Date of Trip: July 2006
We flew from Philadelphia to Chicago to Beijing via United Airways. Flights, movies and food were uneventful. When we arrived at the Beijing airport we were met by a Viking representative and boarded a bus to either the Hilton or the Shangri La hotels. There were 100 people in our tour and we were divided into three groups. Our group consisted of two teenagers, about 15 between late 40’s to early 60’s and the rest above 60 (one person, not in our group was 92). The make up in age in all three groups seemed to be about the same. We had many educators in the group. Since this was July, the weather was in the upper 90’s the entire time and we had very little rain.
If you have trouble walking or doing steps then this is not the trip for you. We were constantly walking and climbing steps. China is not yet handicapped friendly, but you can see that they are changing this. Within 10 years, I think it will be completely handicapped accessible.
When arriving at the hotel we were extremely tired. We met some of our fellow travelers and ventured out to the KFC for a quick bite (rather than a meal at Hotel). The people at KFC were extremely helpful and had picture menus and one staff member who spoke some English. We ordered all drinks without ice. After we were seated and eating for a while, an employee appeared with a new Pepsi and apologized that she put ice in the drink. It was too late, but I had no ill effects. We explored a little and returned to the Hotel, took an Ambien (for the first time) and awoke 8am without jet lag and ready to begin.
A wonderful American and Chinese breakfast awaited us. We ate quickly and boarded the bus by 8:30. Badges on which we wrote our names were handed out and we met Richard, our guide, advisor, shepherd, and “mother.” He stayed with us the entire trip and made sure that any request, question or problem was solved immediately. Everyone felt that we could ask him any question and he would do anything to make our trip better.
We toured Beijing from early morning to late in the evening for 2 ½ days. We were given almost no free or down time. There is so much to see and so much traffic. I will not describe the tours, as you should experience them yourself. We enjoyed them all and the meals were great. Shopping for souvenirs and trinkets were best in Beijing, but again we had little time to shop and were worried about the 43-pound plane limit. We were given plenty of time at stores or factories that were on Viking tours, but these were high priced items. We did buy a rug at the silk factory and expect delivery any day. If you prefer to “shlep” the rug with you, they will charge you slightly less and give you a small rolling suitcase for your purchase.
We flew to Xian on a Chinese airline (all of our intra-China flights were excellent with very attentive flight attendants). Richard told us we could only take one bag of 43 pounds, but since we were flying as a group, they probably would not weigh our luggage individually.
We arrived at the Sofitel hotel. It is probably the best hotel I have every stayed in. Unfortunately we only had time to sleep there because weather delayed our flight by 2 hours. I found one other person who was willing to tour the hotel and the grounds. Everybody else went to sleep. That morning we toured the Terra Cotta Army. Pictures cannot do it justice. Throughout China, store prices are just a starting point. You can also buy fakes statues outside for $1. We flew to Chongqing where we embarked the ship.
All of us embarked and disabarked at the same time. No lines, no waiting, no problems. Our tour guide stayed with us the entire time and along with the cruise ship personnel, solved any and all problems. (If you were doing the cruise only you were still assigned a tour host as all tours are included in the price).
We were greeted by the entire ship staff. They were smiling and seemed very happy to see us arrive. Since there were only 100 of us, I asked for an upgrade, which they were happy to do. We moved more to the middle of the ship, if you wanted to be on higher level they wanted $100 more and to move to Junior suite they want $400. Since we bought the rugs we stayed were we were. All the rooms were exactly the same and since we were on the river, not the ocean, it really did not matter that much where you stayed. The rooms were well appointed, roomy and very comfortable. Each room had cable television with HBO, CNN, BBC and free movies. The bathrooms were larger than many cruise ship bathrooms. There was no clock and therefore I suggest you bring clock for the room.
The ship policy is no reservation for tables. There were only two tables for 10 and since there were two families of 10 they sent people early to grab those table. Christof, the dinning room manger, was incredible. (He was one of three people who was not Chinese). He would do anything for anyone and was around to help anyone with any personal request. We put two round tables together and ate dinner with about 15. Even though you could sit anywhere, we always sat at the same three or four tables because the wait staff was the best we ever had. Cicy, Pandora, Johnson, Eddie and the others were amazing. They learned our names and would always address us by our names whether in the dinning room or not. There was nothing they could not do for us. Talking to other travelers, they said the same about their staff, which is why they always went back to the same tables. There really is no dress code for meals and most males wore shorts for dinner.
We had a tour every day, usually in the morning. Almost everyone went on all the tours. The entire staff would stand at the dock when we left or arrive wishing us a good day or welcoming us back. Upon return to the ship we were given hot washcloths and offered ice water or ice tea. We usually had free time at night and since we docked many nights in a port, I tried to find someone to explore the city with me. There are no restrictions of travel in China and so we just walked and toured. If you are adventurous go out and tour on your own.
The entertainment was minimal. There were several nights that entertainment was provided. Howard, the cruise manager was in charge. The crew put on an hour Chinese fashion show and talent show, bingo once and the Chinese version of name that tune. There was next day briefing each day and some educational lectures. I felt that they could have offered some more entertainment each night. The shows were attended by about 90% of the people. They did have a duo that played every night for dancing but no one really went to listen or dance. By 10:30 the ship was almost totally deserted. There was also a small library and outside the library was a table with a puzzle. People would just add a piece or two as they walked past. The night we docked in Wuhan, of some of younger members went to a club (Christof took them there – they had a great time). Some evenings we went out on deck 6 and looked at the stars. We were told this is very unusual. Usually you cannot see stars during the summer because it’s usually cloudy or raining.
The ship had internet. It was extremely slow and did not always work. They did not charge you if you could not make a connection. The front desk was great.
The pace of the ship was much more relaxing than the full tour portion. One of the beauties about spending ten days on the ship was that for nine nights, there was no “bags out” early call. This was one of best cruise experiences we have ever had. The food, the trips, the room, the ship and the entire staff were great.
We, unfortunately, all had to say goodbye to the staff after 10 days. There were lots of tears and thank you’s. Just a note on tipping…there are several options. You can give individual tips to the staff you feel deserved it, you can put the full amount in cash or credit into the general fund which goes to all Chinese crew (from the cruise director down to the floor cleaners) or, as we did, you can give some money to individuals and give the balance of the amount you choose to the crew’s pot.
Our next stop was Shanghai. On the way we stopped at the silk factory in Suzhou. Most of the items there were available elsewhere in China cheaper, but I am not sure if the quality was not better at the factory. We were on the go from morning until night. The hotel (the Westin) was very nice. The food was not as good as in Beijing and the souvenirs cost a little more. Again, there was little time to shop but there were people outside the bus selling watches. I heard that the other bus, which appeared to be more of shopping crowd, (ours were more of picture takers) bought over 300 watches ($2 to $3). Since we were going to Hong Kong, we had an extra half-day free to shop for souvenirs.
Our group became very close and it was sad to say goodbye; fortunately, 15 of the 32 of us would be together for 4 more days. Richard gave us a list of our group with email addresses and we said we would write. We are also going to set up a picture link online so we can see pictures others took.
Guilin was next and the flight there took around 2 hours and was great. Shanghai airlines actually fed us a meal! We arrived at the hotel, changed and met for dinner, Afterwards some of us went outside in the rain to explore, We had a great time. Guilin is beautiful and we would like to go back and visit. The next day we took a river cruise of the Li river. It was breathtaking and you need to see it for yourself. There was a lunch buffet on the boat, but I suggest you bring something to eat.
We arrived in Hong Kong that night and settled in at the Kowloon Shangri-La. I really enjoyed Hong Kong. Much more English is spoken. We were on our own the entire time except for one morning tour. Everything cost more in Hong Kong, but it was easier to find more expensive types of merchandise. (Suits, glasses, electronics etc.) We visited the night market and Stanley market using cabs, buses and the ferry. One person had wanted to have a hot pot dinner the entire trip. The last night 6 of searched and found a hot pot restaurant across from the hotel as recommended by the fabulous concierge staff. We went about 6PM. Most people in Hong Kong do not eat before 7. We found this small restaurant in the basement of a mall (I guess there were 3-4 hundred tables). Since many people in Hong Kong spoke English, we felt that we would have no problem ordering. The restaurant was empty. It felt like the entire staff waited on us, however only one waiter spoke about four words of English. They gave us 4 menus (They only had 4 English menus in the entire restaurant). One member of our group was an artist and she drew pictures so they would know that we only wanted beef and chicken. You should experience a hot pot meal at least once. By the time we were done the entire restaurant was full. We all ate breakfast together, and promised to email each other.
This was one of the best vacations we have ever taken. The Viking organization, the people we met, the people of China, the guides the hotels and the ship were outstanding. If you are in good health, like to see new places, tour and can walk steps, I feel this is great value and a wonderful experience. If you want a great experience with an up close personal experience than this is for you.