A Viking river cruise and land tour combination shows Bridget McGrouther the highlights of this fascinating country.
Flashing neon signs, shimmering reflections, futuristic skyscrapers and a kaleidoscope of colour, crowds and party boats make the Bund instantly recognisable when we arrive after dark, the perfect time to witness the spectacle of Shanghai’s world-renowned waterfront in all its glitzy glory.
We don’t even need to leave the comfort of our hotel room to enjoy the pulsating light show as our floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the famous Oriental Pearl Tower.
Two nights in this vibrant city is indeed a thrilling welcome to our 14-day Imperial Jewels of China tour.
We meet David, our friendly Viking River Cruises tour guide, to explore Old Shanghai the next morning. A safe and steadying rudder, he leads us effortlessly through intriguing alleyways and bamboo-shaded parks, providing insight into unfolding traditions and culture.
I happily follow local superstition, sprinting round a circle of stones in the Feng Shui Yu Garden. All hopes of increasing my life expectancy are dashed, though, when my husband points out that I’m running in the wrong direction.
To boost health and wellness, locals gather each morning for Tai Chi or line dancing. Cages hang under trees to let pet birds sing and socialise, while poodles on park walks have their ears and tails dyed in rainbow hues. People watching here is never dull.
After a short flight to Wuhan, we were soon meandering down the Yangtze River on board the impressive Viking Emerald, with its grand atrium, bars, boutiques and resident tailor. Each stateroom boasts a private veranda, but most guests soaked in the spectacular river scenery from the Sun Deck.
After all, without the illuminating commentary from staff, we may have missed things: the ancient coffins of the Ba people suspended high on the rock face; wild monkeys; or the panorama of towering peaks and cascading waterfalls that appears on the back of a 10 Yuan note.
Almost daily, an included excursion brought once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Our top pick is a fascinating inspection of the high-tech, high-cost and highly-controversial Three Gorges.
Our young local guide is surprisingly upbeat about being one of the 1.3 million people compulsorily displaced, ironically, so their homes could be submerged to protect others from catastrophic flooding.
This is the world’s largest dam – it took 17 years and $28 billion to construct – and taking a closer look, we are relieved to have the option to take escalators to the top. Later, it takes our ship four hours to navigate the locks, a sight we enjoy from the Observation Lounge.
One steamy dawn, we disembark and pass villagers hand washing their clothes in the river en route to cross the rickety Drunken Bridge and climb the magical Shibaozhai Temple.
Legend has it that the higher you climb the very steep steps of this 12-storey pagoda, built in 1650, the more your prayers will be answered. Huffing and puffing, I’m just praying I can reach the top.
Yet our wishes are fast coming true on this extraordinary journey. Despite arriving in July, China’s rainy season, we are blessed with blue skies and sunshine.
Life on board is as cosseted as a panda’s – eating and sleeping, sleeping and eating. Western comfort food is served along with Chinese delicacies, though I’m not tempted by jellyfish or rooster claws!
Glasses at mealtimes are quickly replenished with all-inclusive wine, beer and soft drinks, and the free WiFi is surprisingly speedy.
We are sorry to leave our charming crew at the end of our six-day river cruise, but our spirits are soon lifted by watching giant pandas, including a comical newborn, at Chongqing Zoo.
Our now close-knit group of international passengers can hardly wait for our next adventure – two nights in Xi’an where we set eyes on the army of Terracotta Warriors, described as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Buried 2,200 years ago to guard the tomb and afterlife of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, an estimated 8,000 warriors, cavalry and archers with individual features, along with chariots and warhorses, filled the cavernous underground spaces. Many remain buried, unable to be recovered, but what we can see is impressive.
We also learn all about the only female Chinese Empress, Madame Wu, and her saucy life with concubines. More and more captivated by Chinese history, we are kept entertained by David telling us about the Shang, Zhou, Xin, Tang, Ming and Qing dynasties.
An optional evening excursion to the Tang Dynasty Dinner Show with hypnotic theatrical displays proved as spellbinding as the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe we saw earlier in the trip.
We take a third regional flight (all included in the package price) to Beijing. China’s capital may be last, but it certainly isn’t least.
During our three-night stay, we climb the surprisingly steep Great Wall of China with stunning panoramic views across the countryside. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is visited as much, if not more, by the Chinese, who visit in droves, as foreigners. Shy requests for photos make us feel like celebrities and we giggle when we learn that their nickname for Westerners is ‘Big Noses’!
In Tiananmen Square, we whisper questions about the delicate subject of the tragic 1989 student pro-democracy protests. Security is tight here – bags are searched and soldiers guard Mao’s Mausoleum.
Nearby, after being banned from entering the Forbidden City for more five centuries, it seems everyone has arrived in the world’s largest palace complex at once! But not even the hordes, surging in the heat, can detract from the grandeur of the gilded roofs, gardens, pavilions and courtyards, once home to a long line of emperors.
On a trip packed with so many highlights, it’s hard to pick a favourite moment. I eventually pick a moment on the Yangtze River, dwarfed by the sheer-sided Three Gorges, as the most incredible part of our journey.
On a smaller river boat, winding through the narrow Goddess Stream, a secret corner of China only recently opened to tourism, our local guide from a remote mountain village charmed us with her folklore tales and singing. The sweetness of her voice carrying across the water and echoing around the limestone cliffs is one of the many special memories we will treasure forever.
Exploring China’s cultural icons such as the Great Wall of China, Forbidden City and Terracotta Warriors. Cruising the dramatic Yangtze River in comfort on Viking Emerald with delicious food – Western dishes as well as Chinese delicacies are available.
City smog and river pollution. Humidity and high temperatures. Guided walks at crowded attractions require a reasonable level of fitness.
First-time visitors to China who prefer to have everything organised for them and all costs paid upfront.