On August 19th, 2009 my wife and I flew from Minneapolis to Chicago, then to Beijing, China, to participate in a cruise / tour adventure with Viking River Cruises, and their Imperial Jewels of China 12-day excursion. This excursion included six nights in luxury hotels and five nights on their river vessel called the Viking Century Sun. We flew into Beijing and spent three nights in the Raffles Hotel, then we flew to Xian (pronounced ‘She Hon’) and stayed in the Shangri-La Hotel for one night. Next we flew to Chongqing (pronounced ‘Chong King’) and we boarded the Viking Century Sun. Once aboard the Viking Century Sun we visited Shibaozhai, then to Qutang to see the Lesser Three Gorges, next we cruised to Sandouping where we visited the fantastic Three Gorges Dam. Our next city was Jingzhou, a city that Viking River Cruises sponsors a school, where we had the opportunity to visit the children and see their classroom. Finally the Viking Century Sun arrived at Wuhan, and this is where we disembarked the vessel. From Wuhan we flew to Shanghai and spent two nights in the Westin Bund Hotel.
Food / Dinning
Viking River Cruises goes to great lengths to bring it’s passengers and tour-groups to the best restaurants in the area. In Beijing we dined at the same restaurant that Nixon ate, as well as President Bush when they were in Beijing. For those with a western palate, you might have to be somewhat adventurous because there are many unique flavors to experience. The dining however has been excellent. Especially breakfast in the hotels we have stayed at…the variety is amazing; of course the restaurant must accommodate many different tastes from all around the world. Americans will be happy with the eggs and bacon, or cereal of your choice, or you may want to eat what the Chinese eat for breakfast, like noodles and mushroom or some sort of fish. There have been some occasions when I personally didn’t care for the food served at lunch, however, dinner seems to be the meal of choice for the Chinese, with a great variety of meats prepared in unique ways. I like to have a soda for dinner and in China on this tour, it seems the choice is limited to either water, Sprite, Coke, or local beer. Only a few restaurants offer diet, or Coke Lite, and on this tour the first drink is included but the second drink is usually not and you must pay extra for another glass or can of whatever. Many evenings dinner was served on a “lazy susan” a circular plate on the table that spins allowing people to eat family-style. We did eat a lot of Chinese food, and it only made sense since we were in China. It’s a good thing we like Chinese food, however, we noticed that the Chinese food in China is often a little different than what we eat at our local Chinese restaurant in America. We found the Peking Duck in Beijing to be very tasty, but we noticed it wasn’t like eating chicken, because the tradition is to put the duck meat on a tortia with some onion and a dark sauce.
Hotel stays during the tour portion of the trip:
Our first hotel experience on this tour arranged by Viking River Cruises is similar to the dinning experience where they put passengers in the best hotels in the area. Our first hotel was in Beijing. After a long 13 hour flight from Chicago to Beijing, we were very eager to get into our room to relax a bit. My wife and I thought we were put in the wrong room at first, because it was very spacious, the décor was exquisite and the amenities were first class. It was as if we were in the Presidential suite of a five star hotel, and in fact this was a five star hotel. The bed was a large king-size canopy bed, which was very nice with fine linens and comfy pillows. I think there is a difference in the packages offered…we happened to be in the premium land-package, so be sure to choose the premium option to really experience luxury accommodations, it really is worth it. Our first Hotel was the Raffles Hotel in Beijing. This is the same hotel that accommodated many of the dignitaries during the Olympics, and many U.S. Presidents have stayed in the Raffles Hotel. Back to our room, we had a large wooden desk for writing letters or using the computer (I brought my own lap top) , a large flat-screen television, another small writing desk, and a cabinet for displaying interesting articles. The bathroom was very nice with a tub with water jets, two sinks, a large shower and of course a toilet with a bidet. Actually this suite had two bathrooms, one was in the entry corridor. Use of the internet was free, however, it seems as if the Chinese Government may be blocking certain social media sites like, Facebook, Blogs, Youtube and a few others. This was a problem for me since I had planned to blog about our trip so my listeners to my show could follow us in a virtual way. All of the staff in the hotel were very professional, very detail oriented and their hospitality skills were finely tuned. Score another high mark to Viking River Cruises for scoping out the best hotel in the area. The very first evening when we arrived we used the hot tub in the spa area to relax a bit after a long flight, which was very soothing. Then we went to our palatial room, changed for dinner. This first night we were on our own for dinner, so my wife and I walked around the corner from the hotel and were amazed at the thousands and thousands of people in the streets. We ended up trying out a Big Mac and a chocolate shake at McDonalds….and our basic impression was that it all tasted the same as back home. It was an interesting cultural experience to be among the Chinese people that first night.
Our accommodations in Xian were very nice, not as opulent as the Raffles in Beijing, but very comfortable. Finally, Westin Hotels operated the hotel in Shanghai and we found the bed to be the most comfortable bed we had experienced in China. The bathroom was very large with a huge tub right next to the window, which offered a nice view from 15 stories up. Internet was not free in this hotel but the price was reasonable. Again it was frustrating that the government of China had blocked certain social media websites and of course I could not contribute to my blog.
Our River Vessel, the Viking Century Sun
We arrived at our cruise-portion of the cruise / tour and boarded the Viking Century Sun in the evening. It was a long walk down to the pier and we had to walk across about four other barges to get to our vessel, that’s the way it is on the river. For me, being a cruise guy, it was a thrill to finally get aboard the Viking Century Sun. Actually, let me mention that I found it difficult to determine whether to call the Viking Century Sun a ‘ship’ or a ‘boat’. It’s on the Yangtze River and was not designed for the open sea, and most vessels on the river are considered boats or barges. The Viking Century Sun was certainly not a barge, and yet I struggled with calling it a ‘ship’. I asked the Hotel Director onboard, what he thought the designation should be and he suggested it should be considered not a boat, or a ship, rather a ‘vessel’. Anyways, back to our arrival to the Viking Century Sun. There were numerous crew members with smiles, who greeted us as we were navigating the various barges to finally get aboard the Viking Century Sun. What a thrill it was to finally get aboard the vessel knowing that we were going to be there for five nights as opposed to moving from hotel to hotel.
The Viking Century Sun has six passenger decks and carries about 300 passengers in 150 staterooms, all of which have a private balcony. Built in 2006, the vessel was still very new, and we noticed that the crew onboard were constantly cleaning every nook and cranny. Our stateroom was very nice, and in fact we were upgraded to one of the four suites onboard. Our room had ample desk and drawer space, and a special glass-top desk, which was perfect for setting up my mobile office, including my laptop and camera gear. The linens on the bed were very nice and soft, however, the beds themselves were very firm. I personally like a bed that is not too firm, however I can’t complain because we enjoyed the sanctuary of our stateroom. The bathroom was one of the largest we’ve had on a cruise. The toilet and the shower had a sliding panel to act as a door, and there were two sinks, a his and hers. Every couple of nights we would find a little treat or gift on our pillow, like a hat that says Viking River Cruises on it, or a cute little Chinese silk bag.
I’d like to offer some observations of the stateroom and perhaps a recommendation for the cruise line. There was no refrigerator in the stateroom, which is a common amenity on most cruise ships and hotels these days. I travel with medications that need to be refrigerated, which is why I thought this should be highlighted. Particularly on the Yangtze where it can be very hot and humid, I would suggest maybe a dehumidifier in the room, and a fan. The air conditioning on the Viking Century Sun was probably operating at it’s best, but on the really hot and humid days, that is when a dehumidifier and a fan would come in handy. Overall, I would definitely say the vessel was comfortable.
The dining onboard the Viking Century Sun was very good, and at par with many of the hotels we stayed at prior to embarking on the vessel. The waitresses and waiters in the dinning room were all very bubbly and went to great lengths to remember your name and what many of your preferences were. Service was very quick and efficient, and the staff truly cared about tending to your requests. There was only one evening when I ordered the fish, and I didn’t care for the taste, the sauce had a fishy taste to it and the fish tasted fishy which wasn’t normal for this type of mild white fish. Breakfast each morning was very good with a chef available to make you an omelet or scrambled eggs to order, or even pancakes. There was also cereal and breads and many of the usual western-style breakfast items. Two nights were dedicated to Chinese food, and the other evenings the choices were western-style or international entrées like beef and pasta and chicken. The chef was German, so there was somewhat of a German-style to the dining. The presentation was excellent and most people would definitely enjoy the dining aboard the Viking Century Sun.
A cruise on the Viking Century Sun is unlike your usual cruise experience with big production shows, rather the entertainment onboard was structured more to learn about China and the Yangtze River. There was one night, however, where the crew put on a decent show that was fun to watch and very colorful. The lectures onboard were very informative, and helpful because most people who travel to China want to know and experience the culture. Viking River Cruises offers a wonderful cultural experience that turns out to be the highlight of the cruise for most passengers, and that is the visit to the elementary school in Jingzhou. In fact, Viking River Cruises sponsors the school, which is one opportunity for the company to give back to the community in a very positive way. I highly applaud Viking River Cruises for their sponsorship program with the local school. Everyone in our group completely enjoyed this day where we visited the school. The children put on a little show of music and dancing for us and then we broke-up into smaller groups and visited different classrooms. It was obvious that these children really look forward to meeting the “Westerners”, and the passengers enjoy the interaction with the kids. I performed a magic trick and the kids seemed to like that. There’s an opportunity to give donations to the school, and most passengers drop in a few bucks. My wife and I brought a big bag of story cubes to give to the children at the school, and they really liked this little gift. So do not expect the big production shows and entertainment like on most cruise ships, the location on the Yangtze river in itself is entertaining and enriching, and I don’t think the big production shows would be missed.
I noticed from a logistics point of view that operating a western-style cruisetour on the Viking Century Sun would be a huge project because of cultural differences, however, Viking River Cruises was able to pull it off with flying colors. I tried to understand how the operation of this vessel worked on the Yangtze in China, and discovered that the vessel, the Viking Century Sun, was actually leased by Viking River Cruises with a local Chinese businessman who owns the vessel under a company name, New Century Cruises. I think it’s a clever operation and a brilliant way to offer a cruise product in China. I don’t think the Chinese government would allow an American company or foreign company to set up shop on the Yangtze River, so what Viking River Cruises has done is quite the achievement. I took some time to explore another river boat on the Yangtze that has about eight boats and often promotes it’s product to westerners. The boat seemed nice from the inside, but on the outside they look a bit raw. I also happen to know that they utilize westerners as cruise directors so they can better serve their passengers. This company I am referring to looks like they do a fine job, and I discovered they are building a vessel that will become the largest cruise vessel on the Yangtze, out sizing the Viking Century Sun which is currently the largest passenger vessel. I can’t say anything for their cruisetour packages other than they probably offer a similar package to what Viking River Cruises offers, however, having been a cruise industry professional for many years, I did have an experience which has brought me to the conclusion that Viking River Cruises without question has the best cruisetour product available in China and on the Yangtze. Unlike the other cruise company I’m referencing; Viking River Cruises offers a consumer-friendly and travel agent-friendly system for booking your cruisetour to China. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, someone came into my office and said they wanted to book a cruise to China on the Yangtze. I was very excited to offer my expertise as a cruise industry professional, however, I ran into some challenges trying to get information and book my clients on a Yangtze cruise. I never was able to book these people because it was too obscure and complicated. This was before I knew about Viking River Cruises of course. The bottom line is that it was very complicated trying to decipher which tour operator to try and book with. What makes Viking River Cruises rise above as my choice for the best company to work with is that they offer an amazing product that is contained within one simple westernized company as opposed to numerous tour operators and sub-companies. I can book the entire cruisetour experience to China with one company, and have the confidence that everything is handled by one company with no surprises.
Unique to Viking River Cruises are the tours they offer and the local guides who hold your hand throughout the whole trip from the first moment you arrive at the airport. The tours are carefully chosen to offer the best experiences, allowing passengers to see the most popular sites as comfortably as possible. The buses are all air conditioned and comfortable, the transfers are all taken care of by your guide, in fact the guide even checks you into your hotels, you simply receive your room key and you’re off to your room. The same is true for your intra-China flights, your guide checks you in and gets your boarding pass, so you can just board the plane without any hassles. It’s a smooth seamless process that the Viking River Cruises guides have perfected. Another unique element to the tours is the electronic “Vox” device that is given to each passenger. The “Vox” is basically a receiver that you put around your neck that has a comfortable earpiece, allowing each individual to hear what the guide is saying, so the guide does not have to speak loudly over the crowds. In fact you have the freedom to wander around while listening to your guide explain the history and details about the place or site you’re visiting. As long as you keep your guide in-sight as he holds up his Viking River Cruises flag, you’re never lost.
The Great Wall of China
Wow, the Great Wall is a spectacular sight to see first-hand. You can read about it and see pictures, but to actually walk on the Great Wall is truly a remarkable experience considering how old and how long this structure is. From the entrance to the best-preserved sections of the amazing Great Wall in the Badaling Hills, you have a choice to either walk up to the eastern direction (the right) or to the western direction (on the left) the latter direction being the most difficult. My wife and I chose to take the more challenging route on the left because we were told the views were better, and I could get better pictures. Both my wife and I carry a little more weight than we should so we were both concerned that this tough walk and climb was going to be too much for us. I think the adrenaline-rush we experienced as we were finally standing on such a monumental staple of China, and one of the wonders of the world, kept us going and we were victorious in reaching the top. It was no easy climb, that’s for sure, and both my wife and I were beat. It’s a good thing we brought oxygenated water and our favorite energy drink to give us the endurance and boost of energy we needed to make our way to the top. The views were indeed spectacular! The steps on the Great Wall are somewhat irregular, so it was a good thing they had solid handrails built in. If I were to offer any criticism of this particular tour that Viking River Cruises coordinated, I would suggest they allow more time to wander and enjoy the Great Wall. After our visit to the Great Wall we also stopped at the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs and the place where the 2008 Olympics were held, so needless to say, it was a long day of walking and climbing and sightseeing.
The Terra Cotta Army Museum
I was particularly fascinated by the Terra Cotta Army Museum in Xian, pronounced (She-Hon). Again, the tour seemed to move a lot faster than I would have liked. I was always way behind the group because I was taking pictures and video. It was a sobering experience entering the first giant building constructed over the archeological dig pits and seeing hundreds and hundreds of these Terra Cotta Warriors standing at attention for over 2,000 years! We learned how these clay warriors were created for Emperor Qin Shi Huang while he was still a boy. It’s overwhelming to think that this clay army and thousands of other items were buried in chambers to honor one man, this Emperor, and to imagine the many years men and women must have labored to create such a vast array of items. We also learned from new aerial photos that over 600 additional burial plots are now known to exist around this area with countless items yet to be dug up and discovered. I was surprised to learn that the actual Emperor’s tomb has not been dug-up, so there much be a vast collection of amazing riches still buried. The Chinese government has decided not to excavate the Emperor’s tomb, however; if tomb-robbers were to ever figure out a way in to the tomb, only then would the government step-in to protect the area. The Emperor’s tomb lays within a large man-made mountain, overlooking the area where the Terra Cotta Army was buried. Sounds like a job for Indiana Jones if you ask me.
The Three Gorges Dam
It truly is a monumental achievement for the Chinese government to construct the world’s largest dam, and we had the opportunity to not only see this massive dam but to actually pass through the locks aboard the Viking Century Sun. I was amazed to watch as we went into the locks and saw our vessel lowered down to the next lock chamber. Both my wife and I had to go to bed however, because we traversed the locks at around 10:30pm and we were very tired. We did stay up to watch us go through the first lock which was fascinating. The next day we got on the Dam bus to go on the Dam tour, but first we had to go through the Dam security which was very thorough. Our Dam guide explained how the Dam was constructed and the purpose of the Dam, which was actually to help prevent flooding on the Yangtze, to generate hydro-power and to simply offer a better life for the Chinese people. It would be pretty difficult for anyone to not be impressed by this gigantic human achievement. Furthermore, it was impressive to learn that the Chinese government relocated millions of Chinese people along the Yangtze River in order to allow for the Yangtze River-level to rise up to about 175 meters above sea-level. So there are whole cities now underwater, and the local people were given new condominiums to live in on higher ground. It was very evident to see the massive construction of new condominiums all along the river. Massive bridges were also being constructed all along the Yangtze River. The planning, the infrastructure that went into all the construction related to the Three Gorges Dam and the efforts to relocate millions along the river is staggering to say the least. There is one thing I can say for certain, and that is the Chinese people are very industrious, in fact we discovered that the state bird is the crane, because there were massive cranes on building-sites everywhere. We also learned there are over 400 MILLION people who live along the Yangtze River alone in China! That population is more than the entire number of people in the United States. China has a population of over one Billion people, and this fact became clear to us when we saw the masses everywhere.
Operas and Museums
We were treated like important dignitaries everywhere we went, and our guides always secured the best seats in the house, whenever we attended an opera, concert, or special production. In Beijing we saw the famous Peking Opera. In Xian we enjoyed the Tang Dynasty Dinner & Show, which was very colorful and well produced. Finally in Shanghai we saw an incredible Acrobat show, and I am still amazed at the flexibility and balance these performers had. We also visited a number of temples, gardens and museums, one of which peaked my interest. In Wuhan we visited a museum that contained amazing artifacts from a wealthy man who lived over 2,400 years ago. This man had buried with him, a large, ancient, musical instrument that could still carry a tune. This device was built with many bells large and small, and it was incredible to learn that this ancient musical instrument survived being buried for thousands of years, and over a thousand years under water. I still struggle with the idea that this artifact did not corrode away, and yet it seemed to be in pristine condition. I thought it was amazing when I heard the whistle from the Titanic, having been at the bottom of the Atlantic for over 80 years, blown one time in St Paul, Minnesota. But to hear the sound from these ancient bells buried for over two thousand four hundred years…that was truly awe-inspiring.
If you embark on a trip to China be sure you go with a company that has a guide or tour escort that is there to watch over and take care of your every move. Our guide’s name was Daniel, and he was very nurturing for us foreigners, and as mentioned before, he checked us into our hotel rooms, he acquired our intra-China airline tickets, and took care of all our transfers flawlessly. We were in a completely foreign country, none of us spoke the language, so it would have been a huge challenge to navigate around China like we did without someone there to escort us everywhere we went. Our guide even knew which restrooms (happy rooms) was the best choice throughout our journeys. The Chinese refer to bathrooms or toilets as “Happy Rooms”, because after you use the bathroom you feel happy. This was a funny ongoing term to hear throughout the trip. The same guide who met us at the airport in Beijing when we first arrived, was also there for us when we finally departed back to the States out of Shanghai. Our guide also did his best to explain the culture of China, he was entertaining and informative, and being a local himself, he was able to express the intricacies of his culture in a way we could understand. I know some of the guides had to deal with passengers / individuals who were rather high-maintenance to put it as politically correct as I can. Thankfully, our group of 20 or so was not high-maintenance, and was a decent group of people. So my hat goes off to Viking River Cruises for selecting the best, most knowledgeable guides they could find.
For my wife and I, this amazing journey to China was a once-in-a-lifetime experience we will treasure, and thankfully, the entire trip went without any major issues or problems. On the flight from Chicago to Beijing, I did go through a little pain as I passed a kidney stone during the last three hours before arriving into Beijing, and my wife had a little stomach issue early in the trip, but for the most part, we stayed healthy, and thoroughly enjoyed the adventure. Of course we took extra precautions with supplementation, which I think was the reason we stayed healthy. We took the best possible vitamin supplementation, and Glucosamine for our joint health, as well as Echinacea and a special powdered supplement called IntestiFlora to boost our digestive immune system. We also took a potent and pure supplement called Omega 3, which gave us better blood circulation. While a few others experienced colds at the end of the trip, my wife and I stayed healthy.
Would I recommend a trip to China with Viking River Cruises? Absolutely! Let me give you some tips if you are considering a cruisetour of China. First, be sure to book your trip with Viking River Cruises or tell your travel agent to book you with Viking River Cruises. Secondly, be prepared to do some walking, you might even want to get on the treadmill or do some pre-trip exercises to get in shape. Bring a decent camera, and perhaps even take a photography class so that you can capture the best possible photos from your trip. Consider high-quality supplementation during your trip to avoid or prevent potential sickness. The last thing you want is to be sick while climbing the Great Wall of China or exploring the Forbidden City. Leave some room in your suitcase or bring an additional suitcase for souvenirs, because you’ll want to bring home some interesting treasures. Our trip was in August and the temperatures in China were hot and humid, however, if you want to avoid the heat and humidity, try booking your China trip for October or November. Be prepared to be wowed and amazed by the masses in China, and with the masses come an incredible level of traffic. Before we experienced China and Yangtze River, our initial expectations were that we would see a lot of rural areas with rice fields and farmers, but the complete opposite is what we saw. China has a massive build-up of infrastructure, with massive bridges and vast colonies of tall condominiums and high-rises everywhere. I guess the high-rises should be expected with over One Billion people living in China. One thing is for certain if you plan your trip to China with Viking River Cruises, you will come to appreciate the ancient and fascinating culture of China, and return home with a unique perspective of this great country.