Made in China

Date Posted: 25/03/2011

Lee Beaumann has China in her hands as she takes a cruise along the Yangtze River.

There are some things I’ll never forget. My first kiss, passing my driving test, seeing the Terracotta Warriors live and in person in China. Of course I had seen them on TV – who hasn’t? - but nothing prepared me for the real thing.

I can guess what you are thinking. What do the warriors, in a mausoleum outside land-locked Xi’an, have to do with a cruise on the Yangtze River?

Well that’s what makes cruising far-off places with Viking River Cruises so special; you fly half-way around the world for one of its river cruises and in return it organises a once-in-a-lifetime holiday that allows you to tick off the best bits of China as well.

The Terracotta Warriors were just one highlight in a trip packed with highlights – strolling through Tiananmen Square in Beijing, walking along the Bund in Shanghai, seeing pandas at Chongqing zoo, learning about the turbulent history of the Yangtze River as we sailed through the Three Gorges.

Viking has three holidays packaged around the Yangtze, all combining a cruise with time in Beijing, Xian and Shanghai. There’s a 17-day Cultural Delights tour, which includes an 11-day cruise, and a 16-day Roof of the World holiday, which also has three nights in Lhasa in Tibet.

Mine was a 13-day Imperial Jewels of China tour that started in Shanghai, ended in Beijing and had a five-day river cruise, from Wuhan to Chongqing, in between. Every step of the way, David, our tour manager (Chinese people involved in tourism tend to take western names to make life easier for their guests) was on hand to get us to the right places at the right times, and also enthralled us with stories of his life as a boy under Chairman Mao.

I cruised on the Viking Century Sun, which was very comfortable, but is being replaced with the new 264-passenger Viking Emerald, launching in April. If the food and service is as good as on Century Sun, it will be a great ship, with the added bonus of the largest suites of any vessel on the Yangtze.

I fell in love with Shanghai, with its vitality, its gleaming skyscrapers, its colonial low-rise buildings and its restaurants. We ate at several and the food was delicious, less sweet than Chinese dishes served here and not as spicy as I had expected. At one memorable lunch, the crispy duck came with the bill attached. It doesn’t pay to be too squeamish.

Shanghai was such a contrast to the scenery on the river – the majestic landscapes, boggy paddy fields and oxen doing the work of tractors. It was like stepping back in time, except here and there you would see the modern world – an apartment block, cranes and the ubiquitous tacky souvenirs thrust at you whenever you stepped on land. It was hard to get too upset when the gesture was accompanied with the words, “maybe later”. The only English the hawkers had learned.

Our river cruise included a stop in Yueyang, where Viking sponsors a junior school, and the Three Gorges Dam, a concrete monstrosity that will stop the floods that have killed thousands of people living along the river over the years. It’s enormous, so big it’s been dubbed China’s new Great Wall - 1.4 miles long, 606 feet high, containing 28 million cubic metres of concrete and enough steel to build 63 Eiffel Towers.

As an engineering project, it’s incredible, as a tourist attraction I can pass. Not so the majestic Three Gorges that line a long section of the Yangtze, their craggy peaks lost somewhere in the mist.

“We see the first two gorges as strong men, but this is a woman because its more gentle mountains are covered with trees and grass,” Owen, our river guide, explained as we glided through Wu Gorge, sandwiched between the very long Xiling Gorge and very short Qutang Gorge.

As we sailed through each, Owen told us about the myths and legends that have built up around the soaring peaks: the stone that is really a goddess, the peaks that resemble a roaring dragon and a lion. I struggled to see the likenesses but I loved the stories, especially the one about the strings of ghosts that attach themselves to boats overnight.

According to legend, the only way to get rid of them is to cut up another boat when you go out next day, so the string gets attached to that vessel. It’s why you see a lot of near misses and very angry boat captains, Owen explained. I suspected you actually saw a lot of near misses because they are lousy drivers  – Viking’s captains excepted, of course – just like on the roads, where Stop signs are decoration rather than an instruction.

One day we had a cruise on a small boat through the Lesser Three Gorges, which are smaller, narrower and prettier than their big sisters; on the last morning there was a visit to Shiboazhai Temple, an incredible 12-storey pagoda built in 1650 against the side of a sheer 720-foot-high cliff.

At Chongqing, where we disembarked, there was time for a quick stop at the zoo to see the pandas - I don’t approve of zoos, but you couldn’t help but feel warm and tingly seeing these animals in the flesh - and lunch before flying to Xi’an to see that thousand strong army of warriors. There are infantry men, officers, archers, horses, all life-size, all with individual features, all built on the orders of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, to guard him in the afterlife. He was either very powerful or very stupid. I suspect both.

Last stop was two hectic days in Beijing, where Viking had scheduled visits to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. One evening we went to Houhai lake, which was packed with young Chinese, hip bars, and restaurants with live bands and flashing neon lights. Beijing’s Soho, I thought.

So what happened to the bicycles, I asked as David and I found some roof-top seats at one of the bars and ordered a couple of bottles of Tsingtao. “Things have changed; thankfully not the beer.” He was so right. Cheers!

Useful contact:

Viking River Cruises:
020-8780 7923

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