An Exotic Girlfriend Getaway in China
“Aaarrrggghhhh,” I screamed when I felt something crawling on my head. “What is it?”
“It’s a giant grasshopper,” said Alison. “Wait a minute, hold still. I want to get a picture.”
“Get it off! Now!” I bellowed
“No, leave it. It’s good luck,” she insisted.
China is full of surprises, from superstitions to fascinating food choices to the iconic sites.
So when my friend Alison and I talked about planning an epic girls trip, one country stood out over all others: China. If you ask a group of people where their #1 bucket list vacation would be, a significant portion would say China. And so it was with us.
After careful research, we concluded that the best way to see everything we wanted in China in one two-week trip would be with the Imperial Jewels of China tour through Viking River Cruises. We had several reasons for choosing Viking, not the least of which was their skill in navigating their guests through the challenging ordeal of the four internal airports necessary to see much of the country, as well as including a cruise through the stunningly renowned Three Gorges.
And the trip itself was everything I’d imagined and more. Take a look at some of our amazing experiences…
On Land Adventures in China
1. The Great Wall
The most epic of epics – the imposing Great Wall. We started our hike at the Badaling entry in Beijing, the highest point of the Guanagou Gorge. We chose to take the more difficult path knowing there would be fewer people. It was a challenge; some parts were very steep with uneven stone steps, but we made it to our goal – a very high ancient lookout tower for a birds-eye view of the serpentine structure. In case you ever wondered why the wall was constructed in such a winding manner, it’s because Chinese mythology claims that demons can only travel in a straight line!
2. The Forbidden City
After briefly getting lost in the crushing crowds of Tiananmen square, we found ourselves at the entrance to the Forbidden City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is the world’s largest palace complex, with 980 buildings, complete with a wall and moat for protection. The Forbidden City hosted the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. We spent a lovely morning admiring the strolling through the alleys and admiring the preserved buildings and treasures inside.
3. Riding a Rickshaw Through the Hutongs
What better way to see old Beijing than to scramble into a rickshaw and scurry around the captivating corridors? The hutongs are the ancient neighborhoods of China of days-gone-by. The houses, alleys and gardens look much the same as they centuries ago.
4. Terracotta Warriors
Crammed into the viewing area with some 10,000 other tourists (it’s true, China is crowded), we gazed in amazement at the famous Terracotta Warriors, considered to be one of the most significant archaeological excavations of the 20th century. Discovered in 1974, the UNESCO excavation site is a mausoleum of 8,000 life-sized ancient sculptures.
5. Chinese Architecture at Shibaozhai
Perched on a craggy hill, the Buddist temple Shibaozhai, known as “Precious Stone Fortress,” seems almost inaccessible. We ascended the 12-story spiral of rickety old wooden stairs then stopped to catch our breath at on red pavilion. At the top of this sheer cliff we were rewarded for our efforts with a spectacular 360 degree panorama of the Yangtze River and surrounding countryside.
6. Yangtze River
The Yangtze is the world’s third longest river, starting in Tibet and flowing across all of China, through bamboo groves, passing cityscapes, meandering through farmlands and fog encased mountains.
It was worth waking up at the crack of dawn to catch the spectacular sunset at the entrance to the Three Gorges. This was the beginning of our five days on the Yangtze!
8. The Three Gorges
We boarded a small sampan boat for a leisurely custom tour up the Goddess Stream, a narrow, sparkling green tributary in the Three Gorges. The stream only became accessible after the construction of the recent Three Gorges Dam, so it has retained its unspoiled beauty and splendor, and offers jaw-dropping views of the towering craggy cliffs.
Back on board the Viking ship, we continued our cruise through the gorges. One of the most fascinating aspects was navigating through the locks, which were virtually two feet from my balcony. Close enough to touch? Why yes, yes, I did.
I simply could not get enough of the steaming hot noodles! Traditionally hand-pulled, it’s almost as much fun watching them being made as eating them. Make mine extra spicy, please!
Damn. No, literally. It was raining the day we arrived at Sandouping, the ending point of the Xiling Gorge and the hopping off point to see the Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. The dam, built in 2011, was designed to control the destructive flooding of the Yangtze River. As an added bonus, the dam contributes around one-ninth of China’s electricity. Even through the dense fog, I was awed by the massive undertaking.
11. The Bund
Ah, Shanghai. You are my favorite in all of China. The heart of Shanghai is the Bund, an upscale riverside boardwalk with colonial-era buildings on one side that have a distinctly European flavor. Lined on the other side of the Huangpu River is just the opposite – a sci-fi looking skyline. But nighttime is the best time on the Bund. We were told that the lights go out at 10 pm, so after arriving back at our hotel at 9:30, we ran all the way, through blocks and alleys and got there at 9:50. We immediately started snapping away and it’s a good thing, because at 10 sharp, the lights did go out!
12. Chinese Acrobats
The classic Shanghai Acrobatic performers are considered amongst the best in the world. The show is popular with tourists and sells out fast. We were mesmerized by the death-defying feats and spectacular lighting.
13. Street Markets
What’s a trip to China without visiting and sampling the colorful street markets? It’s a stimulating cacophony of sights, sounds and smells. The vendors hawk everything from embroidered souvenirs to silk scarves to dried pressed duck, marinated chicken feet and hanging carcases of various meats. My favorite…spicy deep-fried crab on a stick! Crunchy goodness!
No matter where we went, Chinese locals would ask if they could take their picture with us. Perhaps it was two blondes in the midst of a sea of dark hair, or maybe they were just friendly. Sometimes I’d have a baby thrust into my arms; other times it was a family portrait. One young man asked us to sing happy birthday on his video to his girlfriend. On another occasion, I pulled out a prop for a photo op, and before Alison could get her camera out, at least 50 Chinese swarmed in back of her, pulled out their cell phones, and click, click, click, click, they took photos of me holding the prop for around 20 seconds. Of course, I was glad to oblige and just stood there smiling. We found our 15 minutes of fame to be great fun!
Onboard a Viking River Cruise
15. The Ship
Small but luxurious, our ship had a distinctive laid-back vibe to it. Our room was well-appointed and updated, but the best feature was the wall of windows that opened onto our private balcony where we had unobstructed views of the gorges.
16. Fine Dining
The food, planned and supervised by head chef, Danny Tang, was plentiful and delicious. Each night, we had our choice of half a dozen entrees off the menu, some traditional Chinese, and some international. There was also a buffet in the middle of the dining room with a variety of other dishes to sample. Wine is always served with dinner.
Aquavit (“water of life”) is Scandinavian distilled liquor. Served chilled, the sweet and spicy delicate taste can either be thrown back in one gulp or sipped and savored slowly. I (gulper) liked it. Alison (sipper)…not so much.
18. Happy Hour
Every evening before dinner, the guests are invited for cocktails in the bar or observation lounge where they can mix with other guests and mingle with the staff, sometimes with live music.
The large round tables are a great way to make new friends and easy to converse with all seated. We gravitated to the same table which became known as “our family.”
We loved the staff on this cruise! From Wilhelm, our cruise director, Dominik, our dining supervisor, to the wait staff and bartenders, we received excellent service. Every day, we separated into our own group of 20 and set out to see a new site with our own personal tour guide, Joshua, who referred to us as “your father.” He had quite a sense of humor!
Viking’s Imperial Jewels of China tour guided us through Beijing, Xi’an, Chongqing, Wushan, and cruised The Three Gorges. All hotel accommodations and excursions with Viking were included in the cruise fee at no extra charge. They even took care of booking our flights to and from China and assisted in getting visas. I’ve done a lot of international traveling, including much of it solo, but China presents a logistical challenge. It was unanimous with all guests… Viking did an outstanding job.
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Viking River Cruises during her stay in China, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.