Travel blogger Rebecca Wiggins discovered an intoxicating mix of ancient traditions and modern-day culture when she embarked on an epic 15-day cruise-tour of China.
I’m balancing a delicate tea cup between my thumb and forefinger, resting the base gently on my middle finger and concentrating on sticking out my remaining fingers in what I’m hoping is a ladylike manner. The tea must be finished in three sips, representing happiness, long life and good fortune. Slurping is okay (it improves your experience of the flavour) but coughing and spluttering definitely isn’t. I fear I’m not a star student, but our tea tasting session at the Bell Tower Tea Room in Beijing is a fascinating insight into the reverence with which tea is treated in China. We leave inspired, vowing that our buckets of milky builders’ tea are a thing of the past.
The journey begins in Shanghai
Our journey of discovery started over 800 miles to the south in incredible Shanghai. Setting out to explore on our first night, we were entranced by the crackling energy of this bustling city and were swept along on packed pavements, dazzled by the lights and bombarded with noise and unfamiliar smells. We wandered the streets, stopping to pet cute little dogs (Shanghai residents have a penchant for dressing up their dogs, and it’s adorable) and stopping for delicious dumplings before retreating to our very luxurious hotel, The Portman Ritz-Carlton, for drinks in the bar.
The next morning, we were united with Roy, our Viking guide. Our daily interactions with him came to be one of the highlights of our trip. We felt so lucky to be part of his ‘Viking family’ (you stay with the same small group throughout your journey). Roy’s depth of knowledge of China’s history and culture was extraordinary, and his generosity in sharing snippets of his family life as well as insights into living in modern China really impressed us.
Our first stop, Yu Garden, is a five-acre oasis of green in the middle of the city, with koi ponds, beautiful pagodas and ancient trees next to a bustling bazaar packed with people, shops, delicious smelling dumpling stalls and more stunning old buildings. Following an afternoon in the fascinating Shanghai Museum, Roy took us to the historic Bund where we saw the glittering, modern skyline across the river juxtaposed with the ancient buildings lining the shore.
Sadly there was no time to wait for the spectacular evening light show as we had an appointment with the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe: a band of incredibly talented young athletes performing terrifying spins, flips and human pyramids with such nonchalance you’d think it was an everyday occurrence. There were juggling acts involving huge pots and swords, and a nail-biting wall of death featuring seven motorbikes in a spherical cage roaring around inches from each other. I’m not sure I breathed the entire show.
From Shanghai to Beijing, with three internal flights, stays in three different, but all luxurious, hotels and five ‘megacities’ (cities with a population in excess of 10 million) to get through, it’s a full-on itinerary, but with Roy’s near-military organisational skills they don’t feel too much of a chore. We’d landed in the sprawling skyscraper city of Wuhan by lunchtime and, after a quick stop at a pretty riverside Pagoda, where we happened across a bride and groom posing for their wedding photos, we were on board the ship by mid afternoon, welcomed by the entire crew looking jaunty in their red Viking overcoats, with traditional music and a dancing Chinese dragon.
Viking Emerald is a beauty: elegantly appointed and arranged around a central open atrium glittering with gold and marble, which reaches up through all six decks. The ship is comfortable and clean with sophisticated staterooms and premium toiletries, and the young staff are sweet and incredibly keen to please. With a capacity of just 256 guests, service feels personal, with staff soon learning your names and preferences (how do they remember it all?). There’s a restaurant sparkling with silver and crystal, a lounge and bar all with panoramic views across the river, plus an open observation deck set with stylish canopies and loungers.
As you’d expect from a Viking cruise, small, thoughtful touches abound, from the offer of a mint tea and cold towel when you return after an excursion to a small coffee area with an endless supply of delicious cookies and pastries available 24/7. Dining is set time, open seating at large tables, so be prepared to mingle, and there’s a wide range of onboard activities from the daily morning tai chi session to interesting talks on history, Chinese lessons and even a dumpling cookery class. Food onboard is a highlight, from Chef Danny’s delicious breakfast yogurts in a multitude of flavours to the Chinese feast featuring everything from a slightly startling platter of chicken feet to beef soup noodles delivered on a traditional shoulder basket by a crew member.
Our first morning onboard we woke to the soon-to-be-familiar clanging, shouting and smells of a Chinese river port, Jingzhou. We were headed to a local school sponsored by Viking and I must admit to being a bit cynical about the visit, but the children are, frankly, adorable. After a performance of traditional dance, little hands were soon grabbing ours and we were pulled to their classrooms to sit in on an English lesson. We emerged, covered in stickers and with phones full of cute selfies, so pleased to have played a tiny, positive part in their lives.
After an afternoon spent visiting the ancient walls of the city which date back to the Ming dynasty, and a stop at the museum to experience a beautiful performance of chime bells, we were back on board and cruising on up the Yangtze. Soon, we reached the formidable Three Gorges Dam, the biggest hydroelectric dam in the world and on a scale like nothing I’ve ever seen before. As high as a 60-storey building and costing $26 billion to build, with construction eating up entire towns full of houses, schools and hospitals, it provides double the power than all the power stations in the UK put together. To traverse the dam, we first needed to negotiate the five enormous ship locks, each about 900ft long. We sat out on our balcony (with champagne, this is a Viking cruise, after all) as the captain performed the seemingly impossible task of levering us in with just inches to spare either side.
The next morning we woke in another world. We looked out onto an otherworldly landscape of looming mountains covered with thick vegetation, the tops shrouded in mist. The second of the Three Gorges, Wu Gorge, is undoubtedly the most beautiful, and we left the ship to climb on to brightly-coloured sampan boats to explore the ethereal Goddess Stream. As our little boat slipped through the water and our local guide sang a haunting, traditional Chinese song, I sat out on the small open deck area with a fellow guest, mesmerised by the raw beauty of the jade water, lush trees and bamboo overhanging the stream.
Back on the ship, I decided to prolong my feelings of serenity by indulging in a ginseng lifting facial from the Chinese medicine expert on board. It was a unique experience, with a range of unusual herbal scented products applied with a combination of quite firm massage, slapping and sweeping motions, followed by the application of a thick, herbal poultice, and finally a bonus head massage that left me walking on air.
China’s Imperial Jewels
Our last day on board took us to the outskirts of our third mega city, Chongqing, capital of south west China. We wandered through a local market village to the stunning Shibaozhai Pagoda, across the Shaking Bridge, a wibbly wobbly structure across which I notice even the usually sombre Chinese visitors crack a smile, to the stunning Taoist temple built into the rock face of the island without using a single nail. That smile soon fades when we’re all faced with the first of 12 storeys of rickety stairs, but the view, and the gorgeous temple at the top are worth the burning thighs.
We said a fond farewell to Viking Emerald and took a flight to Xian. Famous for its rich history and for being the start of the Silk Road, it’s the centre point of the People’s Republic of China and home of the Terracotta Warriors.
Unearthed in 1974 by a farmer digging a well, legend has it that Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, had the warriors built as part of an elaborate funerary shrine. So far, 6000 warriors have been uncovered, each with his own different stature, expression, facial hair and uniform. A ruthless ruler, it’s said that after 38 years, when the tomb was complete, Qin had all the artisans murdered to safeguard the secret of the tomb. The scale of the archaeological dig is breathtaking, with three vast, football pitch-sized pits of soldiers, horses and other artefacts, their unique features picked out by shafts of light. Roy tells us that there are possibly decades more work still to be done to complete the dig, and they might never unearth the emperor’s tomb.
After our final internal flight to Beijing, we were certain that the Great Wall was to be the highlight of our trip, but there were many more surprises to come, including a rickshaw visit to sweet Mrs Wang, who lives in the Hutongs of Beijing: a maze of alleyways and ‘flat houses’ built around courtyards and a way of life now preserved and protected for its cultural and historical importance. Mrs Wang generously offered jasmine tea in delicate china cups as we all crowded into her teeny house, admiring old family photos.
After an early night, we were up early for our longest journey. Started even before the Qin Dynasty as an early form of defence, and extended in the Han Dynasty to protect the Silk Road, the Great Wall is disconnected but stretches across 4000 miles of this fascinating country. The benefit of having a Viking Guide is that they know the best entrances to avoid the crowds. We reached the wall by a new funicular railway and walked along empty stretches in the crisp, morning sunshine, taking in the view stretching far away into the mountains in the distance. It was a pinch me moment that I’ll never forget.
Later, as the sun scorched the earth and we shed layer upon layer, we walked the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs, a beautiful place for contemplation and said to be the way walked by the spirits of the Emperors, although the tombs are actually some way away. It’s a beautiful path ending with a divine pagoda. I’ve never felt so zen.
Ending our trip on a high, we visited Tiananmen Square, the largest city square in the world, resting place of Chairman Mao and scene of the 1989 student protests. As usual, Roy fielded our questions and we were moved to hear his insights.
Heading north, we took an underpass to the Forbidden City, Imperial Palace of countless Emperors and the site of seemingly endless beautifully-decorated buildings with yellow-tiled roofs and open, cobbled squares, finishing with a pretty garden. It’s the largest palace complex in the world and an absolute must-see. We can’t quite believe that we’ve ticked off so many amazing sights on one trip.
It’s a packed itinerary and you do need to find time to relax every now and then, but from The Great Wall to the Terracotta Warriors, the opportunity to see so much of this fascinating country felt like such an honour, and visiting with a Viking guide is definitely the way to do it. We’re already talking about where we’ll go next.