I considered myself well traveled, and certainly I’ve seen much more of the world than anyone else in my family. But to be truthful, I’d always played it safe. Having had a smattering of romance languages in school, I focused on North and South America, Australia, the Caribbean and Europe. Scandinavia was the only place I’d visited where I didn’t speak a word of the native languages, and that didn’t seem to matter, as everyone in Scandinavia seems to speak English — I was spared the feeling of being out of my element. Needless-to-say, I’d avoided the Middle East, Asia and Africa — a big chunk of the world.
My reluctance stemmed from three basic truths:
1. I would know not one word of the language, written or spoken.
2. I would be somewhat ignorant of cultural etiquette.
3. I would have to be on an escorted tour, and would therefore have a limited and biased viewpoint.
These truths have not changed. But just as it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all, or to read Crime and Punishment in translation, than to never have read it at all, it’s also better to have experienced a new country and culture on an escorted tour, than never to have experienced it at all.
With that in mind, my youngest son and I headed to China to cruise the Yangtze with the world’s biggest river cruise line, Viking River Cruises, which expanded its operations from Europe in 2004. Of the nearly half a million Americans who visited China last year, Viking River Cruises hosted about 18,000. We chose a 9 day tour (longer itineraries are available). Since the Yangtze portion takes just a few days, Viking does a wonderful job of augmenting the tour with fascinating side trips that will round out your experience.
Throughout the trip, you’ll be accompanied by English speaking guides who do an amazing job of keeping everyone comfortable, informed and on time. I learned as much about modern China from our guides, as I did by observation.
Before you start you should be aware that the China you will see is not (for the most part) the rural, agricultural China characterized by peasants and their water buffalo in rice paddies. The China you will see is the modern, urban China, and the historic China.
We flew in on Air Canada. Unless you have frequent flyer miles to burn, booking airfare through the cruise line will save you a bundle. It’s a long trip, to be sure, but Viking has no plans for you on your arrival day, so you’ll have time to rest up and recover from jet lag.
Our guides met us at the airport and on the drive into the city three things struck me. First, Beijing has a peculiar smell, a slightly spicy combination of cooking oil, auto exhaust and millions of inhabitants. It’s not entirely unpleasant, but it is pervasive. Second, there are numerous signs in English. It may be that in this polyglot country with dozens of ethnic groups who cannot communicate with each other, English is becoming a useful meeting ground, or perhaps it’s just a way to make foreign business investors feel at home. Whatever the reason, we saw this phenomenon in Beijing, Xian, Chongqing and Shanghai. Third, the number of cars amazed me. Based on documentary films, I’d been expecting a city full of bicycles. The roads funneling into the massive Tiananmen Square are 10 lanes wide, but only one lane is reserved for bicycles; the rest are filled with rather new European automobiles. The city center is awash in prosperity.
We stayed at the Beijing Hotel, a luxurious, modern hotel like many others around the world, though here and there sporting certain Chinese ornamentation as well as some of the most elaborate jade carvings you’ll ever see. The main restaurant, however, is an Outback Steakhouse.
The morning after our arrival we took an early walk to find an ATM as the city awoke and prepared for the day. In front of a department store, not yet open, we observed employees practicing Tai Chi. Another contingent, which appeared to be security guards, practiced more aggressive martial arts moves. The guards were all dressed in identical uniforms except for the footwear, which consisted of various brands of sneakers (speaking of which — pack a good pair of walking shoes, as the best sights on this trip require a bit of exercise). Not surprising, we found Tai Chi is commonly practiced outdoors in the city parks, but we were amazed to see that outdoor ballroom dancing to classical Chinese music is also a popular way to exercise.
While each itinerary varies, depending on the length of your visit, all of Viking’s tours include excursions to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China On our first full day in Beijing we visited one of the best-preserved sections of the Great Wall of China, about an hour’s bus ride outside the city in the Badaling Hills. Again, take your walking shoes; the wall snakes up through the mountains and you’ll have an hour or two to hike along the top of the wall to find the best views. In April we had a bit of rain and snow, which did nothing to dampen our enjoyment. This might be an opportune time to note the two items I wish I’d brought with me: a collapsible umbrella and a small pair of binoculars.
If you have time, at the foot of the wall you’ll find some Chinese souvenir shops with beautiful silk jackets, embroidered tablecloths, carved jade and the like. These proved among the best bargains of the trip.
On the way back we stopped for lunch at the Long Di Superior Jade Gallery and restaurant. If this stop is included on your itinerary I advise you to eat fast, because you’ll want as much time as possible to explore the large store and watch the artisans at work on jade carving and enamel painting. Afterwards, a brief visit to the pandas at the Beijing zoo rounded out our afternoon.
For dinner we assembled again to take a bus to the Beijing Regal Palace Theatre for classical Chinese cuisine and the chance to see the Peking Opera, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. That first day was long and exhausting, but one of the most memorable of the trip.
The second day we toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which are just a few blocks from the hotel. At 100 acres the square is the world’s biggest, designed to accommodate more than a million people. Chairman Mau’s tomb is there, and on the weekends the line of people queuing to see the mummified chairman stretch a mile around the square. The square is crowded, day or night, and here you’ll be initiated in the art of ignoring the street hawkers, who will dog your every step. China is full of entrepreneurial spirit, and there is plenty to buy on the street, but if you stop to examine one vendor’s wares, prepare to be assaulted by all of his or her competitors.
The Forbidden City is one of the world’s greatest historical sites. Home to China’s emperors for over 600 years, construction of the 175-acre complex was begun in 1274 A.D. during the reign of Kublai Khan and continued into the 1400s. The best preserved of all of China’s ancient buildings, the walled city is comprised of 800 buildings constructed on a grand scale, with precisely 9,999 rooms. You’ll enjoy the limestone carvings, bronze statues, elaborate tile work, and rooftop gargoyles. A grove of trees in the emperor’s private garden is nearly as old as the complex itself. American Express has provided English signs throughout the city to explain the historical significance of each room, courtyard or statue.
In the afternoon we took the short flight to Xian, the capital of 12 imperial dynasties beginning over 3,100 years ago. Our introduction to Xian began with a Tang Dynasty dinner show, which highlighted classical Chinese music and dance. The entertainment was superb, and the food was a large sampling of typical dishes such as Sichuan style stir-fried scallops; sautéed diced beef; purée of winter melon with crab meat; deep-fried mashed taro; steamed dumplings and crispy crust egg tartlets. On the whole, the food throughout the trip was what you’d expect to find in a good restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Though Xian is an historic walled city with much to offer, we’d only come to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. This army of 7,000 life-size terra cotta soldiers, plus horses, chariots and weapons were created to guard Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. Dating from two hundred years B.C.E., each 5 foot 11 inch figure, with its solid lower body and hollow torso, was originally brightly painted. After the emperor’s death his successor’s minions spitefully destroyed many of the figures, and all were buried until 1974, when peasants drilling a well came up with pieces of pottery and took them to local archeologists. Each figure has a distinct face and incredibly detailed armor according to rank, providing a window into a past that was previously known only from ancient texts.
After viewing the warriors you’ll have ample opportunity to purchase souvenirs from the gift shop. If you’re after toy sized terra cotta warriors, you’d do better to buy from the wandering peddlers who roam the grounds (you’ll pay less than half price).
We ate at the museum restaurant, where you can watch the chefs prepare fresh noodles, hand stretching them in a way that called to mind Italian pizza makers. I would like to have seen more of Xian, but we had a boat to catch. We flew through the afternoon and early evening to China’s largest city, Chongqing, where the Viking Century Sky was moored for our arrival.
The day before our arrival in Chongqing, 19 of its citizens were killed by baseball-sized hail (everything seems to happen on a massive scale in China). When we arrived the river was about 60 feet below the riverbank, if you can call it a riverbank. It’s actually a steep-sided canal built of rock and concrete. Why? Because the water level can rise by as much as one hundred feet in the summer! Our boat had tied up to the riverbank two days before, but the previous day’s rain and hailstorm caused the river to flood, so that the boat now rested in mid-channel. We took the narrow steps down to the river, then crossed to the boat on a pontoon bridge.
The Century Sky is a gorgeous boat — 415 feet long, 56 feet wide, with 5 decks and 153 cabins, accommodating 306 passengers and 165 crewmembers. It has 2 elevators, a 5-room spa, beauty salon, and a fitness room. Sign up for a massage the moment you get on the boat, or you may miss out. Each cabin, measuring 221 square feet, has its own balcony, and individual air-conditioning for those of you traveling in the warmer months. Each cabin is also equipped with shower, phone, television (with English language selections), sofa, and a small desk with an internet connection (though the connection was not yet working on our inaugural trip). Credit cards are not accepted onboard or along the way, so be sure to lay-in some cash for shopping.
Now a few words about the Yangtze River. One of the reasons I was keen to come on this trip was to see the river itself. At 3,434 miles long, the Yangtze is the third longest river in the world, behind the Nile and the Amazon. 398 million people (34% of China’s population) reside in 185 cities within its watershed, as does 40% of the grain production, 48% of its freshwater fish, and 40% of the total industrial output value.
We were to traverse only the upper part of the river from Chongqing to Yichang where the Three Gorges Dam has been built. The dam, the largest construction project in human history, has been controversial from the start. The decision to build it had to be difficult, because its construction comes with various trade-offs. At its completion in 2009 the dam will raise the water level permanently by 370 feet between Yichang and Chongqing, displacing about 1.5 million people, submerging 2,000 villages, towns and cities, as well as numerous archeological sites. What the government hopes to gain is a huge boost in hydroelectric power, estimated at enough to supply about a tenth of the nation’s electricity, thus reducing the amount of coal that is burned, and at the same time gain control of a river that has killed more than a million people in floods in the last century. On the other hand, environmentalists point out that the river annually discharges 500 million tons of silt into the Yellow Sea, which will now build up behind the dam. Only time will tell.
Our first day on the Century Sky was spent on a leisurely 170-mile cruise from Chongqing to the Shibaozhai Pagoda. The temple, whose name means Precious Stone Stronghold, was built in 1650 atop this 720-foot rock bluff, and was originally accessed only by a chain lift. A nine-story structure with stairway was added in 1819, allowing easier access to the top of the bluff and the temple. Built without nails or screws, it leans against the sheer stone cliff. A final three stories was added on the bluff-top in 1956. From there you’ll have a fine panoramic view of the river. Don’t miss the ancient giant salamander in the well; you’ll have to see it to believe it.
I should mention that getting from the boat to the entrance to the temple you’ll run a gauntlet of merchants vying for your business. Their persistence can be annoying, but you’ll find some great bargains and very high quality merchandize here. I walked away with an exquisitely embroidered silk coat.
Back on the ship, we enjoyed a Western style dinner of risotto and nut encrusted duck breast, accompanied by Chinese wines (New World and European wines are also offered). My son was feeling a bit jet-lagged, or simply exhausted from the day’s activities, and elected to go to bed. I’m glad I didn’t follow suit, as the evening’s entertainment was an awe inspiring acrobatic show that made Olympic performances pale in comparison.
The next morning at 7:00 A.M. I joined the heartiest of our companions on the upper deck as we sailed through the Qutang Gorge. It’s a short half hour excursion through the steep-sided gorge where the water is emerald green and the scenery reminds one of Norwegian fjords. The peaks here are nearly 4,000 feet tall, and the river is only 500 feet at its widest point.
An hour and a half later we arrived in the city of Wushan and transferred to a smaller boat for a cruise up the Lesser Three Gorges on the Daning River. The term lesser is a misnomer. The Lesser Gorges are not less grand than the Great Gorges, they’re just narrower. My parents-in-law, who traversed the river in the early 1990’s, were convinced that the rising waters behind the dam would diminish my experience. My own impression is that the dam has actually enhanced the experience. It’s true that the 2,000 foot peaks are now a couple hundred feet closer, but it’s also true that the upper reaches of the ‘Lesser Gorges’ are now accessible as never before, and now you can view them from a comfortable ferry, instead of a sampan. The Dragon Gate Gorge, Misty Gorge and Emerald Gorge are situated along 20 miles of the Daning River, separated by areas where the river widens to reveal small towns and farms. We watched men on impossibly steep slopes, harvesting a long grass that is made into paper, and saw towns that are being moved upslope away from the rising river. The water here is clear, and the steep cliffs are verdant with grass, bushes and here and there stands of bamboo. The tiny farms along the way are built on terraces. In the Emerald Gorge you’ll see monkeys, ancient ‘hanging coffins,’ and the remains of a plank road that was supported by bamboo poles inserted into holes that were dug into the rock. Near the top of the Emerald Gorge, just up-river from a Buddhist Monastery, we had a luncheon on a shaded patio perched above the river.
After lunch I inquired about a sampan we passed that was tied up to the bank. I was told it was a water taxi for the farmers that lived on the other side of the hill, and indeed you could make out a trail that wound back and forth up and over the top of the 2,000-foot high peak. Each Tuesday the farmers bundle their produce on their backs, climb up one side of the mountain and down the other to the water taxi, to take their goods to market downstream.
We arrived back at the Century Sky in time for afternoon tea and scenic cruising down the 25 mile long Wu Gorge, in many ways the most impressive of all. The towering peaks and sheer sides of the Wu Gorge make it worth lounging about on deck to get the full vertical view. The peaks are often obscured by mist, but we were lucky to be there on a clear and sunny day.
After the Captain’s Dinner, a traditional Chinese meal designed by world famous Chef Martin Yan, we arrived at the Three Gorges Dam in the evening. The next day we disembarked the Century Sky and spent the morning touring the great dam, which spans an incredible 1.2 miles across the Yangtze. In the afternoon we flew to Shanghai, where we enjoyed a Shanghai-style farewell dinner.
As our flight didn’t leave until late afternoon of the next day, we had some time in the morning to explore The Bund. Shanghai is a big, modern city, which showcases both how far China has come, and how far it has to go. It boasts the most modern amenities, but coal powered electric plants create a thick pall of smog. We had to fly an hour eastward before the air cleared. Still, China is a fascinating destination, full of problems, surely, and full of promise, as well. Now I’ve seen Beijing, stood on the Great Wall, and cruised through the Three Gorges. But there is so much more to see, and China is changing with each passing day.
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