Cruise Adviser’s Joe Mofrad is currently 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 three and four – the road to Shaanxi
Today is our final day in Beijing on Viking’s Imperial Jewels of China river cruise. Cruising is the one thing we haven’t done much of yet because this two-week adventure starts and ends with eye-opening city breaks – and these first four days have been spent exploring the quite awesome history of China’s burgeoning capital. This morning we’ll make our final stop at the Hutongs before leaving for our next chapter in the city of Xi’an.
Of the many stops on our itinerary, the Hutongs really piqued our interests. These narrow, ancient alleys, have managed to prevail as traditional Chinese neighbourhoods, tucked away in the untouched corners of old Beijing. Each day they thrum with locals, going about their daily business. From what we saw, this business usually includes slamming down cards during particularly animated rounds of mah jongg, plonking wooden stools on the ground for a chat, or zipping through the alleys on rickshaws, selling lifts, eggs, fruit, or even cold beers. Life feels slower and more organic in the hutongs, and it’s relaxing to lean into atmosphere.
At one point, you’d find settlements just like this one all over the city. Their concept came in with the Mongol invasion, after Genghis Khan destroyed Beijing and decided to rebuild it differently, and these tight residential alleys were a big part of his vision. Unfortunately, the hyper modernisation of Beijing has come with its side effects, and many of Hutongs have slipped into extinction. One particular set of alleys in the western district of Xuanwu was a staggering 900 years old, but in 2009 it was demolished.
The one we’re visiting is now protected from developers and, thanks to preparations made by our Viking tour guide, we don’t just get to see the street side of hutong life, we’re even given the opportunity to visit a family in their own home. A friendly middle-aged woman welcomes us in at the door; her fluffy Maltese, below, fidgets for a pat, then falls into a satisfied coma when we oblige. Her daughter is an artist, and shows us some of her handcrafted snuff bottles, which she painstakingly decorates with a raccoon hair paintbrush and feature elegant depictions of old Chinese life. It’s a tiny but cosy flat, with a bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room that all open onto each other, and it doesn’t take long for the smell of oolong tea to waft through.
One visitor asks if she ever feels unsafe in the Hutongs at night? “Not really,” she laughs, “the chief of our local police lives next door,” pointing through the wall. It’s indicative of the infectious village feel around here. The homes are laid out courtyard style, the bathrooms are communal buildings in the street, and everyone knows everyone, nodding glances as they pass. This is Beijing on a micro scale, and it’s a refreshing respite from the skyscrapers that loom less than a mile away. We finish our morning with a traditional Chinese tea ceremony around the corner, then set off for the short flight onto our next destination: the ancient capital of Xi’an.
Xi’an must be the most deeply fascinating city in China. Now the modern capital of the Shaanxi province, its history stretches back more than 4,000 years, and it served as a capital to 11 different dynasties. The most famous being its time as the epicentre of the opulent Tang Dynasty, when Xi’an became the eastern end of the Silk Road.
This location transformed the city into a bubbling melting pot of culture, as Muslims, mercants, Buddhists, travellers, Zoroastrians, Manicheans and more began to flood in. It’s no stretch to position the story of Xi’an as one of the most important in the history of civilisation, ranking it next to Athens, Rome and Cairo.
Understandably, modern Xi’an is packed with historic landmarks; the traditional Drum Tower and Bell Towers, the Great Mosque and countless pagodas. At night the place has a cosmic glow as its thick, nine-mile city wall is illuminated, and main roads become swamped by tables, chairs and smiling faces as the rogue bars and restaurants pop out of nowhere to serving anything from barbecued toad to shots of firewater.
We start our first full day here by venturing twenty miles east to Ling Tong, to see the eighth wonder of the world: the Terracotta Army. Discovered randomly in the 1970s by farmers digging a well, the life size model soldiers are a relic of paranoia left by the dilligent yet despotic Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who first unified China over 2,200 years ago. He crafted this fearsome clay army to stand by his tomb, and protect him in the afterlife from the many enemies he’d made over time. Even now, seeing these thousands of warriors and warhorses, stood in battle formation in their excavated pits, is an unnerving sight. It’s not a stretch to imagine how much more terrifying they would have looked in 210 BC.
That night, we attend one of Viking’s additional optional activities for the night: a Tang Dynasty dinner and show, which includes five courses and free-flowing rice wine. It’s a well rounded way to conclude our last night in Xi’an, as the frenetic yet graceful dancing, vibrant traditional costumes and stirring live music perfectly encapsulate the Tang Dynasty era made Xi’an such a technicolour metropolis.
Tomorrow, we fly to the port city of Chongqing, where we’ll join our Viking river cruise and begin our journey down the Yangtze River.