Eastern promises: exploring China with Viking

china

Cruise virgin Joe Mofrad joins agents on a Viking River Cruises FAM trip down China’s majestic Yangtze – and takes in Beijing and Shanghai at either end


It was only in the late 1980s that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s reformist policies broke down the country’s heavy protectionist attitude and allowed travellers to begin visiting modern China. But, while China became easier to enter, it didn’t make it any easier to explore. Travelling through the world’s most populous country is a bit like traversing a small continent. No one corner is any less interesting than the other.

To see the Great Wall or Tiananmen Square, you must base yourself near the coast in Beijing. To glimpse the glittering neon Pudong at night, you must be over a thousand kilometres south in Shanghai. And if you have any hopes of ever viewing the eerie legion of the Terra Cotta soldiers, or the welcoming towns and picturesque gorges of the Yangtze, then you need to be another thousand kilometres in two different directions. So, how do you do it? Constant flights? Long-distance trains?

Well, there is a third option – namely, bookending a river cruise with stays on land. Having been lucky enough to spend two weeks of our summer there – on Viking River Cruises’ Imperial Jewels of China adventure – we can assure you it’s the best one. A few flights and five days of luxury cruising took us to all of those places and more.

The cruise is still a fairly new route, with a city break on either end. In those two weeks, we explored China’s gems, from cities to ports, up the mighty Yangtze, taking in the pagodas, temples and wildlife along the way, and, of course the breathtaking Lesser Three Gorges. Finally, our journey concluded in the hub of Shanghai. But it all began, almost chronologically, in the centre of old Beijing.

Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City were our first stops. Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum stands at one end, where his refrigerated casket rises twice per day for a few hours, so visitors can pay their respects (it’s a common joke among the locals that even in death, Mao manages to rack up four hours work, six days a week). On either side of the square is flanked by two enormous 1950s-style communist buildings (The Great Hall of the People and the China National Museum). It is all wonderfully contrasted at the far end of the square where the majestic main gate sits, a monolithic artefact from the Ming Dynasty era.

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Another historical monument came through our day at the Great Wall. The Badaling section, chosen by our Viking tour guide, is stunning but also rare. The Great Wall was once thousands and thousands of miles long, but now much of it is in a ruined state, only worsening as time and tourism takes its toll. The opportunity to see this wonder in all its glory is slowly slipping away.

But it’s our time in the city that still sticks in the memory. Beijing has become a throbbing cityscape over this last decade. The shimmering and futuristic modernisation that came with the push for the 2008 Olympics has calmed, and in the time since, the city has grown into its new face. Futuristic skyscrapers like the arched CCTV building now pierce the horizon, while on ground level, little pockets of traditional Chinese culture are everywhere, as street vendors attempt to sketch your likeness on porcelain plates, old men wander with kites, and real Beijinger’s zip past on scooters, aviators on and white shirts unbuttoned.

Throughout our tour with Viking, we expected the world famous landmarks, like the Great Wall or the Terra Cotta soldiers to be our highlights, yet day after day, it was the more off-kilter and unexpected adventures that would stand out as the most enthralling. In Beijing, this surprise detour was in the Hutongs. 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, that business usually included slamming down cards during particularly animated rounds of mahjongg, plonking wooden stools on the ground for a chat, or zipping through the alleys on rickshaws, selling lifts, eggs, fruit, or even cold beers. The juxtaposition of this atmosphere with the modern urban side of Beijing is what makes the Chinese capital one of the most fascinating places to visit on earth, whether you feel more at home in 2015 or 1415.

For many tourists looking to spend time in a Chinese city, it always comes down to the golden two: Beijing and Shanghai. Our time in the latter proved another city of remarkable contrast: as our Viking tour led us past exalted European architecture, Parisian streets and quaint French parks, and buildings that could be town halls lifted straight from Liverpool or Manchester. In the Old City, things are quintessential China: the narrow alleyways, winged roofs, deep red wood, and clear decorative windows. But, to our surprise, our most memorable city experience of the tour was neither there, nor in Beijing. It was deep in the Shaanxi Province, in the ancient capital of Xi’an. And, if you like your history and your culture, then this is the place for you.

Xi’an is, without doubt, 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, merchants, 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 and Rome.

Understandably, modern Xi’an is packed with historic landmarks, and our Viking tour guide wasted no time in pointing out the traditional Drum Tower and Bell Towers, the Great Mosque and countless pagodas. At night the city had a cosmic glow as its thick, nine-mile city wall became illuminated, and main roads were swamped by tables, chairs and smiling faces as rogue bars and restaurants popped out of nowhere to serve anything from noodles to barbecued toad or shots of firewater. During the days, we left the city to visit the surrounding attractions, such as the 2,200-year-old clay army, the Terra Cotta soldiers, an enduringly fascinating eighth wonder of the world. And then at night, we returned to the city, for Tang Dynasty feasts, with music, dancing and free-flowing rice wine.

Of course, with all this city trekking, one starts to day dream a little about some peace and quiet. And that’s where Viking’s expert planning comes in because, in what feels like no time at all, you find yourself on its beautiful Viking Emerald, sailing up the Yangtze for five blissful days. The ship spans six floors, and almost every part could be accessed via the marble floors of the main atrium, where crystal chandeliers hang. The sixth floor boasted the lively Emerald Bar where cocktails and live music could be found each night, as well as a gym if you felt a little more proactive. There was a coffee station, internet cafe and lounge bar on the fifth, and we attended at least three tea ceremonies, usually by chance. In fact, each level of the ship had its own little slice of Chinese culture, from pearl stands to traditional tailors, and even local artists, who were usually mid-painting whenever we passed.

Our days on the ship were idyllic. Waking up early each morning to see rusted fishing boats appear and disappear into the thick fog, before the sun would fully rise and dissipate the mist, became a highlight.

One day, we docked at a small river town called Shibaozhai, and toured around its beautiful 12-storey temple, which clings to the side of a 721 ft high cliff, and homes the biggest bansai tree in the world.

Another day was spent viewing the Three Gorges, one of the most anticipated sights on the cruise. Sheer limestone ridges rose on either side of the ship, naturally rich and vivid through erosion, so that if you gaze for too long, it’s like faces and beasts are leaping right at you. Our ship docked at a little town called Wushan on the confluence between the Yangtze and the much narrower Daning River, and we disembarked to explore the area on much smaller wooden boats called sampans. 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 comprehend.

If we learned anything during our two weeks, it’s that China is a vast and diverse country that goes way beyond expectation. Shanghai alone boasts a population of 24 million. It’s also an old country, with a history that stretches back over 20 dynasties. You can’t really dip your toes into a nation like this. To feel like you’ve had any sort of Chinese experience, you need to explore the cities, but then you also need to sail the Yangtze and climb the pagodas. You need to see Shanghai’s Bund at night, but equally you must see Xi’an’s mighty city wall in the day. And how is one supposed to decide between the Terra Cotta soldiers and the Great Wall if a decision needs to be made?

It’s for all those reasons, that this action packed Viking trip is worth every penny. The only way to see China like this would probably be via constant trains and flights, or even backpacking, but the logistics and travel time that would go into a trip like that do not bear thinking about. This river cruise, with its city breaks, and micro-adventures in between, is one of the most all-encompassing package explorations you can find, in one of the most intriguing countries on earth.

They say when it comes to choosing cruises, you will automatically find yourself picking between either a great ship, or a great destination. But reflecting on 13 days with Viking, some spent tanning on the top deck, some spent dining in the restaurant, others spent climbing some of the world’s great wonders or glimpsing electric cityscapes at night, we can say this is a trip that truly unites both.

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The Three Gorges

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