautiful Yuyuan Gardens, along with markets galore. It was a perfect opportunity for some last minute souvenir shopping. Our stay in Shanghai was rounded off by an evening out to see the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe. This show was unbelievable and a great way to end such an incredible trip.
During the 12 hour flight back to the UK, I reflected on the last two weeks and could not wait to tell all my friends and family about it. Not only will you take away memories forever but it is the most fantastically put together itinerary and Viking River Cruises really do excel here, from start to finish.
This trip is an absolute MUST for anybody wanting to visit China!!
Joanne, Blue Water Holidays Cruise Specialist