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.
Day one – Beijing
It’s tempting, as the plane finally descends after our nine-hour journey into Asia, to snap a photo of the candy pink sun that’s now rising past the airplane window. But when you’re on a Far East adventure, there will be plenty of opportunities to capture such beauty. We are here, in Beijing, ready to begin one of Viking’s most exotic and in-demand river cruises: the Imperial Jewels of China tour.
Flying that far across the globe was always going to result in a little jet lag. So, it’s no surprise when we wake like a lightning bolt at 5am on the morning of the first day. It’s no real problem, though: the Kerry Hotel (one of the three five-star accommodations used by Viking for this trip) has a 24-hour gym and breakfast starts at 6am. There is never really a lonely hour for the early bird. We feast on the delights of the breakfast bar – watermelon juice, dragon fruit and freshly steamed pork breakfast buns – before walking out into the Beijing sunshine.
Our time with Viking will last 14 days, beginning here in Beijing, before flying to one of China’s ancient capitals Xi’an and on to the port of Chongqing, where we’ll set sail up the Yangtze River, taking in the pagodas, temples, and wildlife along the way, and, of course the breathtaking Lesser 3 Gorges. Finally, our journey will conclude with a few days in the entrepreneurial hub of Shanghai. But we begin day one almost chronologically, in the centre of old Beijing, at the very heart of the concentric rings that make up the city’s swirling layout. We are standing in the gargantuan Tiananmen Square.
Once revered as the political and spiritual centre of the Chinese universe, The Forbidden City is a unique hub of history
The square, which can hold up to a million people, is an incredible sight to behold; like a mosaic created from the most defining moments in Chinese history. Before you’ve even entered the square proper, you’re faced by Zhengyang Men and Jian Lou, two beautifully crafted towers from the 1400s. They might now just be historical landmarks, but with their ominous shadows and arrow windows, it still feels like these ghosts guard the entrance to Beijing’s inner sanctum.
Once inside, each direction piques a different interest. 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 we’re flanked by two enormous 1950s-style communist buildings (The Great Hall of the People and the China National Museum), which is all wonderfully contrasted at the far end of Tiananmen Square where the majestic main gate sits, a monolithic artefact from the Ming Dynasty era.
It’s behind these very doors where we’ll find the mysterious Forbidden City, where you enter Ancient China.
Once revered as the political and spiritual centre of the Chinese universe, The Forbidden City is a unique hub of history. These palatial grounds housed emperors and the Chinese elite for almost 500 years, and it’s quite unbelievable that a site this vast, in the centre of one of the fastest growing supercities in the world, has managed to stay so tastefully preserved and unspoiled. Marble bridges sit atop tranquil moats, golden roofs adorned with dragons that rise into the sky and – if you look hard enough – you can see the affectionate principles of yin and yang in every structure.
Futuristic skyscrapers like the arched CCTV building pierce the horizon
Our tour guide regales us with stories of the many emperors that once inhabited these very grounds, like Empress Dowager Cixi who effectively commandeered the power of China and earned her nickname: the Dragon Lady. Or the imaginative Emperor Zhu Di whose mind first conceived the Forbidden City. It’s bizarre and enriching to know that the very bricks you walk upon as you venture through its carriageways are the same ones laid and stood upon by all of these near-mythical characters of the past.
We end the day with a buffet Chinese lunch at one of the city’s finest hotels, and reflect. Beijing in 2015 feels like a throbbing cityscape. The shimmering and futuristic modernisation that came with the push for the 2008 Olympics seems to have calmed, and in the time since, this place has grown into its new face. Futuristic skyscrapers like the arched CCTV building pierce the horizon, while on ground level, little pockets of traditional Chinese culture are still pleasingly visible, 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.
But today’s experience showed that it’s when you juxtapose all of that modern Beijing with the historic preservation of its inner sanctums – like Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City – that the Chinese capital truly unveils itself as one of the most fascinating places on earth, whether you feel more at home in 2015 or 1415.
Tomorrow, we visit the Great Wall…