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Kite flying in Tiananmen Square.  photo: Lauryn Axelrod.
Taming the Yellow Dragon: China With Children

The GoNOMAD Adventure continues in the East.

By Lauryn Axelrod, GoNOMAD Senior Editor


It never occurred to me to take my 12-year old son to China until my mother mentioned it. In fact, of all the destinations we planned to visit, I couldn't help but think of China - huge, confusing, and crowded, as the most non-kid-friendly country I could imagine.

That was until we went there.

In August, Joshua, my mother, and I joined three other families on Thomson Family Adventure's 15-day China Explorer that combined the best of China's natural and cultural highlights with some fascinating, off-the-beaten-path destinations, unususal activities, and genuine kid-friendly fun. But the most fascinating thing of all was seeing China through our childrens' eyes.

Bustling Beijing

Until you arrive in Beijing, drive through it's crowded streets, gawk at the immense skyscrapers, and marvel at the millions of bicyclists weaving through traffic, it is impossible to appreciate the sheer scale of the city, home to 12 million people.

But scale is what China is all about. Everything here is bigger, taller, longer, more impressive than anything else is the world. Especially in and around Beijing.

Our tour began, fittingly, at Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world. For anyone of a certain age, Tiananmen is synonymous with the 1989 student pro- democracy uprising, the symbol of China's hopes for the future and repressive past. But our visit was not about politics. Even though the square is dominated by massive government buildings and Mao's mausoleum, thousands of Chinese flock here daily to walk along the shaded sidewalks, gossip with friends, and take pictures. Kids come to fly kites. Our kids did the same.

While parents stood transfixed by the monuments, the kids ran around the square, flying their colorful dragons and goldfish beside their Chinese counterparts, their laughter drowning out the patriotic songs and political history lessons blaring from loudspeakers. Parents may always remember tanks rolling through this open square, but our children now know a different China: one filled with laughter and colorful kites.

Other historic sites in Beijing also resonated differently with parents and children. The Forbidden City, the mysterious symbol of Imperial China for thousands of years, became a maze of buildings, corridors, passageways, courtyards, and gardens - more than 9,000 rooms in 800 buildings to explore!

The Summer Palace, a beautifully landscaped retreat in the hills outside the city, was a big park to roam in, with dragon boats, a marble boat and a mysterious bridge with 17 arches (who can guess the reason why?). The Ming Tombs provided perfect hide and seek opportunities among the huge stone animals and figures along the Sacred Way. The Great Wall, the biggest attraction of all, became a challenging obstacle course up and over the 4,000 mile long winding, twisting dragon's tail (we only hiked a mile or so)!

An acrobatics show delighted both parents and children, though kids were determined to try some of the tricks at home, like flipping teacups onto their heads while balancing on a Vew-Do board! An evening rickshaw ride through the hutongs, or historic courtyard house neighborhoods of Beijing, was also appreciated by both parents and kids, but for entirely different reasons. As we rode through the mazelike, narrow roads, passing barbers giving outdoor haircuts and shaves, and old men playing Mah Jong and chess, parents marveled at the old Beijing still thriving in the midst of the modern city. Kids, however, tried to see whose rickshaw driver could outrace the others.

We joined a local family for dinner that night, and the kids devoured the homemade dumplings, much to the pleasure of Mrs. Liu, our hostess. But the highlight was a moonlight boat ride on Shishahai Lake. Our wooden, lantern-lit boat was powered by a single oarsman while a lute player serenaded us with classical Chinese songs. In the middle of the lake, we lit candles in paper boats and set them afloat in the water, making wishes for a safe journey in China. While parents relaxed and watched the reflections of the disappearing boats, the kids made it into a race again to see whose boat would stay afloat the longest.


Captivating Xi'an

We left the bustle of Beijing on a morning flight to Xi'an. Once the capital of China through 13 dynasties, Xi'an is famous for the Terracotta Soldiers, as well as other historic and prehistoric sites. But once again, what fascinated the parents was transformed into magic through the eyes of our children.

Commissioned by the Emporer Qin Shihuan, the first emporer of China who unified the country and built the Great Wall, the Terracotta Soldiers were constructed to guard the entrance to his elaborate tomb complex. More than 8,000 clay warriors, horses and charioteers have been excavated in three pits, and proved mesmerizing to both parents and kids. The scale alone was impressive: row after row of figures, each one different from the next. But while parents were awed by the age, manpower and megalomania of such a creation, kids saw something else, too: a field of toy soldiers and an archeological puzzle.

Xi'an is also the only city in China with a complete city wall circling the city for 11 miles. Most adults would be content to walk to the top of the gate, look around and come down. But the kids had a different plan. They wanted to go all the way around. At the top of the gate, we rented bikes and took off for a tour of the ramparts. Kids raced from watchtower to watchtower, while parents took a leisurely pedal, admiring the views of the city below.

That evening, our children joined their Chinese pen pals for a pizza party at the T'ang Art Museum. While parents perused the paintings by classical and contemporary Chinese artists, kids shared stories and games with new friends. Each walked away with gifts and memories, and most importantly, email addresses so they could stay in touch!

Yangtze River.

Natural Wonders of Zhangjiajie

Way off the beaten path of most tourist itineraries, Zhangjiajie is a small Tujia ethnic minority town surrounded by some of China's most impressive natural scenery. Our visit here was intended to provide two days of outdoor adventure in a country known more for it's history than its nature. But Zhangjiajie turned out to be one of the favorite destinations of the trip.

Our first adventure took us whitewater rafting, Chinese-style, down the jade-colored Mao Yan River. This was no ordinary scenic rafting trip. After donning our plastic ponchos (but, it's not raining?!?!), we were handed bamboo squirt guns and ladles, and climbed aboard our banana-shaped rafts. But we weren't alone. Several other rafts, all carrying laughing Chinese tourists decked out in the same getups, approached. And then, as we entered the cool, clear, river, the water fights began! Within seconds, we were soaked, but loving every minute of it! The kids, along with our ever-energetic guide, Hao, were having the time of their lives.

But, even waterfights stop to admire the breathtaking scenery as we float through the rapids. Magnificent waterfalls cascade down misty, terraced mountains, as villagers in longboats pole their way along the shores. Mid-stream, we transferred to a bigger ferry for the leisurely (and dry) ride down the river to a small village, where farmers bring their crops to sell in an open market. We are exhausted by the time we get back to our hotel, but the kids could do it all again, tomorrow!

The next day, however, takes us on another adventure, hiking along the Golden Whip Brook in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Home to monkeys and rock pinnacles, the park is a favorite with Chinese tourists, but very few Westerners ever make it here. It's a shame. The landscape is phenomenal, the stuff of Chinese paintings. Mysterious and supernatural, mists and clouds swirl among towering rock peaks. A golden colored brook runs beside the flat path. Each rock and pool named: "Jumping Fish Pool," and "Five Fingers Peak." The kids race along, stopping to feed monkeys along the way, while adults revel in the scenery, shooting roll after roll of photos.

The following day, we embark on our last adventure in Zhangjiajie, exploring the Huanglong Cave, an immense network of caverns formed over 250 million years ago. I've never been a fan of caves (and I don't think most parents were initially excited by this excursion), but like everything else is China, this is no ordinary cave. The second largest cave system in the world, the Huanglong is impressive, even for non-spelunkers. For kids, it was like entering an underground fairyland.

After wandering through entrance caves, we climb into electric boats for a 300-meter ride on an underground river, past colorfully illuminated stalactites and stalagmites evoking pagodas, rock palaces, and dragons. The Chinese landscape in miniature. We disembark and climb up into a cavern the size of a football stadium with a central waterfall and formations that look like terraced fields. We cross the longest underground bridge to another cavern, this one a huge reproduction of those Magic Rocks terrariums with more than 3,000 colorful stalactites like rockets, needles, trees - some over 100 feet tall! Wow! is about all anyone of us can utter. Wow! Wow! and Wow!

Zhangjiajie has proven to us that there is more to China than history. For the kids, the waterfights and the cave will be some of their favorite memories of a land more diverse than they ever dreamed.

Pandas and Puppets at Chengdu

Like Beijing, Chengdu is a bustling city with a 2,000-year history as the capital city for four dynasties. But that wasn't the main reason for visiting. The purpose of our stay in Chengdu was to see the Giant Pandas at the Panda Breeding and Research Center, located an hour out of town.

The Giant Pandas are an endangered species. Only 1,000 still exist in China. In addition to habitat destruction, the small numbers of surviving Giant Pandas is because of their erratic breeding habits. Females go into heat for 2-3 days each year, and the males are known to be fickle. If they aren't interested at the time, another year passes without a baby panda. In other words, the pandas have the opposite population problem to that of their host country.

That's where the Center comes in. Through breeding monitoring and assistance, the Center has been able to raise the numbers of Giant Pandas born each year, and it now houses 35 pandas or 3.5% of the total population. For visitors, that means the chances of seeing a live Giant Panda are far greater than in the wild (which could take days, even weeks of patient waiting)!

We were lucky enough to see six Giant Pandas, and two even rarer Red Pandas, all engaged in normal panda activities like eating, sleeping, climbing trees and playing. But the highlight for the kids was the opportunity to hold a baby Giant Panda, which at 10 months is already bigger than most of our children!
Even adults lined up to hold the baby bear (which isn't really a bear, anyway, but a member of the raccoon family), marveling over how heavy -and dirty-they were!

That evening, we attended the Shufeng Yayun Tea House, a local outdoor theatre that offers in seat back massages (yes!), to see a performance of the famous Sichuan Opera. Far more kid-friendly than Beijing Opera (and yet less well known), Sichuan Opera features magical dancing puppets, music, clowning, and the mysterious face changing masks. The Shufeng Yayun Tea House is the only place in the world this skill is performed and only 28 people in all of China have perfected the art. Students and the curious from around the globe have come to this theatre to try to figure out how it is done, but none ever have. It is another of the great mysteries of China.

The kids were awed as the performer changed masks more than 18 times without ever touching his face. They were also amazed by the humorous hand shadow puppet demonstration, and by the elaborate and beautiful marionettes that spun cloth, danced with long feathers, and moved their hands and eyes and mouths in such life-like ways. But best of all for both parents and children was the clown routine in which a whitefaced, Chinese clown must please his angry wife by contorting himself in all kinds of silly ways while balancing a tea cup on his head! I think several of the adults took some good ideas away from that one.

Farmers and Buddhas at Dazu

Great Wall of China.

The small city of Dazu is another place not usually found on most tourist itineraries, but it makes a convenient and fascinating stop between Chengdu and Chongqing. We spent one day viewing the ancient Buddhist cliff carvings of Baoding Mountain and visiting with a local farmer and his family.

Hidden among lush forests, The Baoding cliff carvings were made over 900 years ago by a renegade group of Buddhist monks under the leadership of the charismatic and iconoclastic Zhao Zhifeng. More than 10,000 figures represent a complete system of slightly skewed Buddhist doctrines integrating Confucian ethics, Taoist theory and some good old-fashioned cultism. After lighting incense in the temples, parents and kids both marveled at the 1,000 armed Goddess of Mercy, the reclining Buddha head 20 feet across, and representations of what would happen to children that didn't obey and respect their parents. Watch out, kids!

On they way back from the mountain, we stopped at a local farmer's home to learn how farm families live, grow their crops and care for their animals. The patriarch of the family greeted us in his blue Mao suit (one of the few we'd seen), pipe, and straw hat, looking every bit like the typical farmer we've seen along the roads. He was followed by a swarm of children who take our children on a tour of the family home, courtyard, and animal pens, babbling away in Chinese. But it doesn't matter: our kids have been in China long enough now to know how to understand even when they don't speak the language, and it isn't long before the charades begin and peels of laughter echo from the courtyard. When they emerge, our kids are holding rakes and baskets, while the Chinese children are covered in stickers and waving colored pens, all gifts given by our kids!

The same thing happens later that evening as we wander the pedestrian shopping streets of Dazu. Children of all ages come running up to meet our kids, shouting "Hello!" and "What's your name?" and wanting to have their pictures taken with our children. We parents feel like Pied Pipers - all the children of Dazu following behind us - but the Chinese parents don't seem to mind. They are laughing along with us.

Riding the Yellow Dragon

The next few days will be spent cruising the Yangtze Three Gorges area, a main draw of the trip for the parents. But we have a few hours in Chongqing before boarding our cruise ship, so we decide to make the best of it. Poised to become the next Hong Kong, Chongqing is situated at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jianling rivers. A dense, hilly maze of high rises, the city was bombed to smithereens during WWII, but has been rebuilt and is growing, preparing for when it will be the port city for China on the Yangtze.

Bustling though it is, Chonqing doesn't have many sights or interesting markets. But it does have a mall - in Times Square -- with an ice skating rink inside. Our kids are thrilled by the chance to do something familiar, even if it's in an unfamiliar country. And for $2, we are happy to let them join with other Chinese kids racing around the rink to loud Taiwanese pop music.

And then it is time to board our cruiser, the East King, one of the more luxurious Yangtze boats. Our staterooms are bigger than our hotel rooms have been, all with large picture windows from which to watch the scenery of the Yangtze pass by.

For the next three days we sit on deck, awed by the breathtaking mountains, misty hills and terraced fields that line the Three Gorges. But we are also aware that we are getting a first hand glimpse at a land that will soon be underwater when the Three Gorges Dam Project is completed in 2009. The largest hydroelectric and water management project ever undertaken, the Three Gorges Dam Project will create a lake 400 miles long that will swallow entire towns and villages that currently line the Yangtze's shores. All along the river there are water level markers, indicating how high the river will rise after 2003 (135 meters) and then in 2009 (175 meters) when the entire project is complete. Some towns have already been demolished, and more 2 million inhabitants moved to new towns higher up or relocated elsewhere in China. The Chinese government is also in the process of trying to save some 44 historic sights that will be flooded when the water rises to its highest level. All this to try to tame a wild river that floods every 10 years, costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Both parents and children are fascinated. When we finally reach the dam site itself, we are amazed by the scale. While not the largest dam in the world, the combination of two hydroelectric plants, sluice gates, ship elevators, boat locks, and the smaller dams that contain the river is enormous, dwarfing the 28,000 workers that labor 24 hours a day to make this project a reality. It's a massive undertaking, and while international skepticism abounds, the kids remind us that the Chinese built the Great Wall: they can do this, too.

We disembark at Yichang City, near the dam site, to return to Beijing for flights home. It's been an amazing journey through a diverse land, seen from different perspectives. China turned out to be surprisingly kid-friendly and we've all come away with an intense appreciation for both the country's grand history and her exciting future. And of course, we all have an extra suitcase to carry home, full of souvenirs: for if there's one thing the kids really learned - in addition to how to eat with chopsticks -- it was how to bargain for trinkets in the local markets!

Copyright 2006. Lauryn Axelrod. All rights reserved.

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