Have you always wanted to visit China, but its size, language, and complexity of travel arrangements kept you away? Why not take a combination land tour and Yangtze River cruise with Viking River Cruises?
Viking has three land and cruise tours in China. All three programs include hotel stays in Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai, plus a Yangtze River cruise on the Viking Emerald. In May 2014, I took the basic 13-day tour, "Imperial Jewels of China", which is described below. The 16-day "Roof of the World" includes everything in the Imperial Jewels tour, but adds on three nights in Lhasa, Tibet. The 18-day "China's Cultural Delights" includes the same hotel stays in Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai, but features an 11-day Yangtze River Cruise on the Viking Emerald rather than the 6-day cruise of the other two programs.
The next ten sections below provide an overview of the "Imperial Jewels of China" land and cruise tour. Be sure to click on the links to see more details on each stopover, the Viking Emerald, and the Yangtze River cruise.
Overview of Land Tour and Yangtze River Cruise
China is the 4th largest country in the world, almost as large as the USA. However, its 1.3 billion in population far outnumber the 318 million who live in the United States. This size can make travel around the country challenging. However, with a Viking River Cruises' land and cruise tour, the company skillfully takes care of all the hotel and intra-China flight details, allowing its guests to enjoy the sights, sounds, and cultures of this amazing country.
The land tour includes tours or visits to the major sights in and around Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai. It also includes a 6-day cruise on the Yangtze River between Chongqing and Wuhan, where guests can see some of the Chinese countryside, visit important sites along the way, and pass through the locks of the famous Three Gorges Dam.
Let's look at each of the destinations and sites included on the 13-day Viking River Cruises' "Imperial Jewels of China" cruise tour. Our tour started in Beijing and ended in Shanghai, but the program also runs in reverse.
First Two Days in Beijing
Day One - Arrival in Beijing
Most international flights arrive in the afternoon or early evening, so guests have the first night on their own to rest or explore after checking into the hotel. Those who book their air travel with Viking River Cruises are met at the airport and transferred to their hotel.
Our cruise tour was full, with almost 250 participants divided into seven groups, each with a tour leader who stayed with his group the entire 13 days. To avoid overloading the breakfast facilities at a single hotel, Viking used two luxury hotels in Beijing--the Ritz Carlton Financial District and the Kerry Hotel, with three groups at one hotel and four at the other. Each hotel received rave reviews from those who stayed there.
Day Two in Beijing
The touring starts in earnest the next morning. Our first stop was one of China's icons--the Great Wall. Our tour visited the Badaling Hills entrance to the Wall, which is about 40 miles north of Beijing. We had free time to walk some of the Great Wall and to explore the numerous shops lining the road to the entrance.
Leaving the Great Wall, we stopped for lunch and then at the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs. This mile-long walkway is lined with 15th century pairs of giant animals, men, and mythological creatures.
On the way back to the hotel, we had a photo stop at one of Beijing's newer iconic monuments, the National Olympic Stadium (also called the Bird's Nest), which was built for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
After an excellent dinner at the hotel, our long first day concluded with an optional tour--a performance of the Beijing Opera House. The elaborate costumes, unusual music, and complicated plots easily made up for not being able to understand a word sung.
Days Three and Four in Beijing
Day Three in Beijing
Our second full day in China started with a visit to Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing. Covering 100 acres, it is the world's largest public square. Tiananmen Square is also the site of Mao Zedong's tomb and Memorial Hall, and has been the site of public celebrations and rallies for centuries, and many of us remember the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989.
Next, we used a tunnel to pass under the street dividing Tiananmen Square from the Forbidden City, which is now called the Palace Museum. It is completely paved with bricks and covers 175 acres. Groups enter through the gate nearest Tiananmen Square, walk through the site taking time to peek inside some of the many palaces and structures, and exit out the back gate, where the buses are waiting.
After lunch, many of us did an optional tour to the Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing. This 700-acre garden and complex of palaces and other structures was used by the emperor and royal family as a summer retreat, with Empress Dowager Cixi being responsible for the current design. A tour of this site along with that of the Forbidden City certainly demonstrates how well the members of royal dynasties lived in China.
Although Viking includes all meals in its tour, many of us chose an optional dinner at a famous Peking duck restaurant rather than the included dinner at a local restaurant. Preparation of this dish is time consuming and it tasted better than any duck I've ever had.
Day Four--Beijing and Travel to Xi'an
Our last day in Beijing, we left the checked baggage outside the hotel room at the appointed hour, and then identified it before it was loaded in the storage area under the bus. The baggage was checked as a group and we didn't see our checked bags until the hotel in Xi'an late that afternoon.
Before leaving Beijing, we visited one of the city's old bell towers, watched two men play a popular shuttlecock game, and toured one of the old hutongs in a rickshaw pedicab. While in the hutong, we visited the home of one of the residents and had time to enjoy a traditional tea ceremony at a local tea house.
Before heading to the airport, we had a box lunch on the bus. Since our tour leader checked us in and distributed all the boarding passes, all we had to do was clear security, board the plane and fly off to our next stop, Xi'an.
Xi'an was the capital city for 12 Chinese dynasties, and its history goes back over 3000 years. Xi'an was also the starting point of the famous Silk Road, a trading route that linked China with Europe. This Silk Road brought wealth and a mix of different cultures to Xi'an that continues even today,
After flying to Xi'an from Beijing, we ate dinner before going to the hotel at the "best dumpling restaurant" in Xian, named Defachang Dumpling Restaurant. Everyone at our table for 10 enjoyed the meal. We had appetizers of chicken on a stick, duck, cucumbers in vinegar with hot peppers, cabbage salad, tofu, soup, onions and mushrooms, and a noodle dish. After eating the appetizers, the Chinese dumplings started rolling out--one batch at a time--until we all had a taste of a dozen different types--sausage, ham, pork, veggies, shrimp, pickled cabbage (like kimchi), bamboo shoots and tomatoes, mushroom and chicken, duck, spicy pork, and spicy chicken. Great fun and delicious.
Leaving the restaurant, we checked into the Hilton Hotel downtown. Some of the other groups stayed at the Crowne Plaza. Both hotels were in the old downtown area of Xi'an.
Day Five - Full Day in Xi'an
We left the hotel early in the morning to make the 30-mile drive to the site where farmers found the terra cotta warriors in 1974. This site is the primary reason most people travel to Xi'an. Although we spent the entire morning exploring the three areas where warriors were discovered, plus the museum, I think most of us could have stared longer at these amazing life-sized figures, each of which has a unique face.
The Viking groups left the terra cotta warriors about noontime, and the buses stopped nearby for a nice lunch before returning to the city. The restaurant was on the third floor of a retail building that housed a studio that made replica terra cotta figures in all sizes on the ground floor and lacquered furniture on the second floor. It was fun to shop, and the meal was delicious, especially the cooked-to-order noodles.
Returning to the hotel after a late lunch, we had free time to explore the old city walls and the historic inner city. That evening, many of us went to an optional (additional cost) Tang dynasty dinner show while the rest of the group enjoyed dinner at a local restaurant. On the way back to the hotel, we loved seeing the city at night, especially the colorfully illuminated Bell Tower.
Day Six - Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an and Flight to Chongqing
Before we flew from Xi'an to Chongqing, our group stopped at the Shaanxi History Museum, one of China's national Museums. The 300,000 piece collection was varied, including pieces from neolithic period up through the Tang and pre-Ming periods.
Those of you who have been subjected to airport food might be surprised to learn that we had a delicious meal at a Xi'an airport restaurant. All the food was tasty, and the servers just kept bringing it out. Our flight to Chongqing left right on time (about 2 pm), and we landed about 4 pm.
Boarding the Viking Emerald in Chongqing
Day Six - Chongqing, Pandas and Boarding the Viking Emerald
Chongqing has China's largest metropolitan administrative area, with over 32 million residents. (Shanghai has about 25 million in its administrative area and New York City has about 23 million.)
After boarding the bus at the airport, we rode through the mountainous city (no bicycles here) for about an hour, passing mile after mile of high-rise apartment and office buildings. The city sits on a peninsula, with the Yangtze River on one side and the Jialing River on the other, so there are lots of bridges.
Chonqqing is known as one of China's three "furnaces" (along with Wuhan and Nanjing) due to its stifling summer humidity along with massive pollution. It looks very foggy, but the heavy air is mostly smog.
Our first stop was at the Chonqing Zoo, where we arrived about 5:30, which was 30 minutes after it closed. No problem. They let the three buses of us in, and we headed for the panda exhibit. The zoo had red lesser pandas and the giant pandas we are more familiar with. The lesser pandas are red with black markings, but look like very large racoons. There were about six in one large enclosure with a moat separating us--no cages. I think they had four of the giant pandas, each in its own area (also with a moat). I had almost forgotten how unsocial they are, preferring to be alone with their bamboo.
We got a great look at three of the pandas, and spent about 30 minutes at the panda exhibit watching them eat their bamboo dinner and walk around their individual enclosures. I had seen pandas before at the Atlanta and Washington, DC zoos, but it was really special seeing them at their homeland.
Leaving the zoo, we got to the Viking Emerald about 6:45 pm. May was not the high water season, so we had to go down a whole bunch of steps and walk a gangway about 100 yards over the mud to reach the ship. However, one advantage of small ships is the lack of lines to board, so we were in our cabin less than five minutes after stepping on the ship. Our bags arrived soon after.
Photo Tour of the Viking Emerald
The Viking Emerald is a 256-passenger ship with six decks. All the cabins and suites have a private balcony. Click on the links below to see and learn more about the different venues on this lovely Yangtze River cruise ship
- Reception Area
- Dining Room
- Emerald Bar
- Observation Lounge
- Fitness Center
- Balcony Cabin
On the Yangtze River with Viking Cruises
Day 6 - Sailaway from Chongqing
The Viking Emerald was docked in downtown Chongqing, and when the ship sailed away about 10 pm, many of us gathered outdoors on the top deck to watch the gorgeous city lights as we passed under some of the spectacular contemporary bridges. Our Yangtze cruise ship was away!
Day 7 - Shibaozhai Temple
The next day, fog on the river delayed our arrival at the Shibaozhai Temple near Zhongxian. However, after six very busy days in Beijing and Xi'an, we were all happy to have a day to relax on the ship. In the late afternoon, the Viking Emerald docked, and we walked ashore with a local guide.
The Shibaozhai Temple sits on a cliff overlooking the town of Zhongxian. Much of the town was submerged when the Three Gorges Dam caused the river to rise, and a large dam was built around the Temple to protect it from the rising waters. Visitors now walk through the town and across a high swinging pedestrian bridge to reach the Shibaozhai Temple.
It's quite interesting to climb up in the 12-story pavilion and see the Chinese architecture of the structure. After the tour, we had plenty of time to shop on the walk back to the ship before dinner.
Day 8 - New Wushan and the Lesser Three Gorges
A highlight of any Yangtze River cruise is sailing through the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River and the Lesser Three Gorges of the Daning River, which is a tributary of the Yangtze. Our ship sailed through the first of the Three Gorges of the Yangtze soon after breakfast. It was amazing and a promise of things to come later in the morning.
Although the Viking Emerald is a small ship, it's not small enough to go very far up the Daning, so all of us boarded a day boat at New Wushan to make the trek up the Daning to see the Lesser Three Gorges. This day boat had covered seating for everyone, a snack bar, and a bathroom, so it was comfortable for a morning tour.
The Lesser Three Gorges are as spectacular as advertised, with towering cliffs on either side of the river, and rocks and trees covering the hillsides. Our boat ride only lasted until lunch time, and we returned to the Viking Emerald to eat and then sail through the second of the Three Gorges of the Yangtze.
More Time on the Yangtze with Viking River Cruises
Day 9 - Three Gorges Dam
The Three Gorges Dam is one of the engineering marvels of the 21st century. This huge lock and dam are interesting to see from the river and sail through, but we also went ashore to view the complex from a huge visitor center area on a hill overlooking the area.
In the afternoon, we sailed through the last of the Three Gorges of the Yangtze and entered into a less mountainous region of China.
Day 10 - Visit to the Jing Zhou School
Viking River Cruises sponsors three schools along the Yangtze, and guests on the Viking Emerald get to visit one of the schools while on the cruise near Jing Zhou, an industrial city of "only" about a million residents
It was fun for the students to practice their English and for us to see the classrooms and to interact with the children.
That afternoon, we continued sailing towards Wuhan, and many of us attended another educational lecture on China, the last of several we enjoyed while onboard.
Day 11 - Wuhan and Flight to Shanghai
Our Yangtze River Cruise was over way too soon, and we disembarked the next morning. Before flying to Shanghai, we had time to visit the famous Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan.
This museum has many interesting exhibits, but is famous for the artifacts found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng who died in 433 BC, but whose tomb was not opened until 1978. Thousands of items were removed, including his coffin and those of about two dozen young women that scientists conclude were concubines who accompanied him to the next life. The set of ancient bronze bells are another iconic symbol of China, and we viewed the originals and enjoyed a musical concert using a set of replicas.
We had a box lunch on the bus while driving to the airport. Next stop, Shanghai.
Two Nights and a Day in Shanghai
Our Viking River cruise tour ended with two nights in Shanghai. On the drive into the city, we stopped for a short walk along The Bund, which still retains the look of colonial Shanghai. The day was sunny and clear, and we had spectacular views of the modern Pudongsection of Shanghai on the opposite side of the river.
As in the other cities, our hotel was luxurious. Our group stayed at the Shangri-la Jing'an, which was located on West Nanjing Road in a large complex of buildings that included a huge indoor shopping mall and easy access to the excellent Shanghai subway system. The hotel rooms were large, and all were above the 30th floor with amazing views of the city. Some of the other groups stayed at the Westin Hotel, which was just a short walk from The Bund and very nice.
We enjoyed an excellent dinner at our hotel and then some of us returned to The Bund to see what it looked like after dark.
Day 12 - A Full Day in Shanghai
Our first stop the next morning was at the Yuyuan Gardens and adjacent shopping bazaar. The gardens date back to the 16th century and are a peaceful example of a typical Chinese garden.
Leaving the gardens and bazaar, we stopped for lunch at a Mongolian restaurant that had a retail area on the second floor with some gorgeous examples of Chinese embroidery. Like other time-consuming handicraft artwork, this one is becoming a lost art since most young women are not interested in spending hundreds of hours on intricate embroidery pieces. Like Oriental rugs, many of the embroidery pieces sell for thousands of dollars, but often take almost a whole year to complete. How many of us would sew or weave everyday for a year to make a piece that would only bring less than $10,000?
After lunch, we visited the wonderful Shanghai Museum, with its diverse exhibits covering thousands of years of Chinese history. Our long day in Shanghai ended with an included dinner and the opportunity to experience the memorable Chinese acrobat show. It was a perfect ending to a trip of a lifetime visit to China with Viking River Cruises.
Day 13 - Time to Go Home (or not)
Most of our fellow travelers left the next day to fly home, but some did either the escorted 4-night Viking extension to Guilin and Hong Kong or stayed an additional two nights in Shanghai in order to have free time in the city and the chance to visit the nearby city of Suzhou with a guide.
Summary and Closing Thoughts
Our time in China ended all too soon. Everyone I spoke with in the other groups thought they had the best tour leader (although we all knew in David's group that we had the best one). This speaks well for the quality of the people Viking has selected to lead and manage their cruise tours.
The hotels, ship, and tour organization were exceptional, with no time wasted in airports or visiting the many different sites. I felt like our valuable time was spent doing exactly what we all wanted--to experience as many of the highlights in China as we could in only two weeks. The team at Viking River Cruises met or exceeded the expectations we had for every part of this program.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise and hotel accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.