When Thomas Wolfe wrote “You can’t go home again “ he obviously hadn’t been on a Viking River Cruise, because every time I travel with them (this was my 5th time) the whole Viking staff welcomes you back with great warmth and open arms, much like adoring parents. Granted “your home” might move from place to place but their genuine thoughtfulness and caring hospitality are a given.
When I boarded our Viking ship in Chongqing, for the cruise part of Vikings Roof of the World Cruisetour, I was enveloped in a big hug as a cheery voice cried out “Welcome back Janice, I’m so happy to have you on board again.” It turned out to be Enrico Schiappapietra, the General Manager of the boat, who had also been the GM on my Viking Mekong River Cruise, I was thrilled since not only is Enrico super fun and friendly, he also trains a top-notch crew!
China is a captivating country, harmoniously blending ancient culture with modern wonders. It’s mind-boggling that you can walk the city streets of Beijing, Xian and Shanghai, glittering under a landscape of neon signs reflected on towering glass and steel buildings housing world-class restaurants and designer boutiques and then, just one block over you’re magically time-machined back thousands of years, surrounded by burning incense, the soft chants of morning prayers and mouthwatering smells emanating from old, metal noodle pots bubbling away at the night market, hail a rickshaw rather than Uber.
China is a captivating country, harmoniously blending ancient culture with modern wonders.
Do The Numbers
Even though I had experienced this on other visits the incredible number of people living there never ceases to amaze me. At 3.7 million square miles (about the same size as the U.S.) it’s the 4th-largest country in the world, but with 1.3 billion people, making it the world’s most populated country. Shanghai, China’s biggest and richest city has almost 25 million people living there. The capital city of Beijing is continually expanding their transport systems even though they already have the world’s largest airport and the busiest subway system
Viking can also boast some pretty amazing numbers on their ROTW cruise tour. The 17 days are comprised of 18 guided excursions which include 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, stopping at 5 ports while cruising the Yangtze, plus 4 additional cities by land (where you’ll be staying in 5-star luxury hotels!) with 24/7 service provided by your guide. We scored the #1 best leader, John Liu, who has worked as a professional guide for almost 30 years. He spoke perfect English, was refreshingly honest with his answers regarding the political climate and problematic issues that China now faces, had incredible knowledge on everything China related, and was unbelievably patient and helpful.
For example, when I asked about an obscure dumpling spot I had read about, he took it upon himself to find out where it was, and gave me a card with the directions written on it in Chinese to hand to my rickshaw driver!
Our merry little band of travelers was made up of only a dozen people, ranging in age from their late 50’s to early 70’s, including three Drs, an oceanographer, a couple of teachers plus a cool retired “spy” who did something like participating in think tanks to prevent wars. We later hooked up with about another 100 people for the cruise portion.
My favorite highlights from our exotic itinerary:
I purposely arrived in Beijing early so I could sign up for a Lost Plate food adventure, the tastiest way to explore the REAL Beijing. This not-to-be- missed culinary tour deserves a place right up there with the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. The food was delish, and our tour guide, Ruixi, was full of historical, cultural and edible tidbits. We traveled by tuk-tuk down twisty hutongs (narrow alleys) to some seriously, off-the-beaten-track spots. We jumped off at a family’s home to sample their famous noodles, the only item on the menu, whose name translates to Master True Hot Dry Noodles! Other stops included a D.I.Y. Mongolian BBQ and an outdoor eatery where we concocted our own version of Chinese burritos from freshly made wafer-thin pancakes. Endless local beer was included as well as China’s famous (and highly potent) Baijiu alcohol.
The next morning, after hiding the bathroom scale, I took full advantage of the Regent Hotel’s humongous buffet breakfast, which included everything from dim sum to duck
Even though it was my third time visiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the largest ancient palace in the world, listening to John’s stories about the 24 Chinese emperors who had lived there, made it all come alive. We couldn’t visit all 9,999 rooms but I did search out the Gate of Heavenly Peace where the Emperor’s kept their concubines. For a fascinating look at the Forbidden City watch Viking’s video.
I was actually mesmerized by The Legend of Kung Fu, which proved to be an exciting, Broadway caliber stage production featuring China’s finest Kung Fu practitioners.
Although I didn’t think I’d be able to stay awake for the evening show, I was actually mesmerized by The Legend of Kung Fu, which proved to be an exciting, Broadway caliber stage production featuring China’s finest Kung Fu practitioners.
The next day we drove out to see an amazing UNESCO World Heritage site, the Great Wall. Snaking endlessly (well, not quite, but at least for somewhere between 3,000 and 13,000 miles depending on the source) around the countryside, we went to the most popular climbing spot, the Badaling Hills, where we could choose between the easier or steeper route.
Afterwards, we walked the serene avenue of the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs, marveling over the 18 pairs of gigantic animal sculptures that watch over the many emperors who are buried here.
For sheer fun, you can’t beat our rickshaw ride careening through the hutongs in the old residential neighborhoods where the locals still live much as they have for centuries. We stopped to visit a family of artists, including one young lady who was renown for her intricate inside-out snuff bottle painting. Back on our rickshaws to see the enormous bell at Bell and Drum Square before heading inside for a tea tasting experience.
Stock up on the fragrant jasmine tea, also known as “Office Tea” because it‘s good for easing eye strain while working on the computer.
Off to the airport to catch our flight to Xian. It was so lovely to have John and his assistants standing at the ready with a box lunch, our tickets in hand, busily checking in our luggage for us.
Xian, once one of the richest cities in the world and the capital of China for twelve dynasties, is now rather a nondescript, smoggy industrial city. However, it houses one of the world’s most famous archaeological finds: the subterranean eight thousand, life-sized Terra Cotta warriors (exquisitely sculpted with no two faces alike) horses and chariots buried with China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Almost as astonishing is a pair of bronze chariots and horses unearthed just 20m west of the tomb found in the modern Exhibition Hall.
Another not-to-be missed find is the massage spot recommended to me by the helpful concierge, just half a block from our Shangri-La Hotel. The fabulous, hour-long footie massage, conducted in a private room with my choice of music, tea, and fresh fruit plate, miraculously cost only $7. I highly recommend my girl, who goes by the name of #15.
Another short flight brings us to Lhasa, the spiritual heart of Tibet, which was barely recognizable since my last visit 20 years ago. Where there was once just a small town surrounding the Potala Palace, modern Lhasa now has miles of sprawling suburbs. But the Tibetan old town quarter, with its religious sites and flourishing market area, is still fascinating and a photographer’s dream spot.
The 1,300-year-old, golden-roofed Jokhang Temple, a sacred pilgrimage site, remains unchanged, filled with the distinct aroma of burning yak butter and the murmurs of Buddhist prayers by the traditionally dressed Tibetans as they do their kora, a devotional clockwise circumambulation around the temple while spinning prayer wheels or making full-body prostrations.
You’re bound to get lost in the Barkhor Market that surrounds the temple, but it’s not a problem. The labyrinth of alleyways is all jam-packed with small shops selling everything from monk clothing, yak butter cheese, Tibetan instruments, hand-painted thankas, and the best priced (if you’re good at bargaining) jewelry and souvenirs.
The iconic Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama, is a myriad of spiraling staircases, gold-filled tombs, vast prayer halls, and opulent rooms filled with painted frescos, Buddha statues, and priceless antiques.
The food in Lhasa is a unique blend of Tibetan, Chinese and Indian flavors. My fave meal was found, albeit not easily, by climbing some rickety stairs hidden in a courtyard behind a jewelry store, to the back of the Tibetan Family Kitchen, which serves the best momo’s (Tibetan dumplings) in town. If you sign up in advance, you can take a cooking class where you’ll learn how to make momos among other dishes.
When your Viking guide tells you to take it very easy the first day, LISTEN to him! Lhasa is 12,000 feet high and many people succumb to altitude sickness. I didn’t and the next I paid the price with a pounding headache, nausea, dizziness, all classic signs of altitude sickness. While the rest of my group enjoyed a traditional tea in a family home and visited the Sera Monastery to watch the red-robed monks take part in lively, hand-slapping debates, I spent the day in the medical room at our hotel.
When one mechanical, tinny-voiced, translation came back with “you are going to die” I made him call John, who replaced Google with a much better translation.
It was run by a very nice, non-English speaking doctor who did a hysterically funny intake by speaking Chinese into his phone and then holding it up to my ear for Google Translate to deliver his very broken-English question and then vice-versa for my answer. When one mechanical, tinny-voiced, translation came back with “you are going to die” I made him call John, who replaced Google with a much better translation. This resulted in me being stuck there for the whole afternoon having I.V. drips while sucking in air from an oxygen tank.
Cruising down the Yangtze on The Viking Emerald
We boarded our boat in Chongqing, which I thought would be some little village on the water’s edge but it turned out to be one of the world’s biggest port cities that no one has ever heard of.
I was a little disappointed when I saw the plain-Jane exterior of our boat, the 256-passenger Emerald, which is charted by Viking. However, upon boarding the boat, when we were greeted by a prancing red Chinese Dragon, chilled tea, and cool wet cloths, I let out a sigh of relief as I saw all the familiar Viking touches: sophisticated floral arrangements, a dramatic glass lobby, roomy sundeck with plenty of shady spots, internet café, library, helpy-selfy coffee tea and pastry counter, copious L’Occitane bath products, and bright spacious staterooms.
The Emerald also had a fitness room, beauty salon, a tea boutique, handicraft shop, and an exceedingly popular tailor shop where two days after your order, you’ll have a stunning, custom-made silk jacket or cheongsam (fitted dress).
The next few days provided a peaceful break from our action packed city tours. Pleasant afternoons were spent on the upper deck, socializing or not, sipping a glass of wine while sailing down the Yangtze gazing at the ever-changing landscape including one particularly breathtaking passage lined with craggy, limestone ridges known as the Three Gorges.
Activities included climbing to the top of the Shibaozhai Temple, a spectacular 12-story, 18th-century temple built high on a cliff overlooking the river, and boarding sampan boats for a narrated ride through the picturesque Goddess Stream.
Touring the controversial Three Gorges Dam, in great part for displacing over one million who lived along the river, it was still impressive to view this engineering masterpiece–the largest hydroelectric power plant on earth.
In Wuhan, at the Hubei Provincial Museum, we were treated to a musical bell performance before viewing relics unearthed from a 2000-year old tomb, including the original chime bells, the heaviest musical instrument in the world, weighing in at 5,525 pounds!
On board there was a full roster of entertainment choices ranging from educational lectures on Chinese culture and Buddhism, to mahjong lessons, dumpling-making and brush painting demos, dance performances, a rollicking talent show put on by the staff, and afternoon high-teas.
Since the food on board was some of the best I’ve ever enjoyed on a Viking cruise (not surprisingly, there were outstanding Chinese dishes offered at each meal) I jumped at the chance to join the talented Chef Danny Tang on a morning market tour, where we sampled soup dumplings, fresh lotus seeds and shopped for fresh veggies and spices.
Well rested after our cruise, I was ready to explore sophisticated Shanghai, although it was hard to leave our glamorous, Art-Deco hotel, The Fairmont Peace Hotel, which overlooked the Bund, their elegant riverside promenade. I was amazed when I looked across the river at the previously stodgy Pudong financial district that had morphed into a forest of futuristic LED-enhanced buildings.
We visited the prestigious Yuyuan Garden, built during the Ming Dynasty; walked through the rapidly disappearing Old Shanghai quarter, and wandered through the Shanghai Museum filled with ancient ceramics and bronzes. Our last night (sob) was spent in sheer amazement watching incredible feats of strength and flexibility performed by the phenomenal Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe.
Viking’s totally safe yet exotic itinerary is perfect for an adventuresome traveler who wants to experience a new culture, taste unusual food, and see amazing World Heritage sites.