Viking Far East Discovery – Part 3: Qingdao, Dalian, The Great Wall and Beijing

The Giant Panda and the Duck

Lions have guarded the entrance to many buildings at our previous ports of call. Legend has it that the one with the open mouth will let bad spirits out, whilst the one with the closed mouth keeps good spirits in. No such tradition at Qingdao’s shiny new cruise terminal though, where we have the honour of being only the second cruise ship to dock here. Lion (bad spirits out)With local press present and cameras rolling, could this have been our 15 seconds of fame? Qingdao was a German concession for a time, and now it’s a unique blend of more recent Chinese glass, steel and concrete high rise, blended with white fronted red roofed dwellings from a bygone era. St Michael’s Cathedral (1934) is the most popular relic, forming the backdrop to many a couple’s pre-wedding photos, we must have seen a dozen couples posing dutifully. Qingdao’s main claim to fame is hosting the sailing competition for the 2008 Olympics and continuing to brew the popular Tsingtao Beer. The brewery was also part of the German legacy and became a firm favourite with me because, back at the cruise terminal, a lovely lady was pouring us free beer as we returned. Gotta love the Chinese (I’m easily bought).

St Michael's CathedralThat evening we got to try the 3D cinema (great facility) and watched an excellent film about space travel. We followed that by trying out some local cuisine prepared and beautifully served in The Restaurant, then indulged in a post dinner drink in the Explorers bar listening to the resident pianist.

Enjoying a lie in after a late night, we sailed into Dalian at noon. Similar to the previous port but with a Russian influence this time rather than German. Part of our excursion brought us to a park where Viking surprised us with jasmine tea and local cakes. The park was packed with locals playing cards in the sunshine on the tiered steps.

It was good to mingle with the locals enjoying the park and this led to more Anglo/Asian photo opportunities (we’ve never been so popular).

“Did you ever think we’d actually walk a section of the Great Wall” I said. Truly the stuff of legend and on many a bucket list, we got to hike the short but demanding section at Huanghua Chang. Not the continuous wall that many believe but sections between natural obstacles, this 2,000-year-old iconic construction project has a thrill factor all of its own and had my thigh muscles screaming climbing this steep and deep stepped section. There’s a great satisfaction to standing at the top and admiring the wonderful view, which included other sections of the wall,  that they started to build around 200BC.

The Great WallKatie Melua sang that there are 9 million bicycles in China’s capital city but in such a large area, there doesn’t seem that many, and it’s the scooters that really grab your attention. They are everywhere and (particularly the electric kind) seem to creep up on you at crossings like a mobile ninja, just when you think it’s safe to cross. We got the hang of it pretty quickly though as we set out to explore this massive repository of history.

We were fortunate to tackle Tiananmen Square on a day when Chairman Mao’s tomb wasn’t open for viewing. As we passed at 7:30am a couple of days later, there were already thousands queuing around the world’s largest square to pay their respects. It’s a place where we admired the surrounding buildings, absorbed the history lesson from our outstanding guide Ting Ting, and watched the fine young men in uniform during the changing of the guard ceremony. Our brief brush with officialdom, making us use another entrance and file past security, was a gentle reminder that rules are to be followed here. It doesn’t in any way diminish from the warm welcome we have received from the Chinese people, as the square provided another opportunity for reciprocal people watching plus the opportunity to stand on ‘that spot’ without having to play chicken with a tank.

Sunset at the Forbidden CityThe Forbidden City, so called because for over 500 years only those of (or serving) the imperial dynasties were allowed access, is a vast collection of ancient buildings behind a 52m wide moat. Our brief visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of six in Beijing) was enough for us to admire iconic buildings, water vats, roof guardians, dragon-head spouts and so much more, but it would take a couple of days to cover this huge complex in any detail (always leave them wanting more).

Our inner child was awoken by a visit to the zoo to see the giant pandas. Visitors normally bemoan that the somewhat lazy stars seem to spend the majority of their time sleeping, but they were positively spritely whilst we were watching. Mindful that they are fearsome wild animals and not the cuddly bear of our dreams, we were nonetheless treated to an entertaining display of climbing, scratching and leaf chomping that lightened our hearts and sent us scurrying for the souvenir shop.

Giant pandaIt would be remiss of me to write about China and not mention the toilets. Whilst some western facilities are to be found, most are traditional facilities. They range from the dire to the beautiful, so come prepared to squat and bring your own tissues and sanitiser. I’m even considering a toilet review publication where ‘squat ratings’ replace the traditional stars.

A visit to the Summer Palace and a banquet of Peking duck concluded a wonderful introduction to Beijing (on a cruise extension) and indeed China. This is indeed a city that is worthy of much further exploration, perhaps as a start point for the Viking river cruise of the Yangtze River.

Viking have introduced us to this part of the Far East with a combination of military organisation (possibly the smoothest disembarkation ever), great service and special touches. We have no hesitation in entrusting a further exploration into their capable hands.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Viking Ocean Cruises.

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Steve Aldridge

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