Imperial Jewels of China Review
Journal of Viking Century Sky cruise and tour.
October 27th 2007
Day 1 and 2
My Mercedes picked me up in good time and the journey to Heathrow was most enjoyable – I read the paper and enjoyed the complimentary beverages, ensuring I arrived with the minimum of fuss. The chauffeur was courteous and polite and it’s a service I would definitely use again and recommend. Once checked in I used my The Luxury Cruise Company card and enjoyed the comfort of the Holideck Lounge at Heathrow Terminal 4 – far better than sitting on the uncomfortable chairs at the gate. In the lounge I had access to my emails, a TV, console games, beverages and snacks, even a quite area if I wanted to take a nap! Very relaxing.
After an 11-hour flight with BA that went quite quickly we arrived at PuDong airport in Shanghai.
The airport was clean, efficient and we soon sped through immigration and customs and collected our bags. The Viking rep named Bonnie met us and we transferred to the 5-Star St Regis Hotel. The hotel is located in the financial district, and our rooms were very spacious, with huge bathrooms including tub and separate shower. Plenty of plugs too, and the hotel provides 3-pin UK style adaptors. The electric current in China is the same as UK. In the afternoon and evening there are no organised tours – in hindsight I would recommend this time is spent exploring Old Shanghai if you want to as there is no opportunity later on in the trip. We went to visit the TV Tower and Mall, however the mist/smog came in so the view from the tower would not have been very good so we gave it a miss. Had an interesting Chinese lunch in the nearby mall. When we returned to the hotel we had dinner in one of the 4 restaurants – a much better decision! This hotel is away from the downtown/central area and whilst it is 5-star, the location could have been a bit closer to the city centre.
The next day we were up early for our tour. Our first stop was Yuyuan Garden – five acres of pavilions, water features and statues dating back to the Ming Dynasty set in Old Shanghai. Plenty of time here and our guide was very knowledgeable. She warned us of the ‘Hello People’, basically the hoards of vendors that descend on an emptying bus load of tourists, all trying to sell you their wares (tat, basically). I found just ignoring them worked well in getting rid of them! After the garden there was time for shopping and/or relaxing. Then back on the bus for lunch. We were taken to a silk painting workshop were they produce works of art by embroidering delicate silk treads into images and scenes – we had lunch here which was decidedly average – the chicken and sweetcorn soup was salty goo, and the other dishes were just OK – the rice was nice – have a big breakfast at the hotel!
After lunch we spent even more time looking at the embroidery whilst being persuaded to make a purchase – too much time spent here for my liking.
Then back on the bus and this time we went to Shanghai Museum. We had 90 minutes here which I thought was too long as the museum is not that large – but there are some nice gardens and parks surrounding the area which are great for a stroll, people watching and offer some nice views of new Shanghai. More ‘Hello People’ here with their array of kites, postcards and other ephemera. Then back on the bus to return to the hotel.
In the evening we were taken to restaurant that was better than lunch – all the dishes were very good with the exception being the duck, which was a mouthful of gristle, bone and skin, however there was a delicious potato and chicken curry, wonderful diced pork with Soya bean dish and a few others
After dinner we went to the Chinese acrobat show which was one of the highlights of the trip – absolutely incredible, jaw-dropping performances in a modern theatre – well worth doing.
After the show it was back on the bus to return to the hotel – we found an Irish bar over the road from the St Regis so it was a late night
Another early start and our last day in Shanghai as we now fly to Yichang to join the ship. We left our suitcases outside our rooms and they were collected by the bell boys. We would not see them again until our cabin onboard the Viking Century Sky! Another delicious breakfast then back on the bus – this time we were taken to a silk carpet-making factory. All very interesting, however not what I would choose to visit. We got here at about 9.15am – then had to wait around until 10.30 for lunch which was in the same venue as the carpet weaving. Mongolian BBQ if you please – a bit early at 10.30 but there you go. Basically you select the raw ingredients from a very good selection, take it to the chef who then cooks it for you. Some of our party did buy carpets but again I felt the time could have been spent better.
After the early lunch we were taken to the domestic airport for our China Express flight to Yichang – home of the Three Gorges Dam and where we join the ship.
The airport was clean and efficient – being in a group Bonnie our tour leader checked us all in and returned with our boarding cards so it was pretty painless – the airline assigns your seat so if you are travelling in couples you may not be seated together. The flight was fine – we had a meal box on board – a sweet filled dimsum, some dried peas, bread roll and your choice of drink from the trolley. It was fine and the flight attendants were very attentive. On arrival at Yichang we were met by our local guide and escorted to our bus for our transfer to the ship at Maoping – took about 90 minutes. Whilst on the bus she gave us a good commentary about the project and pointed out various highlights on the journey.
We arrived at the Viking Century Sky at about 5pm, it was very misty and damp now and we were happy to get onboard. The ships crew made us feel very welcome.
Dinner onboard was western food – thankfully! The Viking ships are the only ships on the Yangtze that have both Chinese and western kitchens and boy were we glad for western food! The meal was excellent and served by very attentive waiters and waitresses. After dinner we had time to explore the ship then off to bed.
The ship remained docked overnight and today was our visit to the Three Gorges Dam. A short bus ride and we arrived – however the weather was raining and was quite chilly. The ship provided plastic hooded ponchos – suggest you bring a lightweight waterproof jacket, mine was a blessing. On the journey to the dam, our guide filled us in about the displacement of the villages and gave us a history of the dam and the river. At the dam itself it was very interesting and there was a model of the dam and the area, which really gave you a fantastic overview of the whole project. Unfortunately the weather was so miserable, this stop could have been better but you cant change the weather! We had plenty of time here to explore and look at the dam, the ship elevator and the massive locks before boarding the bus to return to the ship for our lunch.
When we arrived back, the crew were there to greet us and made us feel very welcome. After lunch the ship set sail for scenic cruising along the longest of the Three Gorges – Xiling Gorge. It was still raining and the gorges were very misty, so visibility was limited – however it was still amazing to see the scenery pass by.
In the evening it was Captains Welcome Dinner – a sumptuous feast of Chinese food prepared by the 19 chefs onboard and designed by celebrity chef Martin Yan. Food on board the Viking Century Sky is of a very high standard and all meals delicious..
This morning the weather was not so misty but still a bit cloudy – our ship made its way along the Wu Gorge to dock at Wushan where we met the Viking Century Sun. We actually tied up next to her, and the process of docking next to the sister ship was very exciting. We had to walk through the other ship to get to the dock! There we transferred to a smaller ship, themed in the style of a pagoda, and off we went up the Daning River to the Lesser Three Gorges. The mists lifted and the sun came out making this trip really special – we cruised for about 90 minutes upstream and the on-board guide was very informative. The river has yet to reach its full height, and along the river bank there are markers that show the full 175 metres position the waters will reach when the final stage of the dam project is completed in 2009. We passed many buildings and houses that will be submerged over the next few years. Highlight of this trip were the hanging coffins of the Ba people and the sheer majesty of the beautiful cliffs and lush green mountains. Once back on board for lunch we set sail into Qutang Gorge. This spectacular gorge is the smallest and narrowest of the Three Gorges. Whilst cruising the cruise director gave us commentary pointing out the various sights along the river.
Fengdu. We docked early in the shadow of a giant head carved in the hillside overlooking the river. You have a choice of two excursions here – the Snow Jade Caves or a trip to the town and local market. I chose the market – and I was glad I did. A short bus rides takes you into the town centre, and there a group of locals entertain you with their singing and dancing – it was really good and nice to see some local flavour at last. A few of the group joined in with the dance and the locals really seemed to be enjoying themselves – lots of opportunity for photos here. We then were taken to the local food market - this was a real assault on all your senses. The smells of the bags of spices on sale, the noise as the Chinese went about there shopping and the sights of all sorts of weird and wonderful produce on sell could be a bit overwhelming. There were live fish for sale, puppies in cages, live chickens, geese, terrapins and finches all available to buy. There was a meat stall with cuts of meat just hung up in the open air and another fish stall that would scale and gut your fish right in front of you. This was a great place to visit and one of my cruise highlights. We felt safe here even though we were quite the centre of attention – needless to say I did not buy anything! A great place for photographs and an insight into how the locals live their lives. Then back on the ship for an afternoon sail – on our way to Chongqing.
We arrived here at 10.30pm after the crew put on a really good crew show. The city is lit up at night with bright searchlights penetrating the night sky and all the buildings are bathed in brightly coloured lights – a real spectacle.
Today we disembark the ship and fly to Xian. We left our luggage outside our cabin and would no see it again until our hotel in Xian! The seamless transfer of luggage on the Viking cruise was a credit to the company – certainly takes the hassle out of humping your luggage to airports. After breakfast we said farewell to the friends we had made on board and boarded the bus for our city tour and visit to Chongqing Zoo.
This city is a sprawling mass of construction – with apartment blocks being built literally as far as the eye could see. Chongqing has over 35 million residents and it shows! The pollution here was pretty bad – a yellow mist hung over everything. We arrived at the zoo and were shown around – particular interest were the Pandas who looked happy despite being locked up in their concrete cages – not exactly built to replicate their natural environment. After an hour at the zoo we were led to a silk painting workshop were lo and behold you could make a purchase! I decided to use the time to look around the rest of the zoo, and the landscaped gardens were nice and they had a few other animals in cages to look at. Then back on the bus for lunch at a local hotel, which was Ok, then off to the airport to fly to Xian.
We arrived at the modern airport with an hour to spare before the flight. Our luggage had arrived before us and was already checked in – we had to do nothing – which was great. The guide went off and got our boarding passes so all we had to do was wander through security to the gate – perfect! A short flight (1 hour 45 mins) and we arrived in Xian. Our hotel was the Shangri-La Golden Flower, and whilst not up to the standard of the St Regis, was still the best hotel in the area and a good 4 star plus. That evening we were taken to a Tang Dynasty Dinner and Show which was really very good – great food and entertainment! Then back to the hotel for a good nights rest.
This morning we left our luggage outside our room as it would be transferred to the airport and we joined the bus and Bonnie again for our trip to the Terra Cotta Army. This time we had a local guide called Allen, he gave us an informative talk on way to the site, and whilst we were there too. The Terra Cotta Army was a highlight of the trip for me – really spectacular and the sun came out too, casting bright sunbeams that penetrated the enclosed pits where the army stands. A real treat to see them and an absolutely fascinating stop. Plenty of time here to explore and take photos, then lunch and transfer to the airport. Again the luggage was sent on ahead and Chinas modern airports are a credit to the country (they are in the process of building another 47 airports!) and we breezed through to the gate and boarded the plane for our flight to Beijing.
After breakfast we joined the bus and off we went to the Badaling Hills for the Great Wall of China. Another lucky day weather wise, it was a bit hazy but nice and bright, a bit crisp like a nice Autumnal day back in the UK. We arrived at the wall and you can choose to go left or right. The left side is very steep, but not so crowded and the right side is less steep, and hence more popular. We chose the left side – we like a challenge. This was a very hard climb to the top, the path is very steep in places and even though there are steps, they are pretty high and unevenly spaced so if you have difficulty in walking or get vertigo then the other route may be better for you. The only thing that spoilt it a bit was the always-present vendors (known as Hello People) trying to sell you their tat – still they need to make a living I suppose. The views and sense of achievement at the top was astounding and another trip highlight for me. After making our way down we had a group photo taken which was presented in an excellent picture book of the Great Wall – all yours for just 100 Yuan! Plenty of times here then back on the bus for a visit to a Jade shop and lunch. After lunch we visited the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs – a long avenue lined with 18 pairs of massive stone sculptures of elephants, lions, camels and mythical beasts, ending with a grand marble gateway more than 400 years old. This was a lovely area and the hazy sun tried to break through the clouds – really relaxing after the Great Wall visit.
Then back on the bus to return to the hotel.
This morning we left the hotel and went to Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City. It was quite a grey, smoggy day so the visibility was not great. We got to the square and part of it was cordoned off as they were rehearsing for the Olympics, some nine months away! At 100 acres, Tiananmen Square is the world largest public square and was initially the ‘front door’ of the Forbidden City. Completed in 1420 the Forbidden City is the worlds largest palace complex, and was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing Dynasties where outside visitors were forbidden to enter for five centuries. A lot of it was under scaffolding as it was being renovated for the Olympics. This did not detract from then scale of the place and our guide Bonnie did an excellent job of keeping us informed of the use for the various rooms. There are allegedly nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine and a half rooms here! We didn’t see them all – thankfully! We were ushered out by guards for some reason – just in time for lunch. After lunch we visited the Summer Palace, the summer retreat and playground for the imperial family and royal court during the late Qing Dynasty. Considered one of the finest Chinese architectural gardens, the Summer Palace spans 700 acres – most of it taken up by a large lake.
After our time here it was back to the hotel for a rest and shower, then in the evening we experienced our farewell Peking Duck dinner and Peking Opera – needs to be seen to be believed.
An early checkout and transfer to the airport for the flight home
The pre-cruise and post-cruise hotels are all excellent and Viking do a splendid job in organising the transfers to and from the airports to hotels.
The tours are all very good too, however, I personally would have liked a few options on the tours, as I do not always want to spend a few hours in a forced shopping stop, so maybe a bit more free time would have been good, however that is a personal opinion and many people were happy with the shopping stops.
Also some of the restaurants used for lunches whilst on tour are not up to the standard of the hotels you stay in or the standard of the ship.
The guides on the tours were excellent and had a thorough knowledge of the area, history and culture of China.
The Viking Century Sky was as near perfect a cruise as you can get. The cabins were roomy and comfortable, the food excellent and the staff were a real credit to Viking. We cruised near the end of the season and all the Chinese staff and crew were still smiling – and they were genuinely nice and happy to engage in conversation. All around the ship the crew greeted you and the atmosphere on board was excellent. The service was unobtrusive and very speedy, in both the bars and restaurant.
Was really sad to leave the ship!
To see as much as we saw in the time we saw it would be impossible to do if you tried to organise this trip independently – it was a well oiled machine and Viking do an excellent job in China.
Written by Mr Mark Davis