Viking Cruise Line
Viking Century Star by Bud Lockwood China September 17, 2004
With the Viking Century Star ship, its excellent staff, and superb tour escorts and guides as an operating base, we saw and experienced China's man-made and natural wonders, famous places and vibrant cities. The itinerary was a 12-day travel experience, including seven days on the Century Star and five in very nice hotels in Shanghai, Xian and Beijing. It took two additional days to get there and back home.
The Viking Century Star may be the biggest and best river cruise ship on the Yangtze. We saw no rivals among the many ships we met. It is less than a year old and appointed with comfortable and elegant dining, observation and lounge areas. The cabins, all with small balconies, were very nice. HINT: Book a category AX or CX to get extra storage space, which is limited in some rooms.
The hotels were very, very nice. The Westin Shanghai was easily a five-star hotel as was the Hyatt in Xian. The Beijing Hotel wasn't quite five-star but still very nice and centrally located. All are western-oriented with familiar amenities. Money exchange is easily done in the hotels although local currency is not needed in most tourist areas. HINT: You'll often get a discount for using dollars.
The on-board staff provided perhaps the best service we ever had on a cruise ship. They were pleasant, gregarious, responsive, proud of their jobs and eager to please. The Cruise Manager was actively involved in daily briefings and ship events, and gave a great lecture on Chinese history.
The tour escorts/guides were with us from the time we entered the arrivals hall in Shanghai's airport until we passed through Immigration exiting China in Beijing. They made us feel safe and cared for from morning to night. Viking assigns about 30 passengers to each guide, and each group has the same guide for the entire trip. Our guide, Tina, was an experienced arranger/problem solver and very knowledgeable about Chinese customs and history. She doubled as a local guide in Beijing. Local guides complemented the tour guides at most stops. All spoke understandable English.
HINT: Tipping is a little different on the river cruise. The ship's staff and tour guides are tipped separately. Tips for local guides and bus drivers are a daily affair (the drivers and guides really earn the tips and are very appreciative.) The guidelines provided in the Viking materials work well and the local staffs do not provide reminders.
Three man-made wonders top the list: The Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Army, and the Three Gorges Dam. A fourth, the construction of entire new cities to accommodate people and businesses relocated because of the new dam's reservoir, was also pretty impressive.
The Great Wall is staggering in scope. We climbed the wall at Badaling, where a tourist center with shops serves the tourists' needs. A nice touch was a group photo and a certificate verifying that we climbed the wall, all in a nice book of Great Wall pictures. HINT: There are lots of photo opportunities here.
The Terra Cotta Army, a recently (1974) discovered collection of life-sized sculptures of soldiers, horses, chariots and equipment, is unbelievable. Three excavation pits, all in a huge covered museum, include thousands of uncovered statues with thousands more waiting to be unearthed. The museum also has a 360 degree theater with a movie showing how the sculptures were made and subsequently destroyed. HINT: Flash photos are difficult, so know how to use ambient light for best results. The place is huge!
The Three Gorges Dam is one of the modern engineering marvels of the world. It will be the world's largest dam (it may be already). The water level will rise more than 500 feet when it is completed; the reservoir above the dam is already more than 400 feet above the Yangtze. Complementing the dam construction is a project to build new cities above the dam, each with multi-story apartment buildings, modern streets and businesses. The contrast between the new cities and the old cities is a wonder to behold. "Before the water came" is a common expression among the Chinese above the Dam. HINT: Take the city tour at Fengdu to get a close-up experience of the new city. We toured a school, market and shopping center as well as the city center.
Construction in China is startling. Construction cranes are everywhere to build, enlarge and modernize. Airports, already nice, are being enlarged, and multi-story apartment buildings are going up in all the cities.
The Yangtze River and the River Gorges are major natural wonders, providing great photo opportunities. The river flows past terraced farms, bamboo stands, grazing water buffalo, and fishermen on the shore with Chinese dip nets. On the river you'll see barges filled with all kinds of materials (especially coal), sampans piloted by local residents, and river cruise ships.
The Gorges include the Three River Gorges and the Lesser Gorges, all rising steeply from the river, covered with mists and providing spectacular scenery. Viking will take you on a special ride aboard a smaller vessel up the Daning River through the Lesser Gorges, highlighted by a picnic lunch at a special setting. HINT: Don't be fooled by "Lesser." These gorges are big. We also saw "hanging coffins" -- burial coffins for ancient people high up on the gorge cliffs as well as monkeys feeding along the river banks.
The itinerary included places we have all read and heard about -- Tiananmen Square, Ming Tombs, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and Shanghai's Bund. Tiananmen Square is a centerpiece with its entry gate, Mao Tomb and entrance to the Forbidden City. We were fortunate to be there just before a major holiday so it was decked out with flowers, a space exhibit and a tribute to Dr. Sun Yat Sen. The square is surrounded by large government buildings. People still stand in long lines to visit Mao's Tomb, a large building with sculptures along the front.
The Forbidden City, with 9,999 ½ rooms, is very large. It includes palaces, gardens, walkways, sculptures and classic Chinese "pagoda" type architecture. HINT: The palaces are not like European palaces with ornate interior furnishings and most don't have interior tours.
The Ming Tombs are a set of impressive buildings and sculptures, highlighted by a long walkway with numerous statues along the way.
The Summer Palace, along Kunming Lake, is a picturesque setting with a long covered walkway highlighted by paintings on every beam. The marble boat is located at the end, and we cruised the lake on a "Dragon" boat at the end of the tour.
HINTS: Have your camera. You'' find lots of opportunities for famous place photos as well as people photos along the way. Be prepared to walk a long way.
We were surprised by the cities! They are very big, with modern centers and neighborhoods. They are very active at night with lots of colored lights, clubs, streets full of people and vehicles. People seem to stay up late to enjoy themselves. Restaurants were full. Shopping varied from neighborhood food stalls to high-fashion boutiques in the city centers. Each city had large shopping malls.
Chongqing, with 30 million people, is the largest city. Shanghai seems to be recognized as the most modern, highlighted by the Bund, although Old Shanghai was a real treat for its shops and restaurants. Xian may be the liveliest, with action still strong after 11 p.m. Beijing is a capital city. Each of the cities was a project under construction with buildings going up, airports being enlarged, and modern highways to accommodate vehicles from buses to bicycles. Traffic is a huge problem in all the cities, with traffic jams like we have never seen. We were constantly amazed by the driving of the buses and taxis with what seemed to be no rules. One-way traffic and left-turn lanes appeared to have little meaning. (The bus drivers really earned their tips). Every drive was exciting. Smog is a problem.
We felt safe everywhere we ventured. We were warned about pickpockets frequently but there was not one instance of anyone having a problem. Several members of our tour, including us, headed out alone in the cities.
Every day brought pleasant surprises and memorable experiences. China Air and China Southern Airlines flying from modern terminals were pleasant surprises. Each flew Boeing aircraft. Pandas at the Chongqing Zoo were a real treat. The Tang Dynasty Dinner Show in Xian was a colorful experience. HINT: Don't miss this one and take your camera.
The Peking Opera was a disappointment until the last act, which was worth the wait. We also drove along Tiananmen Square after the opera, which is spectacular at night, with lots of lights and thousands of people on the square
Fengdu with its 240 steps from the ship to the city was a visual treat and a physical challenge. We visited a school with a 49:1 teacher/student ratio and had fun. The Fengdu city market with live fowl, cooked food and fresh vegetables was a memorable experience.
The Joseph Stillwell Museum with its WW II Flying Tiger emphasis was a memorable experience. The Chinese are still grateful for the help Stillwell led during the war. HINT: A Flying Tiger T-shirt from Chongqing is a collector's item.
Chinese buffets at city restaurants, the Peking Duck farewell dinner, and Chinese dinners on the ship, all including multiple courses of familiar and new dishes, were pleasant surprises. For beer drinkers, having local beer as an included dinner choice was a treat. Food choices at every meal, including western type food for most meals on the ship, were very good. Each day started with a large choice breakfast buffet, both on the ship and in the hotels.
The Shibaozhai temple with hundreds of vendors around the base was a photo treat. Vendors appeared at nearly every stop selling hats, books, postcards, watches and local souvenirs at good prices. HINT: Bargaining is expected and prices are reasonable. My Beijing 2008 Olympics hat cost $1.
Special tours including a silk rug factory and jade factory were pleasant surprises. Hundreds of silk rugs were on display and for sale as was a large variety of jade. The quality of the rugs and jewelry was excellent. We also visited a pearl factory.
Perhaps most memorable were the people and the contrasts between traditional and modern China. Every street seemed to have special scenes: vendors, people on bicycles next to people driving BMWs and Mercedes, colorful dress from modern stylish to elegant Chinese kimonos. Along the roads we saw pushcarts, tractors with carts, farm produce vendors and open-air markets. Farmers working their terraced farms along the hillsides and fishermen netting fish from the Yangtze riverbank rounded out the experiences.
Don't pass up a chance to visit China if you want a great time filled with new sights and sounds. The organized Viking River cruise and land tour called the Imperial Treasures of China provided the experiences.