Cruise Adviser’s Joe Mofrad is currently on a FAM trip with agents on Viking River Cruises’ Imperial Jewels of China cruise. He’ll be sharing his thoughts and experiences over the 13-day trip in this online diary.
Days six, seven and eight
It’s day six of Viking’s Imperial Jewels of China adventure, and so far we’ve traversed The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, Tianenmen Square, downtown Beijing, and the ancient capital of Xi’an, as well as taking in Tang Dynasty shows and the world famous Terra Cotta soldiers. It’s been an enlightening first five days, in which we’ve managed to piece together a story of China’s rich history. But it’s time to take a break from the city pace, and today, we touch down in the South West city of Chongqing, where we’ll board our river cruise ship: the Viking Emerald.
The vessel awaits us as we arrive at the wharf district of Chaotian Men, and we get our first proper view of the mighty Yangtze river, a vast yellow motorway pushing fast through the muddy banks of Chongqing. Our crew welcome us aboard the ship, where we’ll be part of 240 passengers to be served by a staggering 120 staff. It’s immediately apparent that the service is going to be flawless.
The ship stays docked for a large part of the evening, and we spend it acquainting ourselves with its features. It spans six floors, and almost every part can be accessed via the marble floors and crystal chandeliers of the main atrium. The sixth floor boasts the lively Emerald Bar where cocktails and live music will feature each night, as well as a gym. A coffee station, internet cafe and lounge bar can be found on the fifth, and daily tea ceremonies can be attended, hosted by a local expert. In fact, each level has its own little slice of Chinese culture, from pearl stands to traditional tailors, and even local artists, who are usually mid-painting as you pass.
Darkness falls by the time we’re ready to leave Chongqing, so we venture to the sun deck to get a view of the city as we depart. Night time brings out the colours of the bustling and quickly modernising Chongqing. Shadows of skyscrapers become illuminated, and the decorated passing tourist boats with their neon dragons cast shimmering reflections onto the water: sharp reds, oranges, blues and greens. All this electricity glows through the haze that’s set over the city, resulting in an almost sci-fi scenery.
We wake on the seventh day to watch the sun rise from the balcony of our cabin. Urban Chongqing is well behind us now, and we’re sailing into the real landscapes of the Yangtze watershed. Rusted fishing boats appear and disappear into the thick fog, before the sun fully rises and dissipates the mist.
By the afternoon we arrive at Shibaozhai, a small river town shrouded in history. As we walk up the stone steps of the dock, it’s our first chance to get a grip of just how much the gigantic Three Gorges Dam has affected the banks of the Yangtze. Shibaozhai was once a small village, sat at the base of a beautiful 12-storey temple which clings to the side of a 721 foot high cliff, and homes the biggest bansai tree in the world. However, once the dam redefined Yangtze water levels, the river rose by 75 metres, and the village, which dated back to medieval times, was evacuated and submerged. The only thing that stopped the water from entering the lower levels of the temple was a huge dike.
Nevertheless, our local tour guide seems relatively positive about the impact. The village was relocated further up the bank, now more of a small town, and it homes a boosted population of 10,000. As we wander down the main street, the locals invite us to look at their merchant stands, and it’s much more gentle and easygoing than our previous experiences of this in Beijing and Xi’an. Children mimic bird song with the little toys they have for sale, and each table is packed with fat buddhas, Chinese crockery, Chairman Mao clocks, silk dresses, teapots and more.
Shibaozhai is a hot and humid place. So hot, that it’s common for the locals to take a half day when it rises about 40 degrees celsius. It’s not quite that today, and we continue our stroll to the temple, over a bridge dubbed “the drunken bridge” because of how it’s rickety wooden lats make you feel as you cross it. The temple, built as a Taoist temple in 1650, is a glorious piece of classic Chinese architecture made from mulberry wood, with pronounced curved roofing that could either be flower petals or birds wings, depending on your imaginative mood in the moment. The 12 floors are a challenging climb, and by the fifth floor a little Pekingese dog has seen enough and turns round to drag its owner back down the stairs.
The top is worth the struggle, and the views of the river below are unique for this region. Inside its peak, we find statues of the Jade Emperor, the god of gods, and basically China’s Zeus. Then, the Bridge of Heaven, a small stone crossing that guarantees access to heaven if you can cross it in three steps. Seems a pretty simple task for eternal admission into God’s own nirvana, so obviously everyone wants a go. We return to the ship for dinner, we’re treated to a speech and toast from our humble captain, Huang Xin Bin, before indulging in a five-course Chinese banquet of scallops, king prawns, stews, soups and much more.
On the eighth day, we approach the famous Three Gorges (pictured main), one of the most anticipated sights on the cruise section of this trip. Huge, humped hills teeming with trees and shrubs start to line our yellow water way, but soon that transforms into sheer limestone ridges. The ships engine quietens and we drift on the Yangtze’s current alone. These ridges have become so naturally rich and vivid through erosion, that if you gaze for too long, it’s like faces and beasts are leaping right at you. Aptly, the Chinese have named these geological aspects poetically, after the silhouettes they echo. Once you’ve seen the protruding rock formation known as ‘Rhinoceros Watching the Moon’, you just get it.
Our ship docks in the middle of the gorges, at a little town called Wushan on the confluence between the Yangtze and the much narrower Daning River. We disembark Viking Emerald to board much smaller wooden boats called sampans, each with a local driver and tour guide provided by Viking. The change in vessel, means we can set off on an adventure down the Daning into the cosy, aquatic corridors of the Lesser Three Gorges.
The river is low at this time of year, and you can see the mark where it can rise to in the winter, an intimidating 30 metres above our heads. The cliffs on either side of us quickly become golden colossal giants, and our guide points upwards to one particular wondrous sight. It’s Goddess Peak, and the geology resembles the silhouette of a reclining woman.
It would be naive to call this area of China untouched, because it has drawn visitors to its beauty for hundreds of years now. But it is certainly unspoiled, and the pure and sublime vision of witnessing it first hand is almost too mighty to genuinely compute.
This is China in its more epic natural form, and tomorrow, at the Three Gorges Dam, we’ll get to see China in it’s most epic manmade form. That contrast will probably probably be quite overwhelming. Our tour guide, a local girl born in these mountains, sings a delicate local song as our sampan slowly drifts back to the ship, and the Daning River disappears behind us until the serpentine Yangtze is our path once again.