Take a time-travelling journey into China’s Imperial past along the Yangtze
Liz Bell boards the MS Viking Emerald to experience an ancient world of heritage and culture.
Like a latter-day Great Wall, the Three Gorges Dam dazzles with its immense scale of concept and construction. At the half way point on this extended Yangtze River cruise, the Dam dramatically divides the scenic beauty of the upper river from the industrial lower reaches below Wushan; juggernaut barges laden with sulphur, silt, sand and cement testify to China’s industrial frenzy and booming economy.
As the centuries old “land of fish and rice” gives way to the 21st century these contradictory forces kept us spellbound on our journey.
The elegant MS Viking Emerald gave us front row seats as this ancient civilisation revealed its hidden gems.
Before this inspiring adventure, Shanghai is a wake-up call; this megalopolis of nearly 20 million people oozes confidence as it clamours for the trappings of Western capitalism.
But old China can be found in the tranquil beauty of the 16th century Yuyuan Garden where zig-zag paths and ornamental eaves defy evil spirits, as if a million miles from the screaming skyscrapers of Pudong, Shanghai’s futuristic financial centre. Classical Chinese landscape gardens with elaborate rockeries and vistas of water become a constant motif, as in Suzhou, where silk seems older than time.
The 7th century Grand Canal linked Suzhou to Beijing, carrying fabulous textiles to the north then westward via the Silk Road. The movers and shakers of the 14th – 17th centuries – scholars, officials and merchants – created Suzhou as the Venice of the East. Their sophisticated homes and courtyard gardens discreetly bordered a network of canals.
In the Suzhou Silk Factory, industrious worms still gorge on mulberry leaves, and the delightful garden of the Master of the Fishing Net continues to enchant. How incredible that this helped found an empire.
An exuberant lion dance welcomed us onto the Viking Emerald in Nanjing.
All amenities enhance the authentic Chinese ambience, from early morning Tai Chi to on-board tailoring – a great excuse for silken seduction. The spa offers Qigong massage, whilst light-hearted Chinese lessons and Mahjong sessions add to the oriental flavour.
A country’s cuisine is at the heart of its culture, and 3 Chinese dinners showcase regional dishes. Hens’ feet were an optional highlight at a lunch buffet, but the food is resoundingly western and delicious, served by a welcoming young Chinese team.
Fascinating on-board lectures weave the narrative of the past linking strands of Buddhism, Confucian philosophy and fengshui to enrich visits to such sites as the outrageously ornate Jiuhua Mountain Temples where brilliant splashes of red and yellow vie with vibrant Buddhas to contrast with sombre black-robed pilgrims who chant for the souls of loved ones. Saffron-clad monks flit silently about their business, watched over by the mummified body of a 126 year old monk, covered in gold leaf; he’s an icon for worshippers – and curious tourists.
Silk and porcelain may be clichéd souvenirs, but Jingdezhen, the ceramic capital of China, raises the bar. The motorway scythes through classic rural scenery: overcast skies are mirrored in paddy fields; water buffalo graze in rice stubble; earthen walls shore up irrigation channels; then blue and white porcelain lamp-posts graciously announce our arrival in town.
At the Ancient Kiln, craftsmen at enduring medieval work stations coax the region’s special clay into the finest porcelain which delighted Emperors for a thousand years.
Further up-river we meet the future face of China on a visit to a school in Jingzhou sponsored by Viking. Forget heritage dances here; welcomed in perfect English by a young student, we watched the girls perform a routine worthy of the X-Factor while the boys larked around in the background. In the classroom, crammed with desks, the children eagerly showed their English workbooks, with rhymes sung to the tune of “Frere Jacques.”
Outside the gate, a peasant woman aged anything from 20 to 90, tilled the verge with rudimentary hand tools: it felt like China in a nutshell.
Sheer serendipity discovered the Terracotta Warriors but they are in danger of being upstaged by the treasures of Wuhan, where 2600 year-old gold and lacquered artefacts, together with an awe-inspiring set of two-tone bronze bells tell of a civilisation whose artistry and technical skill has been driven by the hubris of successive dynasties.
Even Mao Tse Tung fits the mould – the Three Gorges Dam is his legacy. An avid poet, he expressed his dream in the 1950s for “Walls of stone/To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain.” And they do.
Completed in 2009, this is the world’s largest hydropower project and the most controversial. Ringed by jagged limestone peaks shimmering softly in the opalescent light of a hazy sun, the colossal structure of the Dam’s retaining wall dominates the landscape; it must; it has to stop the world’s 3rd longest river dead in its tracks. Power generation, flood control and navigation are the key benefits but the resettlement of 1.3 million people is an unsettling statistic.
Ships of 10,000 tons now navigate 400 miles up-river to Chongqing, rising 370 feet through five locks, taking 4 hours to transit. It’s a dramatic moment as the huge lock gates ease open and the Viking Emerald is dwarfed by the cavernous chamber.
Floating metal bollards clank and grind, bats gather in the dusk and barges loaded with cranes settle alongside.
A hesitant sun greets early risers in Wu Gorge, famous for its 12 limestone peaks, usually wreathed in mist. The ethereal atmosphere comes alive as ancient legends are narrated on deck below wisps of cloud swirling around the fanciful shapes of the canyon.
Thanks to the Dam, we cruise in safety and relish heart-stopping tales of former deadly currents and the trackers who toiled along the perilous towpaths. At Wushan, we transfer to a jauntily painted boat with flaring eaves to explore the jade waters and soaring ochre cliffs of the Lesser Three Gorges. Bells ring as goats scramble up the banks and monkeys chatter, as if resenting our intrusion into this timeless scene. We crane our necks in wonder to glimpse hanging coffins, 2000 years old, from the Ba period wedged into a cave at an impossible height.
Cries of “Lookee, lookee” greet our arrival at each creaking pontoon where pop-up markets sell the must-have items of the day from Mao memorabilia to ponchos. Riverside life is busy and full of surprises: squawking chickens, tied by their feet, are swung from sampans up to town; pigs and chickens travel by bus to meet their fate in Fengdu; bamboo yokes serve as shopping bags; scaffolding poles make improvised sedan chairs; and women with bamboo baskets of laundry on their backs, head down to the Yangtze.
But in Xian, we’re more concerned with the dead than the living: the mortal remains of the first Emperor Qin have long since crumbled but his astonishing Terracotta Army of 221 BC shows he had other plans.
Determined to unite China, he built the Great Wall, and commanded the construction of 8000 warriors to accompany him beyond the grave. Charioteers and infantrymen stand in serried ranks, their faces individually sculpted, the intricacies of hair and clothing painstakingly detailed, with even the tread on the soles of a kneeling archer’s shoes. Back in the shop, the frail farmer who discovered the site in 1974 is on hand to sign guide books.
I paid up and felt my spine tingle.
Beijing is the final showstopper starring the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Great Wall, and the modern behemoths of Tiananmen Square and the 2008 Olympics site.
The world’s oldest civilisation can still deliver its wow factor alongside modern marvels. Like yin and yang, it’s the perfect combination.
Facts and figures
The Ship: MS Viking Emerald: Built 2011; 5 Decks; Length 110 metres; Beam 17 metres; 256 Guests; 138 Crew; 128 Staterooms (2 Explorer Suites, 14 Suites, 4 Jr. Suites, 108 Veranda) All staterooms and suites have a veranda with sliding glass doors.
Itinerary: China’s Cultural Delights – this cruisetour combines 11 days on the Yangtze River between Nanjing and Chongqing with 6 nights in Shanghai (2), Xian (1) and Beijing (3). Excursions include a range of cultural sites – Mt. Jiu Hua, Jingdezhen, Wuhan, Yueyang, Jingzhou, Three Gorges Dam, Lesser Three Gorges, Shibaozhai, Fengdu, Terracotta Warriors, Great Wall, Forbidden City.
Duration: Seventeen days
Guest Profile: Mainly American, mostly 50+, single guests welcome
Facilities: Restaurant, bar, library, internet cafe, Wi-Fi, gym, 2 elevators, boutiques, tailor, Chinese massage, beauty salon and hairdresser, doctor, laundry service
When to Go: April/May and October/November best to avoid intense heat and humidity of summer.
What to Pack: Casual dress code with informal evenings, although Captain’s Dinner is smarter. Bring walking shoes, a waterproof jacket, and adaptable layers. Hat, gloves, backpack, camera, sunglasses, sunscreen
What to Buy: Silks, pearls and Chinese souvenirs available in the on-board boutiques. Visits include a silk factory, carpet workshop, Jingdezhen ceramics and jade showrooms.
Unique Selling Point: Experienced Viking staff lead an enthusiastic and welcoming Chinese team who add enormously to the experience. Groups of guests are assigned to their own Guide for the entire tour. Quietvox earphones provide clear delivery of information. Comprehensive lecture programme supports and enriches cultural visits. A performance by the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe is included, with optional visits to Tang Dynasty Show in Xian and Peking Opera. Inclusive cruise-tour package with transfers
Cruise Line: Viking River Cruises, tel. 1-877-668-4546, website: http://www.vikingrivercruises.com
Planning your Journey: Visa required for UK citizens – this can be arranged through Viking. Non-UK citizens should check with their consulate for visa information. Check current immunisation advice with a travel clinic a few weeks before travel. Levels of pollution may not be suitable for people with respiratory conditions.
Optional post-cruisetour package of 4 nights to Guilin and Hong Kong.