Friday, May 16, 2014

Cruisin’ down the Yangtze River, China

While in China, I had the opportunity to take a 7-day cruise down the Yangtze River on the Victoria Cruises Sophia ship (  Pretty fancy for a vagabond, I know.  This entire trip was fancy from start to finish!

Safety first: They had a person on each platform to tell you to "watch your step" and "welcome".  Gotta employ 1.4 billion somehow!

I used a tour operator called, Pacific Delight Tours ( while in Chongqing and they organized my stay at the JW Marriott, right in the city center!  But first, they picked me up from the airport upon arrival - sign and all (I wish I had taken a picture). Then, they picked me up at 8am and drove me to the port!

The ship was amazing.  Way better than I had expected.  After our cruise in Halong Bay, Vietnam where we nearly starved to death sharing a 1.5KG fish with 8 other passengers, I expected a sub par ship with musty cabins, overworked staff and slim pickins in the food department.

Balconies galore aboard the Victoria Cruises Yangtze River cruise
What I got was of the “is this really happening?” variety.  The ship was gigantic with layers and layers of balconies and there were porters that carried my luggage onto the ship.  Needless to say, I had the only “backpack” on board.  But I think I should start from the beginning...

Unfortunately, Mother Nature was taking her wrath out on poor China and dumped a thick cloud of fog onto the Yangtze River grounding the cruise ship in Fengdu, China.  Victoria Cruises was prepared for the disruption and sent luxury motor coaches to pick us up at the port and transport us 2 hours to Fengdu.  And, Pacific Delight Tours already knew about the disruption up front and had prepared me for the change in plans prior to arriving at the port.  It was absolutely seamless.

Honestly, I slept most of the bus ride, but I did converse with a group of Golden-aged Aussies that were obviously on a group holiday together.  The scenery on the road was incredible.  I found out later that it was a newer highway that was relatively uncongested.  We were able to see landscapes, villages and scenery that would be obstructed by traffic and congestion in the next decade.  What was originally a disappointment, in hindsight was actually a treat.

When we arrived at the ship, it was huge.  As I mentioned before, there were 3 floors of balconies plus a sundeck on top.  The porter lifted my bag off of the bus and followed me onto the boat using a long bamboo pole between his shoulders carrying 4 bags at once.  It was like something out of a cartoon.  He was tiny, but so strong.

Chinese porter playing Popeye with the bags
I was assigned a Superior cabin on the 4th floor, which was kind of like the Executive Level of a hotel. I was also upgraded to the Executive Amenities Program which included laundry service, happy-hour and free wi-fi!  It was totally bad ass. And considering I have only been doing laundry every 7-10 days for the past year, it was truly a luxury to unpack all of my clothes, hang them in the closet and I got to wear my lucky undies twice that week!

My Superior Cabin room
The rooms were larger than I expected and contained more storage than I had expected.  My room contained 2 separate beds that were extremely comfortable and were conveniently equipped with light switches and power controls just above the headboard.  So, I resisted the urge to sleep in a new bed each night, but instead used the second bed as a dressing table and layed out all of my clothes!

The in-cabin bathrooms were clean, contemporary and the water pressure and temperature were top-notch.  I never had to worry about having a hot shower and I finally could step barefoot in the shower without being grossed out.  I was truly being spoiled on this cruise.

The common areas had plenty of comfortable seats, strong Internet signal and power outlets for those using kindles, computers etc.  The boat was equipped with a roof deck, (which I didn’t use because the weather sucked), a clinic, a gym, a manicurist, a masseuse, and a game room with a small library containing heaps of books in English, German and Chinese. 

Roof Deck!  God, I wish the weather had cooperated

The Yangtze Room is where all the fun happens
Yangtze Room bar.  Photo courtesy of Victoria Cruises

On Board artists actually painting and sculpting during the cruise

Lots of opportunities to shop…even stuff available on my vagabond budget

Wanna tinker with a Chinese string instrument?  Try the guzheng, they have 2!

Day 1:
After we had a chance to unpack our things, we had a chance to enjoy lunch which included several Chinese and western dishes to choose from.  Since I was upgraded to the Amenities Program and Executive floor, I was in a private dining room of only 40 people or so.  There was a larger dining room on the first floor, but I was happy to join the Golden Aussies for lunch since I had met them earlier on the bus.

Afterward, we were split into groups and introduced to an experienced local guide for a tour of Fengdu.  We were forewarned that there were nearly 800 steps up to the different temples to which there were a few whispers of concern from some of the golden oldies to my right. 

Then I looked around the main deck and realized that I was the youngest person by 30 years on the entire boat, except for a sweet little 5 year old German girl and her parents, who were traveling with their parents on a family vacation of sorts.  

My Yangtze River Bestie, Lisa!

There were 3 other people under 65 as well.  2 were newlyweds, I think, I’m not sure because they did not utter one word or glance toward me.  How is that possible, really?  Isn’t there camaraderie in similarity?  I could hear them speaking German and I know they heard me speaking German to my 5-year old best friend, but whatever.  There was another under-60 who had an amazing Paul Bunion-type ginger beard that was escorting his golden-oldie girlfriend around.  They looked so happy and in-love, it was awesome.  But, no, they didn’t talk to me either. 

Whatever, I met amazing people on-board, the coolest by a landslide were Leith and Sandy.  They were also Golden Aussies, but not associated with the large bus load that I had met earlier that day.  I had the pleasure of sitting next to them for every meal and felt like I hit the jackpot with the best seat in the house because their stories were incredible!  AND, they have the coolest surname ever…MITCHELL.  We told stories, jokes and poked fun at others and each other every day.  It was so much fun.

Clearly, the 3 coolest people on board.  It's natural that they would all be MITCHELL's

The tour of Fengdu was nice. Fengdu is known as the Ghost City or the City of Spirits. Our local guide had an amazing chartreuse blazer with leather laser cutouts on.  The color made it very easy to find her, but I found myself imagining ways to steal her jacket from her during the trip.

We scaled the steps, called out to some Chinese Gods (Heng and Ha) to allow us to enter the temple, then crossed the 3 gates of the Ghost city, The bridge, the gate and the ball.

The Gods guarding the Ghost City

The Bridge actually consisted of 3 bridges, one for health, one for wealth and one for love.  We all crossed the love one.  You had to do that hand-in-hand with your true love in fewer than 9 steps which signifies “forever”.  Obviously, I crossed alone….this was worse than the stupid love lock bridge!

9-steps away to true love forever

On either side of the love bridge was the health bridge and the wealth bridge.  We had to choose one to cross on the way back.  I chose health.

At least on the love lock bridge, people don't know you're solo...

Next up was the Stairs to heaven.  We had to hold our breath and walk up 33 stairs without breathing and we would be sure to go to heaven.  Success.  See you up there, folks.

Finally, was the ball.  It was basically a rock in a box.  Women had to stand on it with their right foot (men with their left) for 3 seconds and look up to the scripture on the temple and they would have completed the last obstacle to the Ghost City.  Success…again.  What can I say? I’m an overachiever.


Obviously, along the way there were lots of Buddha's and statues.  But, there was also an iron bowl of water that looked like it was boiling when you rubbed your hands on either side.  The friction created vibrations that made the water dance.

Everyone made it back successfully from the Fengdu trek, even the oldest couple on board, Vera (89) and Brian (80)!  And afterward, the ship set sail and we enjoyed a cocktail and appetizers at the Captain’s Welcome Reception prior to a nice buffet dinner.

I have to give a huge shout out to the staff aboard Victoria Cruises. The staff on this ship was super competent, friendly and professional.  Victoria Cruises far exceeds par by employing 117 crew members for just over 200 passengers – that’s a ratio of nearly 2:1 and the exemplary service is noted while on board.  Extra Bonus: Victoria Cruises continually give their employees English classes so all of the crew members exposed to passengers have at least a basic understanding of English.  This, in particular I found as a relief since we were traveling in a country where the words for “thank you” and “toilet” are too similar to decipher with an untrained western ear.  “Xie Xie” (“Shea Shea” is thank you, “She She” is toilet)

On the second day we passed through the city of Wushan, home of the 3 Gorges.  We were super lucky with the weather in that it was relatively sunny.  It was colder than I would have liked, but nearly everything in the northern hemisphere also fit that complaint.  The first gorge, Qutang Gorge, was beautiful.  I’m not sure if it was the most spectacular because it was the first or because it really was spectacular.

Cruising down the Yangtze River!

Entering the first Gorge, Qutang Gorge
There are hanging coffin's hanging from this Gorge.  The Gorge is so gigantic that they are barely visible.  In this photo, you can see it, but honestly, it looks like a shadow.  Good luck searching…
HINT: the hanging coffin is near the cave...

The second gorge, Wu Gorge was definitely the most beautiful.

The cruise director, Aaron was knowledgeable about the Yangtze River and conducted an interesting lecture about the history and specifics of the river while passing through the 3 Gorges.  His English is superb and he was very warm to both western and Chinese passengers. He was funny without being flippant or crude and made all of the passengers feel comfortable and informed during the many weather interruptions.

The 3rd day was another sailing day.  We passed by the 3rd of the three gorges and got to take a really awesome excursion into one of the tributaries feeding into the Yangtze River.  Our local guide and her guide in training were super friendly.  The tributary was really neat and they sang us some local songs along the way.  They were really excited that they knew some English songs and made us all sing along to “If your happy and you know it clap your hands.”

Our local guide loved to sing!

Small tributary off the main Yangtze River

On the fourth day, we were grounded due to bad weather.  We were unable to pass into the ship locks during the night because the Chinese government had shut down the river going in the Eastern direction, so we were put behind 6-8 hours and ended up entering the locks in the middle of the night.  The following day, however, we stopped off at the dam to see the locks that our ship had passed through so we were able to see how they worked and the history and importance of its construction.

Fog plagued our trip from the start

Stairwell to the dam viewpoint

The Ship Locks move ships from 175m high water to 75m water through the course of five 20m drops

Entering one of the locks

The doors close and the water is gradually released from inside dropping the ship 20 meters (60 feet) into the next lock and so form until the ship drops 100M (300ft) in water level
The dam is very important to the Yangtze community.  Its creation displaced millions of people and they had to be relocated.  It has killed off many of the marine life as well, but its primary benefits far outweigh the minor setbacks.  It was designed to improve flood control, produce power and improve navigation on the river. We were told that the dam will produce enough energy to pay off its construction costs in 11 years, which is remarkable, if true.  Although it displaced millions of people, the 30m rise in the river between seasons devastated local farmers yearly.

During the last 3 days of our cruise, the ship hosted cabaret shows where the crew members danced in authentic, beautifully crafted costumes.  We learned about the lifestyles and customs of Chinese minority groups as well as the transition of dance, music and clothing style throughout the past 2000 years in China.  It provided a wealth of information infused inside a well-choreographed, professional and entertaining dance performance. It was not Las Vegas standard, but few are.  Several passengers commented on the high quality of the performance in comparison to other cruises they have experienced.  I particularly noticed the high quality fabric and haute couture craftiness of the costumes.  They were gorgeous!

Em and Lisa enjoying the show!
The costumes were high quality and amazing!
We even got to see the Dragon Dance...
…and kiss

Minority show

What about the food?  All cruises are about the food and after the last cruise, where I nearly lost 10lbs from starvation, this cruise was the complete opposite! The food was plentiful. Each meal included several choices of both Chinese and western food options. There was plenty of meat, vegetarian options, soup, salad and dessert for all.  If a dish ran out, it was immediately replaced and an individual serving was delivered to you personally as to not inconvenience you to walk back up to the buffet.  There were 3 plated dinners and 3 buffet dinners, all of which were hearty and delicious.  Every meal started with soup and they even had pizza one day, which was welcomed like an old friend after 3 weeks of noodles.

The weather just wouldn’t let up for the last 3-4 days of the trip.  Fog grounded us a second time.  The staff put together a lazy day of classes and demonstrations such as reflexology, Chinese 101, Trivia, and Chinese painting techniques to keep us entertained.  They even taught a group of us how to play Mahjong, which is basically gin rummy with a few more suits and dominos.

On the fifth day, we were headed to Wuhan, the largest city of central China.  Aside from playing a crucial part in the destruction of the Qing dynasty, it also houses the first bridge ever run over the Yangtze River and has the Hubei Provincial Museum housing instruments found in the Tomb of Prince Yi.  Amongst these instruments were the Chime Bells of Marquis Yi, 65 giant bronze bells that are played by several musicians at once.

Excavated bells found in the tomb

Replica bells used for concerts
It takes 11 musicians to play the 65-bell collection

We were lucky enough to view a concert with replica bells and it was beautiful.  They played traditional Chinese music and then finally, played a Western piece by Beethoven.

Fog, fog and more fog, BOO! We ended up having to end our cruise in Nanjing and get bussed into Shanghai.  It was only a 3-hour bus ride, but the ship would have taken way longer, so they made the right decision.  The ship did offer a morning trip to Nanjing for those that had time allowance, which I did.  So, we took a quick trip to the Zhongshan Mountain National Park saw some mausoleums, modeled for some pictures with some tourists and then hopped on the bus to Shanghai.

We took this trolley from the parking lot to the mausoleum


Love lock bridge…China edition

Still hopeful...

Everyone wants a photo with the "blonde white face"

and dragons...
and statues, oh my...

Plus, big fat Buddha's to make you smile.

The Victoria Cruise down the Yangtze River was the best way to see the whole of China.  I felt safe, relaxed and entertained while seeing sights of the Yangtze River that are unavailable to the majority of tourists.  Victoria Cruises touched on all of the treasures of the river while allowing me to relax and indulge on amazing food and the spectacular sights of China.  Weather aside; it was a great way to spend a week. I was definitely not in their core demographic (65+, affluent, looking for Western amenities in China), but I had an outstanding time and would recommend it to any and all of my more mature friends.

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