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On A Whimsical Family Adventure in China

June, 2006
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“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” (Chinese Proverb)


 A Little Tibetan Beauty
A Little Tibetan Beauty

Living abroad is a challenge. Children are a challenge. Travelling with children in a foreign country is too much for some people to even contemplate.

  But sharing stories about China and learning about Chinese culture with your children will ensure a happy and educational experience while you live or travel in this huge country wherein lives one-fifth of the world’s population.

  Many people only think of returning to their home country or heading for the beach when planning a vacation with their children. Both are appealing options. However, there are many other choices that your children will truly enjoy and will remember forever.

  Perhaps the idea of heading out, youngsters in tow, to less sophisticated places – where there are no McDonald’s, no fancy aquariums and few western restaurants — is daunting. But it doesn’t have to be.

  Consider taking along your ayi or babysitter. Presumably the children like her, and for sure she is reliable, used to looking after them, knows their limits and so on. Otherwise, she wouldn’t still be your ayi. In addition, she speaks Chinese, can describe your needs to hotel staff, knows how to order food that your family will eat happily, is capable of handling a medical situation involving the children, and above all, will be thrilled with the chance to travel. Taking your ayi with you means that you could be free to have a game of golf, a night out exploring the town, or maybe a candlelit dinner. What more could you want?

A Little Uygur Beauty

  Travelling by car can be great fun in your own country, but it is stressful and tiring in China. Huge numbers of cars on the highway and the high costs of gasoline and road tolls make driving no longer the joy it once was.

  Despite the headaches of travelling in China, there are travel options that overall are a better use of your time and money.

  When you consider that an overnight train means you won’t spend money on a hotel and you travel while you sleep, train travel makes a lot of sense. Soft sleepers are great for family travel. The children love the top bunks they can spread out their books and games and keep themselves amused for hours. And when they need to stretch, they can’t go far or get lost. Their little foreign faces ensure that someone will either know where they went or bring them back to you. If your family plus the ayi won’t fit into one compartment (they hold four people), then reserve two rooms – you’ll have lots of space!

  Of course there are flights to nearly every city in China and air travel is the quickest way to get to your destination. The planes are clean and safe but somewhat more expensive.

  On the other hand, long distance public buses are not great for families with children. The bus is too restrictive for active little bodies and the washroom facilities are not convenient. You need a lot of time, patience, cultural understanding, Chinese language and a huge sense of adventure. Altogether too much for most children!

A Tibetan New Year's Festival
A Tibetan New Year’s Festival

  Now that you have solved the handling of the day-to-day needs of your children and you have decided how best to travel — where will you go? Many of those “must see” sites in China are perfect for youngsters if you prepare them for the adventure. It is pretty hard for them to wrap their minds around Han Dynasty, the Silk Road, holy mountains and so on. Probably the school library will have some great storybooks that accurately describe China’s history in handfuls that are the right size for the children… and maybe also for you!

  Thinking of children, the first places that come to mind are Xian, Pingyao, Shaolin Monastery, the water towns in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, and Harbin during the Ice Festival.

  In Xian, at the museum of the Terra Cotta Warriors, the children will be totally absorbed by the wrap-around movie screen with a film that runs continually throughout the day and describes in Hollywood-style, the battles of the Qin Emperor, the building of the underground mausoleum, and the enormous terra cotta army of soldiers that accompanied the Emperor to the afterworld. If you can drag the children out of that theatre to the exhibition halls, they will again be enthralled as they discover the unearthed legions of those same terra cotta soldiers. The actual site of the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di is great fun for kids. There are hundreds of steps to climb to the top of the mound. The provincial museum is also superb, well-laid out with excellent descriptions and there is an outdoor grassy area where you can take a break from culture when it gets too much.

  Another dreamy destination is Pingyao, a charming Ming city still completely enclosed by a wall. This UNESCO world heritage site is well-preserved, very small and completely tourist friendly. Your children will feel as if they have walked into a storybook! They can run through cobbled streets, ride bicycles or rickshaws on the top of the city wall, explore old buildings, climb into underground bank vaults, watch old-style performances in ancient-style law courts and in the Temple of the City God and so on. Pingyao is a living museum, one that you can all become part of for a few days of your life. Choose to visit one of several restored family mansions located in the same area, another perfect place for children to be at home with their imagination.

ancient city
ancient city

  The famous Shaolin Monastery excites even the most timid children. The stories of kung fu masters and their student monks come alive if you time your visit to coincide with the performances that are arranged for tourists. Shaolin Monks put on well choreographed, colourful and dramatic performances that occasionally travel to major cities in China. While in the area of Shaolin, you should visit Longmen Grottos featuring thousands of carved statues in all sizes, shapes and postures. Your children will enjoy climbing the many staircases, posing for photos with statues 50 times their size and being amused by other carvings as tiny as their thumbs. And all the while, they’ll be unconsciously learning a bit about Buddhism, about erosion of rock by weather, and so much more. The Luoyang area has many other sites to visit that are highly suitable for children.

  The water towns in Eastern China provide more opportunities for children to absorb history while they play. Travel in gondolas through tiny towns with canals for streets, hunt under countless ancient bridges to find lions and other gargoyle-like creatures that guard the waters, wander down alleys that are only wide enough for a pint-size person and fish for the tiniest minnows with a long bamboo pole. These are dreams that children have – dreams that you can make come true in Tongli, Tunxi or Xitang.

  China offers many more enchanting and whimsical adventures for families. What fun for children to visit Harbin during the winter! Ice sculptures built by teams from all around the world turn Harbin into a glistening winter wonderland. Yummy food, fresh air and lots of snow will ensure that they happily sleep all the way home.

  China’s ethnic peoples are fascinating to the young and old. The richly decorated and colourful costumes, the strange customs and exciting festivals are a perfect recipe for a memorable vacation. Bull fights, dragon boat races, song-and-dance competitions, mountain climbing and water splashing holidays are educational and lots of fun! Most often tribal people live in remote areas, and so, as you set out to participate in minority festivals, you will venture deep into beautiful mountain regions and rain forests, far from the smog and the hustle and bustle of modern China.

Beijing Kite Market
Beijing Kite Market

  And don’t hesitate to go to China’s wild west! How about visiting a bird sanctuary beside a salt lake so vast that the shores are not visible. And there are giant, spectacular sand dunes to scramble up, gangling camels to ride, watchtowers of the Han Dynasty Great Wall to climb. Distant ruins of ancient cities whisper secrets to modern explorers as they wander in and out of faintly distinguishable houses, temples, stables and passageways. Caves still containing Buddhist paintings and statues from as far back as the 4th century are awesome discoveries. Empty deserts stretching endlessly will fire the imagination of your children as they travel the winding roads of their minds.

  So don’t leave the kids at home! You will become your children’s best teacher by simply taking them travelling to exotic destinations and encouraging them to get lost in their dreams. As you also get lost in yours, travelling together will bind you to your children in ways you won’t expect.

By Susan Trimble

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