Just returned from Viking’s China’s Cultural Delights – August 15 through August 31. It was fantastic! I wanted to provide some information to those who will travel in the future. This is not a day-by-day dairy, but rather some important things that we learned while on the trip that might be useful to you. We were a group of four traveling from Shanghai to Beijing.
As I said, the trip was fantastic. Everything went as planned and there were no problems. Viking seems to think of everything and they leave no detail to chance. From our plane reservations, to meeting our representative in Shanghai, transfers to the hotel, 5 star hotel reservations, buses, local guides, dinners for 210 people, the ship arriving and departing on time, luggage, and our Tour Escort – all perfectly coordinated.
Our Tour Escort was Francis. He was beyond great. Articulate, funny, knowledgeable, filled with facts and interpretations, helpful, detailed to a fault, caring and thorough. He was the consummate “mother hen” who kept us on schedule and helped us with our every need. All of the guests thought that their Tour Escort was great and this is quite a testament to Viking who employs such wonderful people.
The trip was a great value for the money. When you consider all of the meals, transportation, transfers, guides, intra-China air, 5 star hotels, and of course the ship, you really get a lot. With that said, there are still a lot of extra charges that come into play – travel insurance, visas, shots, tips, tips, and more tips, souvenirs, gifts, and adult beverages.
WATER. You cannot drink the water! Not from any tap – not in the 5 star hotels and not on the ship. There is plenty of bottled water provided in your room and on the bus. If you run out just ask for more. We used the bottled water for brushing our teeth, rinsing off toothbrushes, drinking, taking pills, etc. We were very careful in the shower to keep our mouths closed. We only drank bottled water while on land even in the restaurants. On the ship they poured bottled water into pitchers and then into glasses. The ship used purified water to clean the food, so salads and fresh veggies were okay. We did not eat salads on land. Watch out for the ice cubes – okay on the ship but not on land.
ELECTRICITY. We took two adapters and two power converters – what a waste of space. We did not need either. The hotels and the ship had plenty of sockets for our needs. We were recharging cell phones and camera batteries, using electric toothbrushes, hair curlers and straightening irons. No problems.
DRESS. The dress code was very casual. Men wore shorts and slacks to dinner on the ship. Some men even wore shorts to the Captain’s reception. Very few jackets or ties. On land, slacks were more common for the dinner shows. The women were a little more dressed up with slacks and dresses but nothing fancy.
ILLNESS. People were getting sick – mostly lower GI. Cipro seemed to clear things up in a couple of days. I definitely recommend bringing the medicine cabinet just to be safe. We had Z-packs, Cipro, Pepto Bismol, Day and NyQuill, Zyrtec, Zyrtec-D, and saline solution to ward off the evils of bad health.
ANTISEPTIC WIPES. We took enough antiseptic wipes for an Army. We used enough for a Platoon. A couple of bottles of Purell will probably do. The ship has hand sanitizers outside of the dining room and other general areas, and we were told to wash our hands in soap and water (the only time we used water from the tap) before eating. We were not as good about keeping our hands sanitized as we expected to be, we seemed to relax our standards once we were in country.
SUNBLOCK. We used sun block on the days we were outside, but still never used as much as we brought. We brought a lot of insect repellent but never used it. We had a lot of small flying bugs in our staterooms but still never used the bug repellant.
FOOD. The food was good, not great, but good. I suggest that you do not eat any Chinese food for a month before this trip. We ended up with 7 chinese lunches and 7 chinese dinners, about 40% of the total meals. Some were okay and others were very good, but the food and the style of serving (lazy susan) became monotonous. The food on the ship was good – we were hoping for great. Some meals were better than others, but nothing fantastic. The portions were a bit on the small side but you could ask your server on the ship for more and it was brought without any question. On land we were unable to get more of the dishes we liked no matter how many times we asked.
SHIP. The Emerald was very nice. You have to keep in mind that this is not a cruise ship. Outside is very ordinary, but the inside is very nice. The ship was large enough for 210 guests to be absorbed, but it was a bit crowded and noisy at meal time since everyone ate at the same time. Some comments that I read before the trip were critical of the Emerald. The ship was built by the Chinese and their standards are not as stringent as those of the Western Europeans. Centerline welds were not ground to a smooth finish but rather covered over with heavy carpet. So the carpet looked like it was rumpled, but it wasn’t. If you want to be ultra critical you can find fault with the ship, but in reality it is very very nice. The ship can hold 260 guests, we had 210 so things could be a bit more crowded and uncomfortable. No casino, no theater for entertainment. A small exercise room, a library, beauty shop, spa, two very large bar and general meeting areas, and lots of room to roam. We had very busy days, so we were in our staterooms around 9 pm. We didn’t get bored. There are about 5 english TV stations – CNN, BBC, Asia TV, National Geographic, and HBO – this was sufficient.
LUGGAGE. For the two intra-china flights luggage was not an issue. The bags of all the guests (usually two groups per plane – about 70 to 75 people) were weighed as a group. So if your bag is over 44 pounds it was not a problem. The 11 pound limit for carry on is obsolete – nobody asked. You might want to have small locks for your checked bags while in China. We did not have any but our Tour Escort loaned us four locks for the period of time from the ship through Beijing. Bags are unaccompanied for short periods of time so we really appreciated the locks.
LOGISTICS. Viking has this mastered. I can’t stress enough how wonderful it was not to worry about anything. Just be ready on time and be at the appointed place and it ran as smoothly as a Swiss watch.
OPTIONAL SHOWS. The first night in Shanghai was the Chinese Acrobats. No cost for the show and it was very good if you could keep your eyes open (jet lag). The two options were the Tang Dynasty Dinner Show in Xi’an and the Peking Duck Dinner and Beijing Opera in Beijing. The Tang show was about $60 per person and the Opera and duck dinner about $65 per person. We did not do the Tang Dynasty show but did do the Opera. Those who attended the Tang show said it was very good. We enjoyed the duck dinner and opera – but it was very different. From a cultural viewpoint I’m glad we did the opera, but from an entertainment perspective, I would not rush back. The opera is now 90 minutes and you don’t get to watch anyone putting on makeup as in bygone days. If you chose not to attend either of the optional shows you were taken to dinner at a nearby restaurant which is included in your trip package.
KEMPENSKI HOTEL. Before we left I had read numerous threads complaining about the Kempinski Hotel in Xi’an. Lighten up folks, this is a very nice 5 star hotel. A bit masculine probably due to it’s German roots. I will admit that it is in the middle of nowhere, but most people went to the Tang Dynasty show and didn’t return to the hotel until 10:30 pm – time for bed anyway. So if you are assigned to the Kempinski – don’t worry, be happy.
DIRECTION. Shanghai to Beijing or Beijing to Shanghai. We thought that the Shanghai to Beijing route gave us time to get over our jet lag in a more leisurely setting of Shanghai. The days in Beijing were much more strenuous and we would have been dragging if we had just arrived. But I have read the critiques of others who preferred the Beijing start so to each his/her own. Take it for what it is worth.
CASH. We went with 200 crisp $1 and 50 crisp $5 bills. At the hotel in Shanghai we exchanged $100 for Yuen. The local merchants will take Yuen and US dollars if they are new, crisp and unbent. The stores and gift shops took all of the major credit cards. One major snag was at Mt. Jiu Hua. It cost 100 yuen to take the fennicular up to the top of the mountain – no credit cards and no US. We didn’t have 400 yuen so we didn’t take the trip which we heard was great. No one told us we needed Yuen until we were at Mt Jiu Hua. The morale of this story is keep a lot of cash - especially yuen. When you buy stuff you need to haggle and haggle hard. Be willing to walk away – you will find the same item somewhere down the road. My problem was that I would haggle down to a price that I thought was fair, instead of continuing to haggle to an even lower price.
TIPPING. You tip the porters at the hotels, the bus drivers after each day’s excursion, and the local tour guides as you go. They are happy to take dollars or yuen. For your ship experience you can tip the entire crew on your final bill via credit card. You can also tip your cabin steward and dining room servers extra using cash. The problem is tipping your Tour Escort. You have to use cash – you cannot put this tip on your ship bill. This becomes a problem since it is a lot of cash and it’s late in the trip. $10 – 12 per person per day for 17 days is about $350 for a couple. Not many people are holding on to this much cash so late in the trip. I had to go to a Beijing bank to use the ATM to get enough cash for the tip. Not a big problem, but I did have to pay some large processing fees. I also had to go on two separate days since I needed more than the daily limit. There was never any mention that you could not put the tip for your Tour Escort on your final ship’s bill. Oh well, we survived.
TIDBITS. The Viking School was great. It’s not a big deal as to whether or not you bring gifts. We brought pencils and erasers, but had to put them into a gift box at the entrance to the school grounds. No sense of joy from the gift giving even though you know you helped out. Make sure you have very comfortable walking shoes. Also make sure the shoes provide good traction or you will not be able to climb the Great Wall. We brought hats but didn’t really use them since we had the sun block. We brought small umbrellas which we used one time. Each of the hotels and the ship staterooms have umbrellas large enough for two people to get under. Unless you know that it is the rainy season I would leave the umbrellas at home. Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG). We heard that the Chinese food was filled with it. Our Tour Escort was able to check with each restaurant, and when necessary get a special plate prepared with no MSG. Found it to be a bigger problem in the Shanghai region than in Beijing. If you are allergic to MSG, this is a big deal.
That is pretty much it. A great trip with only a few surprises, none of which were major problems. I would recommend this trip to people of all ages. The average age on our voyage was probably mid to late 60s. I was amazed at how well everyone did with the physical requirements of the trip. Some of the old timers were putting me to shame. There were a few folks in their twenties and they seemed to enjoy the trip as well.
I would be happy to answer any individual questions you might have. Problem is, now that my trip is over, I will only check this site about once a week.
Have a great trip!