China Grand River Cruises

Uniworld and Victoria Cruises blend the past with the future

By: George Figueroa

Shall I sing a Tujia love song for you?” asks our river guide, Shirley, referring to the ethnic Chinese heritage of her grandparents. The Tujia “Trackers” as they are called have been rowing and pulling wooden sampans along the shallow stretches of Shennong Stream, an off-shoot of the famous Three Gorges on the Yangtze River, for generations. Graceful and delicate in her fuchsia silks, Shirley serenades us with an enchanting melody that reverberates through the sheer granite walls on either side of us. Its sorrowful strains speak directly to the heart, as great folk songs do, language notwithstanding.

The impromptu serenade during our 10-night Uniworld “China Grand River Cruise & Tour” in late spring was but one touching glimpse of the past in a country fixated on the future. From the 4,000 skyscrapers of Shanghai that nightly provide a kaleidoscope of moving pictures that makes the Vegas Strip positively dim in comparison to the staggering locks of the Three Gorges Dam that turn those of the Panama Canal into mere toys, this is a land of extremes population, technology, consumer goods you name it, it’s here in bigger numbers and in the latest model. And when it comes to natural beauty, China offers scenery that is unsurpassed.

Thanks to the partnership between Uniworld and Victoria Cruises, our journey provided the best of what is old and new in China. The tour, from Shanghai to Beijing, included a four-night cruise on the Yangtze and the spectacular scenery of the Three Gorges. Thirty-year veteran river cruise and tour operator Uniworld handles all land-tour arrangements, including intra-China air transfers between river embarkation cities Yichang and Chongqing. Impeccable, fluent English- and Chinese-speaking guides accompany guests from the moment of their arrival, including air and river cruise segments of the journey.

The centerpiece of these tours, of course, is the Yangtze River cruise on the award-winning Victoria Cruises fleet. From my spacious Junior Suite balcony aboard the recently christened Victoria Anna, I could gaze out on the sparkling new infrastructure springing up along the Yangtze, such as graceful bridges connecting glistening new riverfront developments. I was also mesmerized by broad valleys, terraced farmland, monolithic stone cliffs and dramatic mountain peaks. With its glass elevators, onboard spa and upscale Western specialty restaurant, the Victoria Anna provides every necessary amenity for relaxation and pampering. Seminars on Chinese calligraphy, rug-weaving, kite-making and Chinese history were favorites among guests, as were guided shore excursions and exotic Chinese medicinal treatments. I even took a turn on deck flying traditional Chinese silk kites, courtesy of a master kite maker, whose family made kites for the last dynastic emperors. I watched my dragonfly dance on the wind between the walls of the Gorges and lost myself in the past.

On May Day, we found ourselves in the epicenter, the crossroads of modern and ancient China: Tiananmen Square. The mood in Beijing felt like the Fourth of July festive, friendly and exuberant. Fathers scrambled to take photos of their families against the backdrop of Chairman Mao’s portrait, or asked us to pose with them. Later that night, we ventured into a McDonald’s packed with giggling teenagers. Though the young cashier speaks no English at all, and my Chinese is limited to “hello” and “thank you,” it was comforting to know that a cheeseburger and a coke are universal. So are a few other things.

I think of Shirley, our river guide, who wore her Tujia heritage as prominently as her smile. After her serenade, she asked us to please interpret for her the lyrics to her favorite song a ballad by Karen Carpenter. She began, “When I was young, I listened to the radio, when they played my favorite songs&” Immediately, all the Western passengers recognized the tune and enthusiastically joined in with the remaining lyrics of “It’s Yesterday Once More.” Somehow fitting, I think.