The Yangtze (or Changjiang or Yangzi) is the third-longest river in the world after the Amazon and the Nile. It runs for over 6,000 km (almost 4,000 miles) from the mountains of Qinghai province and Tibet to the East China Sea near Shanghai. The scenery along the Yangtze ranges from soaring dramatic mountain passages to wide deltas near the coast. The Chinese people consider the Yangtze as the heart of their country, and cruising the river gives visitors a special look at rural China and the culture of this ancient civilization. The Yangtze is used as a source of food and transport for millions of people, and travelers will be constantly entertained by the river traffic, which ranges from modern cargo and passenger ships to small family sampans that smoke and belch their way along the river.
Cruising the Yangtze - Chongqing to Shibaozhai
Our Viking Century Star cruise on the Yangtze began with a two-hour flight from Beijing to Chongqing on Hainan Air. I'll have to admit I was a little skeptical at first about flying domestically in China, but both our flights (Beijing to Chongqing and Yichang to Shanghai) were uneventful and professionally handled by both Viking and the airlines. The baggage handling was especially easy, non-stressful, and efficient, which is very important when traveling to numerous places via air.
One Viking feature that everyone on our cruise tour appreciated was having the same guides/escorts from the first day in Beijing all the way to Shanghai. I heard good things about all of the other tour escorts, but everyone with our small group thought our guide, Matthew Liu, was exceptional. Matthew spoke excellent English and had an amazing grasp of American slang, most of which he had picked up guiding tourists. His knowledge of Chinese history, culture, politics, and people added a lot to our tour and we all came away with a better understanding of China. He made sure we all got "where we needed to be" in Beijing, at the Great Wall, at the airports, and on the Yangtze. Even though he was a young man, he was a great cruise tour escort and guide.
Chongqing is China's largest "city" with over 6 million residents in the old city, surrounded by another 24 million in the nearby districts. Scientists found in 1996 that humans have been in this region for over 2 million years, making it one of the world's oldest inhabited areas. The city is located at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Jailing Rivers. Chongqing is very mountainous, with steep streets overlooking the rivers. No bicycle traffic here! It is usually shrouded by fog (or smog), and is famous for its extremely hot summers. Other than the mountains, the first thing that struck us was how green the city was compared to the desert-like landscape in Beijing. Chongqing has been an important inland port since 1890, and served as the wartime provisional capital of China from 1938-1945. Most Westerners remember the city as one that was heavily bombarded by Japan during the war, and much of its history is tied to World War II or to the Communist revolution. Today the city is an important industrial metropolis in China, and most Yangtze River cruises either embark (downstream cruises) or disembark (upstream cruises) in Chongqing. We only got a glimpse of the city on the 30-minute ride from the airport to the Viking Century Star.
Chinese lions and music greeted us at our arrival at the Viking Century Star in Chongqing. What an amazing sight! Costumed dancers and drummers welcomed our group from the buses and played and danced as we walked across the docks to the beautiful Century Star on the river below. It was a very festive atmosphere and gave us an idea of the celebration to come. Although the Century Star had debuted on the Yangtze on March 13, this April 10 sailing was considered the official inaugural. We had some special events our first afternoon and evening onboard not included on the regular itinerary. The first event was a festival of Chinese manufacturing and arts and crafts. Craftsmen (and women) demonstrated the art of Chinese silk embroidery, seal engraving (chop art), paper cutting, calligraphy, and tai chi. Talented people always make me feel so inept and inadequate, but they are amazing to watch. Passengers also had a chance to learn the Chinese game of mah jong. We had an official reception and a wonderful sail away party that featured classical Chinese music and ended with some spectacular Chinese fireworks. All in all, it was a perfect way to begin our cruise on the Yangtze!
We cruised overnight and awoke to the magic of the Yangtze, sailing by factories, green hillsides, and the cities of Fuling and Fengdu. Our first stop was at the Stone Treasure Stockade of Shibaozhai.
Author's Note: Viking River Cruises no longer operates the Viking Century Star river ship. However, Viking's other ships sail similar itineraries and offer the same great river cruise experience.