06.05.2015 - 09.05.2015 18 °C
For some years we have both had an interest in seeing China. What better way to see the country than combining a land tour with a River Cruise on one of the great rivers of the world, the Yangtze? After a bit of research we settled on a package offered by Viking River Cruises which offered a 5 day cruise along the Yangtze River bookended with multi day guided land tours for a total of 18 days. We had travelled in Europe with Viking and found them to be a high quality tour operator with above average service and the best guides in the business. Joining us again for another adventure were Sue and Roy Vanderkwaak. Sue and Roy are Emily’s (Hazel’s daughter) in laws. We tell people we share a grandson, Avery the perfect – at least in the eyes of his two grandmothers.
We selected the latter part of May for the trip as that seemed to be the best compromise for weather.
Map of our travel route
As an overview we would first fly to Beijing for several days of land based touring, then fly to Xian for more land touring. Then we would fly to Chongqing where we would board the Viking Emerald River Cruise. We would then spend the next 5 days cruising eastwards along the Yangtze. We would eventually pass through the famous Three Gorges area and finally through the locks at the Three Gorges dam, and continue on to the city of Wuhan. There we would leave the ship and take a flight to Shanghai where we would tour for several days. After Shanghai we once again board a plane and fly to Guilin for some local touring and then another flight to Hong Kong before returning home.
After reviewing the itinerary for the trip we decided that it would be next to impossible to live blog this trip so we are sending it out after the fact as many of you have expressed an interest in reading it.
Day 1 Travel - May 6, 2015
The day was warm and sunny as we left for Pearson airport. The flight left right on time at 3:00 pm. We were well fed as we watched several movies and snoozed during the 13+ hour flight. We had 4 aisle seats and found that to be a good choice on a long flight. Flight staff were especially pleasant. We arrived in Beijing where it was 4 pm the next day, 4 am Toronto time - the time change between Toronto and Beijing is 12 hours. Our research indicated that the weather should be fairly good at this time of year with “clear” sunny days with an average high of 24 and cool nights with lows around 14C.
Day 2 Beijing, China - May 7, 2015
Although a bit bleary-eyed from the long semi-sleepless flight we were excited to finally be in China. The Beijing airport is pretty typical of most international airports, huge with endless corridors leading off to a multitude of other gates and various destinations. The airport is very well signed with the usual symbols as well as instructions in Chinese and English. We made our way through the jostling long line ups for immigration and once clear of immigration walked to the baggage area where we were met by several Viking Tours representatives. We discovered that there were a number of folks arriving around the same time from other flights who would be on our tour. After collecting all of us and verifying that all of our baggage had arrived we were led out the parking lot and boarded the big touring coach with the Viking sign in the front window. As is typical on these types of tours other staff ferried our luggage off to another area where it was loaded into a separate truck which would bring our luggage to the hotel and deliver it to our rooms.
The ride through the Beijing rush hour traffic was our first view of China and the first impression would be repeated many times. The weather was pleasantly warm with a bit of a hazy overcast. The traffic was very heavy with everyone including our hugh highway coach vying for position. Lane changes to gain a 50 meter advantage in the traffic were common even for our huge bus. There was not a hint of road rage as drivers edged in front and around each other constantly. Everyone just seemed to take it in stride. If you were a little slow in closing the gap between you and the car in front of you someone would slip into that space in the blink of an eye. It is all part of the game and much healthier than our ego driven road rage antics in the west. It was much the same as we have seen in other travels in the Far East as well as the Middle East.
The cars were much the same as you might see on any western European city with lots of Honda, Toyota and Hyundai models everywhere. The German manufacturers were also well represented with many VWs, Audis and Mercedes and the odd BMW. There were even a smattering of North American models such as compacts from Chevrolet and Buick. Interestingly there were only a few local Chinese models. Like North America many of the Japanese and German models are in fact assembled here in China.
Beijing is a very modern huge city (20 million+ depending on what area you count) with great roads and very high building density. Green space is at a premium but wherever possible they have built little parkettes or strips of green. Public infrastructure is well built and well maintained. After a 50 minute ride we finally arrived at our destination the lovely Westin Chaoyang Hotel in the heart of downtown Beijing. We were both up on the 24th floor. The rooms were lovely, spacious and comfortable.
Westin Chaoyang Hotel room
View of Beijing from our hotel
After getting oriented to our new home for the next 3 days, we changed and headed out to see what we could find for a quick light dinner – this is one of the few meals not provided by our tour company, Viking. After all the food on the plane ride we were not very hungry and the hotel restaurants were more geared towards full course fancy dinners so we headed out across a courtyard to an underground shopping complex that was connected to the same building complex as our hotel. We picked up a bottle of Australian wine in a 7-11 type store and a Subway sandwich which we took back to our hotel. While dining on our sandwhich and wine we reviewed our itiniary for the next few days. We headed off to bed early hopefully to overcome some of the jet lag. The 12 hour time difference had certainly taken a toll.
Day 3 Beijing, China – May 8, 2015
This morning we boarded our tour bus and set out once again to make our way through the chaos of very heavy rush hour traffic. Our goal this morning was to visit the enormous Tiananmen Square, which can accommodate over 1 million people. The square is 100 acres in size – the world’s largest public square. It was difficult to get a picture which would show its great size.
We left the bus and joined the tens of thousands of Chinese tourists as we walked through the square towards the gate of the Forbidden City. The square has a very large monument is the center in front of the huge Congress building.
Monument in Tiananmen Square
To the right and behind the monument is a large building which is the mausoleum where Chairman Mao’s body is housed in a crystal coffin. The whole set up reminded us of our experience in Vietnam when we visited the similar tomb of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi.
Mausoleum for Chairman Mao
Right across the street from the Square is the Gate of Heavenly Peace which is the entrance to the Forbidden City. This Gate is where you see the famous picture of Chairman Mao which you can see behind this picture our group.
Our Viking tour group in Tienanmen Square in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace
This painting of Mao is an oil painting and is re done each year. It is said that no matter where you are in the square the Chairman seems to be looking at you. Interestingly the “bloom is clearly off the rose” in terms of Mao's credibility with the younger people.
Portrait of Chairman Mao
Through the Gate of Heavenly Peace you find The Forbidden City which is a huge palace complex where the emperors lived. It is supposed to have 9,999 rooms and is organized in concentric rings. Each ringed area is entered through a gate. It is called Forbidden City due to the fact that regular people were prohibited from living within the walls. Only people related to the Emperor or working on the Emperor’s staff were permitted to work within the walls. The higher you were in society the closer you could go to the center where the emperor was. There were some 3000 people serving the emperor. Beijing’s Forbidden City is now an UNESCO World Heritage site. Made up of nearly 1,000 buildings, it is the world’s largest surviving palace complex. We walked through its grounds among the formerly opulent palaces, pavilions, courtyards and imperial gardens within the 26-foot-high walls. Once again there were thousands of Chinese tourists with us so we weren’t able to actually see much of the interiors as the local tourists jostled and crowded in to see every detail. The Chinese folks are lovely and polite but in a crowd it is every person for him or herself. With elbows at the ready even the elderly grandmothers can push their way past most westerners in the blink of an eye.
Inside the Forbidden City
Inside the Forbidden City
Inside the Forbidden City
Inside the Forbidden City
The Imperials Gardens Inside the Forbidden City
The Imperial Gardens Inside the Forbidden City
Lunch at a local restaurant
After lunch we returned to our hotel where we had a few free hours before gathering at our hotel for dinner. Most of the group had a nap as we were still trying to get over jet lag.
Some of us had elected to go on an optional excursion to see a Peking Opera. This meant that we had to keep the nap short in order to have an early dinner so we could catch our tour bus which would take us to the opera. The restaurant at this hotel, The Westin, is huge and has one of the best buffets we have experienced. So off we went to the Opera bellies full and still a bit jet lagged.
The Opera was “an experience” with a lot of the singing done by the female lead in that familiar very high pitched Chinese singing voice that sounds a bit like our old siamese cats in a fight. Guess we need some additional cultural training. However, Dave seemed to enjoy it as he caught up on his snooze time through much of it.
The musicians sit on the stage off to one side
Day 4 Beijing, China – May 9, 2015
After a very early breakfast at the wonderful hotel buffet we were loaded onto our coaches at 7:15 am to travel outside the city to the Badaling Hills were we were able to see one of the most impressive and best-preserved sections of the Great Wall of China.
From the bus, we took a cable car up the mountains.
Cable Car up to the Great Wall
Cable car up to the Great Wall
This 6,500-kilometer long series of sandstone and earthwork fortifications was built and maintained between the 5th century BC and the 16th century AD, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The whole site was incredibly crowded with 98% of the crowd being Chinese tourists. This section of the wall was very steep in spots. The views were amazing despite the low clouds and mist.
The Great Wall
The Great Wall
Dave at a steep part of The Great Wall
Once again we found ourselves in the midst of throngs of Chinese toursts. Literally thousands of us worked our way up a very steep section of the wall. Although there was a heavy mist you can see the wall stretching across the valley below and up over the next set of hills.
The Great Wall
Roy and Sue on the Great Wall
The Great Wall continues in the distance
After our walking tour of the Great Wall we boarded our bus and headed back towards Beijing stopping just short of the city proper for a lunch and tour of a local jade carving and jewellery-making business. Some of the carvings were truly amazing.
Craftsman carving jade
Jade Carving of 2 horses
Jade sailing ship
Sue modelling a lovely jade necklace
After lunch we headed out and visited the “Sacred Way” a tree-lined avenue guarded by 18 pairs of massive stone sculptures of figures of people and animals (elephants, camels, lions and mythical beasts) leading to the Ming Dynasty tombs. By now there was a steady light rain and we went through the motions as our tour guide explained the significance of the site which was only discovered a few years ago.
The Sacred Way of the Tombs
There are 2 of each animal which are facing each other lined along this long boulevard – one standing and one resting
Dave with a Guard
The person who carved this elephant had never seen an elephant and did not realize that he got the front legs wrong
We then travelled back to the hotel where we had a little time to relax before heading out again. This time we had selected another optional activity which is the opportunity to dine at a local restaurant and enjoy a Peking duck dinner, the region’s most famous local dish. We returned to the Westin and headed for bed quickly. Tomorrow we would have our last tours in Beijing and then board a flight for Xian in central China.