A Viking China stay-and-cruise adventure from Shanghai to Beijing is the opportunity to become immersed in this fascinating country, discovers Becky Wiggins

Great Wall of China

Early mornings on the river are my favourite time. Pulling on a sweater, I creep out into the damp air on the veranda and watch the mist swirl around the lush mountains. There’s no noise but for the low throb of the engine and the occasional call of a fisherman from a passing sampan. Slowly, the sun rises, the mist clears and the Yangtze changes from soupy brown to khaki, and finally to bright, almost acid, green before my eyes. It’s magical.

Our Viking China journey had started in stark contrast in bustling Shanghai. Setting out to explore on our first night, we were dazzled by lights and bombarded with noise and sales pitches from the ubiquitous ‘one-dollar men’ (and mopeds, which are dangerously quiet and inexplicably drive on the pavement). Determined to reach the Bund area, where we’d been told there was a great view of Shanghai’s beautiful cityscape, we jumped in a taxi only to be shooed out when we couldn’t make ourselves understood. Defeated, and realising we were unprepared, we wandered the streets, stopping for delicious dumplings and sloped back to find solace in our very luxurious hotel, the Portman Ritz-Carlton.

The next morning we were united with Roy, our Viking China guide, and set off with our small group to explore Shanghai. First up was Yu Garden, 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, dumpling stalls and stunning old buildings. Following an afternoon wandering the fascinating Shanghai Museum, Roy took us to the historic Bund where we finally got to see 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 Group: a band of incredibly talented young athletes hurling themselves about and bending in ways which, frankly, one shouldn’t be able to bend without snapping bits off. There were terrifying human pyramids, juggling acts involving huge pots and a nail-biting wall of death featuring seven motorbikes in a spherical cage roaring around inches from each other.

From Shanghai to Beijing, with three internal flights, three (very high end) hotel stays and five ‘megacities’ (cities with a population “in excess of 10 million” – Roy loves his stats)
to get through in 13 days, it’s a full-on itinerary. We had landed in the sprawling skyscraper city of Wuhan (“10.6 million,” adds Roy) by lunchtime and after a quick stop at a pagoda, Roy thought we would enjoy, we were ready to board the ship by mid-afternoon, welcomed by the entire crew, traditional music and a dancing Chinese dragon.

Our ship for our Viking China cruise, Viking Emerald, is comfortable and clean with elegantly appointed staterooms and L’Occitane products. There are six decks with a capacity of 250 guests, a restaurant sparkling with silver and crystal, 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 mint tea and a cold towel when you return after an excursion to a small coffee area with an endless supply of cookies and pastries available 24/7. Dining is set time, open seating at large tables, so expect to be sociable, and there’s a wide range of onboard activities from the morning tai-chi session to interesting talks on history, Chinese lessons and even a dumpling cookery class. Food on board is a highlight, from chef Danny’s healthy breakfast yogurts made daily in a multitude of flavours, to the Chinese feast featuring everything from chicken feet to beef soup noodles delivered on a traditional shoulder basket by a crew member.

On our first morning, we awoke to the soon-to-be-familiar clanging, shouting and smells of a Chinese river port, Jingzhou (“just the four million people,” said Roy). We head to a local school sponsored by Viking and the children are, frankly, adorable. After a performance of traditional dance, little hands were soon grabbing ours and we were pulled to sit in on an English lesson. We emerge, 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 performance of chime bells, we
were back on board and powering on up the Yangtze. Soon we reached the formidable Three Gorges Dam – the biggest hydro electric dam in the world and with 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 was a holiday, after all) as the captain performed the seemingly impossible task of levering us in with just inches to spare either side, reaching out and touching the walls of the lock.

The next morning we woke in another world. The great structures of the dam behind us, 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 onto 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, we sat mesmerised by the raw beauty of the jade water, lush trees and bamboo overhanging the stream.

Back on the ship, I prolonged 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 various motions, followed by the application of a thick, strangely scented herbal poultice, and finally a bonus head massage that left me floating on air.

Our last day on board Viking Emerald on our Viking China adventure took us to the outskirts of our third mega city, Chongqing, capital of south-west China. By this stage, we were all awaiting a population tally from Roy and he was delighted to oblige: “32 million, eight million in the city itself”. We wandered through a village to the stunning Shibaozhai Pagoda, across the Shaking Bridge, a wobbly structure that even the usually sombre Chinese visitors cracked a smile, to the impressive Taoist temple built into the rock face of the island without using a single nail. That smile soon faded when we were faced with the first of 12 storeys of rickety stairs, but the view, and the gorgeous temple at the top were worth the burning thighs.

We bid a fond farewell to Viking Emerald with an evening show of traditional dance from the talented crew and woke early for our next flight to Xian (eight million, adds Roy). 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. Our hotel, the Wyndham Grand Xian South, is enormous and imposing, and our room sumptuously decorated. Flagging a little, we decided to skip the evening dinner excursion for a chance to dine at the hotel’s exquisite Chinese restaurant, but rejoined Roy early the next day for our next wish-list visit.

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, 6,000 warriors have been uncovered, each with his own 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 features picked out by shafts of light. Roy tells us 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 would be the highlight of our Viking China 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 offered jasmine tea in delicate China cups along with an insight into her daily life as we all crowded into her teeny house, before stopping at a traditional tea house for a rather delightful tasting lesson. 

The next day we woke up super early for the longest part of our Viking China journey. Erected 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 4,000 miles of this vast country. Having a Viking Guide means they know the best entrances to avoid the crowds (and can tell you which parts are steeper than others). We reached the wall by a new funicular railway and wandered empty stretches in the crisp morning sunshine, huffing and puffing on the steep bits and taking in the view of miles and miles of wall 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 Path of the Ming Tombs, a place for contemplation and said to be the way walked by the spirits of the emperors, although the tombs are quite away. It’s a tranquil tree- and statue-lined path ending with a divine pagoda. I’ve never felt so zen.

North west corner of the Forbidden City reflecting on water. Trees surrounding the corner, and clear sky.; Beijing, China

Ending our Viking China trip on a high, we visited Tiananmen Square, the largest city square in the world, resting place of Chairman Mao (the queues stretched for miles) and the scene of the 1989 student protests. As usual, Roy fielded all the questions honestly, and we were moved by his story of how the mothers of the fallen students return every year on the anniversary of their children’s death. 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.

One of the unexpected highs of our Viking China trip were the interactions with Roy. We became his ‘Viking family’ (you stay with the same small group throughout) and we were so impressed with his knowledge of China’s history and culture, and his generosity in sharing snippets of his family life, as well as insights into living in modern China. We felt spoilt having him with us helping with everything, from accessing the internet (Google, Facebook and Instagram are all blocked in China), to buying medicines from a pharmacy and getting to grip with basic Chinese words such as ni hao (hello), and were genuinely sad to say goodbye at the end of the trip.

The Viking China itinerary is packed and, on occasions, it felt a little like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but we feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to see so much of this fascinating country. I wouldn’t change a thing. 

Getting there:

A 14-day Imperial Jewels of China stay-and-cruise from Shanghai to Beijing, including 11 guided tours, return flights, internal flights and all meals on board, costs from £2,995 per person with Viking.

Click here to read a review of a Viking Danube Cruise.