Viking River Cruise
The Viking River Cruise tour people took good care of us from the time we landed in Beijing until we were delivered to the Shanghai airport on our flight home. We were taken to the Kerry Hotel which we stayed for 4 nights. We arrived on a Sun. and as a result we had an open day on Mon. while other tourists arrived. The tour guide gave us some suggestions of things we could see that were not scheduled on this tour. So we rented a taxi and went to the zoo to see the famous pandas and tigers. The zoo was fairly clean and well kept. Then we went to the Lama Temple which was first built as the residential palace for the 4th son of the second emperor of China. In 1744 the palace was renovated to be the Royal Tibetan Buddhism temple. There were a series of small Buddha rooms and statues. People purchased and burnt incenses sticks and laid them inside each door to a room. The odor became quite strong and we were very glad to reach the final room and out into the open air. We saw several people all along the way bowing to pray. Then we traveled to the Bird's Nest which was the stadium of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They were setting up getting ready for some kind of concert to take place. Throughout the day there were several times when Chinese tourists would approach us to have their picture taken with us for whatever reason.
In this particular tour itinerary there were 5 tour guides. Matthew was the main person that took care of us throughout the two weeks time. He was very personable. He left an accounting job with the government to become a tour guide and has been working for Viking for the past 10 years. We had about 30 people in our particular group. Almost all were retired people from the US though there was an Australian couple, a couple of Canadians, and people from Britain. All were English speaking in our group. We did have 4 persons who had some mobility problems, but when we went to major sights, these people ended up hiring people to push them around in wheelchairs at their own expense. (This is not a trip I would suggest for people who cannot walk well because we did extensive walking on uneven surfaces and steps that were also uneven. Don and I found it somewhat taxing and was ready to sit from time to time.)
Our first excursion as a group was to the Tienanmen Square, a 100 acre public square. There were crowds of people and those who were there sightseeing on their own, had long lines to wait in order to get their passes to enter the Forbidden City which is at the end of the Square. The Forbidden City, completed in 1420, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a palace complex that is protected by a 20-foot moat and a high wall around the grounds. It was the residence of several China's rulers. On this first day where there were crowds of people, we soon learned the Chinese people did not know what it meant to line up and take their turn. They thought nothing of going in front of you at buffet lines, toilets, and to push their way to better viewing spots. That afternoon there were some optional excursions we could take: Visit the Summer Palace Tour and/or the Peking Opera. We chose the Summer Palace which was a summer retreat. It was a big garden area that surrounded a lake. There was a palace high on a cliff that overlooked the lake and garden area, but we never actually toured the palace. We did get a boat ride across the lake and back. I don't know too much about the opera. There were only a few people who went, but never heard raving remarks about it.
The hotels we stayed at were 5-star luxury hotels. The rooms were huge and a lot of mirrors as part of their decor. Fancier than anything I've ever stayed in. They all provided a large buffet of various western and Chinese foods to select from. We found ourselves eating way too much because we could go back as many times as you wanted.
The second day we went to the Great Wall. Our guide suggested for us to walk the wall that wasn't so lengthy because there were fewer people and easier to climb. Again it was not easy walking because you were on an incline with uneven surfaces. We also walked the length of the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs. This was a fairly easy walk through an avenue lined with pairs of massive stone sculptures. Emperors chose this area as a burial place. Later that evening we had a choice of eating at the hotel or having a Peking Duck Dinner. Most of us went for the duck at additional cost. This was a specialty of the region though I'm not sure I would pay the extra for it. It was sliced very thin and by the time everyone at the table was served, you only had a couple of mouth fulls. I didn't think it was all that tasty either.
The third day we went to the Hutongs area which is the old part of Beijing. They took us through their open market where they sold all kinds of food, fish, and meat. It was interesting seeing where the people purchase their food, but after seeing it, I wasn't hungry for awhile. After the open market we had a rickshaw ride through the narrow alleys of neighborhoods. It was not uncommon for several related families to live together in common areas. We visited a home that consisted of 3 rooms--a small kitchen or cooking area, a living room, and a bedroom. We were served green tea and had a demonstration of hand painting inside bottles. It was very interesting. From there we were transported to the airport to fly to Xian. Viking gave everyone a boxed lunch that we could eat while waiting to board the plane. Flight arrangements were handled very well. Our hotel was the Crowne Plaza which we stayed at for 2 nights.
In Xian we visited the Terra Cotta Army. It is a huge building that had been constructed over the excavation site when they discovered statues that were buried in pieces. The Emperor Qin Shi Huang had these statues, which were life size, built with the though that they would protect him from being over-runned by other warring people. It was amazing to think all the statues were once in bits and pieces and are still being put together as they continue the excavation. This was another place that had mobs of people and you had to elbow your way to get to a good viewing position so pictures could be taken. That evening we attended an optional Tang Dynasty Dinner and show. My food was cold by the time I got it, but the show was very colorful and interesting to see their period time instruments being played. Well worth the money for this option.
The morning we were to fly to Chongqing to get on the boat, we had some free time so Matthew made arrangements to visit the Natural History Museum in Xian. It was a nice museum with a lot of artifacts, but didn't really have enough time to do it justice. Our group was the only group with this itinerary that visited the museum. Then we flew to Chongqing but couldn't board the ship at the usual dock because there had been flooding from a storm several days before. There was a lot of debris in the water from the flooding which took away from the natural beauty of the river area that we sailed through.
The ship was full with 248 passengers out of a capacity of 250. The ship was 4 years old and leased from another cruise company so we saw several sister ships all along the river. The meals very good. They had buffet breakfast with several choices from waffles, pancakes, to eggs, cereals, to the traditional Chinese foods. Fruit was always available at every meal. Lunch was a buffet for the salads, but then you ordered from a menu for your main entree. The evening meal was always ordered from the menu and they always had 3 to 4 choices of appetizer, entree, and dessert. With every noon and evening meal they provided free flowing beer and wine along with soft drinks, tea and coffee. The cabins were typical cruise ship size. They suggested we store our suitcases under the beds, but there was a couch in each room and a desk that accommodated the luggage if you did not want to completely unpack your suitcases. Usually in the late afternoons there would be some informative talk and in the evenings they had entertainment provided by some of the crew members. They said we were lucky to be able to go through the locks because they were closed due to the flooding. It took quite a long time to make it through the locks. They had several boats stacked next to each other in each lock. Not much more than a foot apart from each other.
Each day on the boat we had a stop or excursion. We visited Shibaozhai Pagoda that was 12-stories high, built in 1650. Several people climbed the pagoda, but again the steps were irregular. The walk through the small village was interesting with their street vendors. These people were not in your face as the vendors at some of the larger venues. One day we boarded a smaller boat for a ride up gorges. Scenery was beautiful. We visited the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric power station in the world. At Jingzhou, we visited an elementary school that is being supported by the Viking company. The children put on a performance for us and then each tour group visited a classroom. Some classrooms held up to 60 students which apparently was not unusual. Education is compulsory up to grade 9 then students take tests to see if they follow a college track of education or take a vocational track. At Wuhan we disembarked the ship. Our luggage was taken to our hotel in Shanghai while we were taken to a museum to view artifacts of that area and listen to a performance of bells and chimes. Then we flew to Shanghai.
I should mention about our luggage. We did very little luggage handling during the tour. Each group was given a different colored tag to put on our bags when we were at the first hotel. Our color was orange which represented Matthew's group. Each time we changed locations, Matthew was there helping oversee that all the luggage arrived in good condition. One couple had a suitcase that was ripped on one side after one of the airplane rides. Matthew spotted the luggage piece, notified the owners, and went with them to get settlement with the airlines. There were several times I saw Matthew helping behind the scenes as well as providing information throughout the tour. He even helped translate between a family and airline personnel when a person had an attack due to dehydration. I should also mention at each of the towns we visited we had a local guide who knew the area as well as Matthew. It was suggested that we tip the local guide a couple of dollars and the bus driver a dollar when appropriate.
Shanghai is a more modern city. We stayed at another luxury hotel, Westin Bund Center. This hotel was very near the Bund which was a waterway through town where ferry boats or dinner cruises were available. We walked there in the evening and saw all different colored lights on the buildings and the boats. It was very pretty. The morning we were taken to old Shanghai to see the Yuyuan Garden. A serene place with winding paths, water ponds, fountains, etc. It was hidden in the middle of town. We got there early so we didn't have to fight the crowds. Then they took us to a rug weaving place and a silk factory. A good place for souvenirs and many did shop. Matthew advised people where there were good places to get souvenirs. The last evening after a typical Chinese meal we were taken to a theater for an acrobatic show which was entertaining.
I should describe a typical Chinese meal. People would sit around a round table that had a lazy susan turntable in the center. The waiters would bring out one or two dishes at a time and people would take a portion on that plate if they wanted to eat from it. The thing I didn't like about it was there were no serving spoons for the dishes so people were using their own eating utensils to serve themselves. Usually the meal consisted of 6 to 8 different dishes and ended with watermelon as our dessert. You always had rice and a couple of fish dishes. They would usually include one or two chicken dishes and maybe a beef dish, but these were usually served mixed with some of their vegetables. We were told not to drink their water, but there was bottled water on the buses, boats, hotels, restaurants so there was never a problem of having enough water available and Viking picked up that tab. You had the option of using chopsticks for your meal or regular silverware. I never got the hang of the chopsticks. Maybe that is why you rarely saw an obese person.
Public restrooms were Chinese style (squat over a hole and hope that you hit it). The handicap stalls usually had our western style sit toilet, but there was usually only one stall. Many of the women in our group just never learned to squat. The other thing you needed to get your toilet paper by the sinks and take it with you. You are not suppose to throw the toilet paper in the toilet, but instead it goes into the container beside the toilet.
We were very lucky on the trip in that we had sun every day with temps in the mid 70s to 80s. They definitely have a smog problem. By the end of the two weeks half of the bus was coughing due to upper respiratory problems. We know a person who travels to China a couple times a year and he takes an antibiotic along with him for that very reason. There is a lot of building of high rise condos or apartments going on in all the cities we visited. It was hard for me to believe they need that many buildings particularly when families can only have one child (though there are certain circumstances where a couple can apply to have more than one child, but they do pay a premium for that child). Many of the buildings are standing vacant. We were told that the government is behind much of the building. Just recently heard on the news where the Chinese economy has surpassed the US.
Traffic in the cities was a nightmare. People use their car horns and take off. There were a lot of mopeds and bikes on the highways. Pedestrians have to be very watchful when crossing the street because vehicles come at you from every direction. There are street lights, but there were times I questioned whether people paid any attention to them. We were told that it is very expensive to own a car because there is not enough land area around these apartments to park a car and some people have to pay a large fee each month to park along the road.
Final comments: This tour was very well done. The people took very good care of us from the time we landed until we took off to come home. We had an exceptional tour guide. I would not advise any one to do this trip the first two weeks of October. Oct. 1 is their national holiday and many take their vacations at that time. Since we experienced huge crowds in mid-Sept. I would hate to imagine what it would be like the first of Oct. Also I would advise starting the trip in Beijing and do the hard walking in the beginning of the trip while one is excited about the sites and not travel weary. From the boat to Shanghai is a more leisurely paced sightseeing experience. Also landing in Beijing we got that extra day to recoup from the 13-hour flight before we started the tour. The tour is expensive, but noting the hotels, boat, and food/drinks provided each day and transportation you got your money's worth. We would recommend it and wouldn't hesitate taking another Viking trip.
- Joan Reicosky