omething's always happening on the
river, particularly when it is the Yangtze: The world's third
longest waterway, flowing nearly 4,000 miles from the Tibetan
mountains to the east China Sea port of Shanghai.
It is the site of the massive Three Gorges Dam, China's largest
construction project since the Great Wall. It also is a cruising
ground to cargo ships and passenger vessels of all shapes and
sizes, newly joined by the new Viking Century Star.
With the April launch of this first in a planned 10-vessel fleet
of custom-built Yangtze River cruisers, Viking River Cruises is
broadening its geographical horizons beyond its established routes
in Europe and Russia.
"China is one of the most exciting travel markets in the world,"
said Torstein Hagen, Viking River Cruises founder, chairman and CEO
and recently host to the company's friends and investors, Chinese
partners, U.S. tour operators and press on board for the official
inaugural sailing of the Viking Century Star.
Hagen said he intends to develop the Yangtze cruises as a
centerpiece to a full program of land itineraries. Next year, in
cooperation with its China partner, New Century Cruise Co., Royal
Viking Cruises will launch a second ship in March, the Viking
Century Sky, which will carry 306 passengers and will be the
largest ship in the Viking River Cruises fleet.
The 186-passenger, five-deck Viking Century Star, meanwhile, is
a first step in Hagen's mission.
The ship is filled with stylish Scandinavian-influenced decor in
polished woods and local marble. In addition to the lobby-level
restaurant, ship facilities include panoramic views from the Sun
Deck bar, a coffee bar and an observation lounge. On board services
include laundry, a beauty salon, Internet room and combination gym/
All passenger cabins are outside with private balconies, and
each is equipped with hotel-style beds, good storage space, sitting
areas and TV and DVD players. Cabin choices range from the 84
standard cabins, with 177 square feet of space, all the way up to
the Presidential suite with an enormous Jacuzzi tub, beautifully
furnished living room and great big terrace.
Next year's vessel, the Century Sky, will be a larger version of
the Star but will include at least two major upgrades: larger
standard cabins and elevators will be added -- a welcome
improvement for less agile clients.
Viking contracted celebrity chef Martin Yan, cookbook author and
star of Yan Can Cook, to develop its regional menus. And indeed,
both Chinese and European dishes were delicious, particularly the
River cruising puts the accent on the destination, and we were
introduced to China's rich culture with the colorful spectacle of a
traditional Lion Dance at the boarding point in Chongquin, and we
were treated onboard to a concert of
Chinese instrumental music and a demonstration of traditional
Chinese crafts. Cultural enrichment programs on all cruises range
from lectures and Chinese language lessons to early morning tai chi
The destination, of course, is the Yangtze River itself, a
waterway that is changing dramatically with the construction of the
$28 billion Three Gorges Dam. The leading aims of the dam are
controlling the river's devastating floods, providing electricity
(least 25% of China's total power supply) with the world's largest
hydroelectric power plant and providing for safer navigation and
increased river shipping.
Yet with the river rising more than 400 feet behind the dam by
2009 to form a 385-mile-long reservoir, more than a million people
are being resettled in new cities on higher ground; traditional
farmlands are being submerged, along with wildlife habitats,
ancient tombs and historic monuments.
Along the 430-mile stretch between Chongquin and Wuhan, there is
indeed much magic to cruising on the legendary Yangtze. It is not
the world's prettiest river, but it's one that provides on-deck
vistas of rice paddies and fishing villages, new towns springing up
on high ridges, colorful river traffic, misty mountains and the
dramatically beautiful Three Gorges themselves.
One particularly good reason to fold a river cruise into client
itineraries is that it provides a comfortable, hassle-free way to
view China, a respite from sightseeing mania of major city
For me, there were several highlights of the Century Star's
inaugural cruise, in addition to the people-to-people experience of
poking about riverside markets.
Shibaozhai Temple, for example, is a 17th century Qing dynasty-era
relic that hugs the cliff above the river, a fairyland red pagoda
that's glazed with tiles. Visitors pass through an entrance gate of
welcoming lions and dragons, to ascend through the decorative
interior via 12 narrow staircases to the top. Equally fun is the
hillside outdoor bazaar.
Three Gorges cruising is a special experience: one requiring
warm clothing, because it's cold out there.
The five-mile long Qutang Gorge -- 500 feet at its widest point
and the shortest but grandest of them all -- is a place where mists
swirl around towering limestone peaks. In the Wu Gorge below
Wushan, the cliffs are so high and sheer that it is said the sun
rarely penetrates this 25-mile-long stretch.
To cruise on the Lesser Three Gorges of the Daning River
tributary, passengers switch to a smaller riverboat for the 20-mile
excursion through the Beautiful Dragon Gate Gorge, the Misty Gorge
and the Emerald Gorge.
Sheer cliffs, dotted with ancient tombs, and steep mountains
rise on either side of the waterway. Waterfalls spill down the
rocks and terraced fields separate the gorges.
The Three Gorges Dam is a spectacular, albeit quite different,
attraction. During a five-lock transit, the Century Star shares the
lock hold with vessels loaded with cargo and passenger boats whose
Chinese commuters and families go about their morning tasks of
brushing their teeth, preparing breakfast, warming up with tai chi
practice and waving to us foreigners.
To contact reporter Carla Hunt, send e-mail to [email protected].
Sailings offer Yangtze sampling
WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. -- Operating through December, all
seven-night cruises on the Viking Century Star here, feature a Snow
Jade Cave excursion, Shibaozhai Temple visit, Three Gorges scenic
cruising, Lesser Three Gorges sampan excursion, lock transit and
tour of the Three Gorges Dam site, visits to the Viking-supported
primary school in Jingzhou and the Hubei History Museum in
Cruisetours add fully escorted land arrangements from arrival to
departure, including hotels, all meals, sightseeing, transfers, and
intra-China/Asia air; prices below are per person, double
• Misty Mountains of the Yangtze: nine nights, including the
cruise and one night each in Beijing and Shanghai; from $1,649.
• Imperial Treasures of China: 12 nights with cruise, three
nights in Beijing, one night each in Shanghai and Xian; from
• In the Footsteps of Marco Polo: 16 nights with cruise, three
nights each in Beijing and Shanghai, two nights in Suzhou, one
night in Xian; from $2,709.
• The Ancient Kingdom of Siam: 16 nights with cruise, three
nights each in Beijing and Bangkok, two nights in Kunming, one
night in Xian; from $2,999.