China: A Wonderful Family Destination
By Moumita Deb
"Oh Mamma, are we really going to see Pandas?" asked my six-year-old son, Soham, goggle-eyed with excitement, as we discussed our vacation to China with our two children. For both our children, China was synonymous with cuddly Pandas and the Great Wall, and they couldn't wait to see both.
Ever since I had read Sun Shuyun's fascinating journey along the ancient Silk Route from China to India, in her book, 'Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud,' I had wanted to visit the country. I finally got the opportunity when my cousin, who was posted in Shanghai, invited us over to stay with him.
I was soon browsing websites, reading travel books on China and planning our itinerary. I was careful that we didn't overdo the historic monuments-museums-pagodas routine too much, as that might mean dragging our bored kids from one sightseeing spot to another. Hence I planned on visiting places which would appeal to everyone in our family and finalized our stays at Shanghai, Beijing, Xian, and Guilin.
The D-day finally arrived and after an overnight journey from Mumbai to Shanghai, we arrived at Shanghai's Pudong Airport.
Shanghai frankly stunned us. I had all along been hearing of the city being a pulsating modern metropolis, but I really wasn't prepared to see an oriental version of New York.
As we made our way into the heart of the city, whizzing along the crazy network of flyovers, we were kept busy 'Oooh-ing' and 'Aaah-ing' at Shanghai's innovative architectural marvels and smart business complexes, with scintillating lighting arrangements.
The next few days were spent in a flurry of activities, visiting several of Shanghai's attractions and bargain markets. What struck me most unusual about Shanghai was how the cosmopolitan nature of the city with its international stores, fast-food joints, stylish restaurants and posh business and residential buildings blended almost seamlessly with antique bazaars, crowded flower markets and small homely Chinese restaurants.
There are loads of entertainment options for children in Shanghai - the Shanghai Zoo, the Oriental Pearl TV tower, Shanghai's Ocean Aquarium, the Natural History Museum with its gigantic dinosaur skeletons which thrilled my dinosaur-crazy son and finally... the amazing Shanghai acrobatics show.
The show was a ballet of unbelievable acrobatic feats performed by young nimble-footed acrobats as they danced in mid-air, balanced glassware while perched in precarious positions, twirled and twisted their bodies into unimaginable postures and completely mesmerized us with their feats. My children were exhausted at the end of all the clapping that they did for the entire three hours!
Beijing - Home to Natural, Historic and Gastronomic Delights
After three wonderful days in Shanghai, we left for our next stop, Beijing. Our first evening in Beijing was truly amazing - we spent several interesting hours at Wangfujing Street, a bustling place with loads of shopping options at international outlets and an amazing street food market.
There were stalls lined one after another in the market, selling grilled meats of all kinds with even exotic varieties like barbecued scorpions, seahorses, cockroaches and other insects! Our kids shrieked with delight and amazement as they ran from stall to stall, gaping at the live seahorses shaking their tails while stuck on barbecue sticks!
We left for Mutianyu next morning, a few hours drive from Beijing, from where one could go to the Great Wall. A surprise awaiting us at Mutianyu was the climb up to the Great Wall in a ski-lift and a toboggan ride on the way back!
Once we got to the top, our three-year-old daughter, Srishti displayed tremendous energy as she huffed and puffed her way up and down the walls, climbing steps and running off ahead of us. Soham too loved running along the paths in between the walls and we spent a couple of hours admiring the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains from the ramparts.
Prior to our trip to China, I was a bit concerned about two things. Firstly, I had heard about how English isn't usually understood by vendors, cab drivers, etc and therefore traveling, shopping or eating at restaurants could be a problem.
Secondly, I feared that perhaps the local cuisine wouldn't appeal to our children; though I and my husband are avid gastronomes and our children have enjoyed having Indianised version of Chinese meals in Mumbai.
We realized soon enough that both our concerns were quite unfounded. Though it was true that cab drivers didn't know English, we got our hotel concierge to explain to the cabbie where we wanted to go and in turn give us the hotel's Mandarin business card.
I would also carry a basic 'Learn Mandarin' guide on our trips and had mugged up phrases for 'I want to go to.', 'How much?', 'Please give us the bill.' etc. While shopping, too, language was never a problem because all the salesgirls were armed with calculators and we would bargain and haggle over our purchases by typing prices to and fro and neither party needed to utter a word.
While eating out, we noted that many of the bigger restaurants had menu cards printed in English. To experience the local flavors of Chinese cuisine, however, one should try visiting smaller restaurants and we used to take our tour guide along with us at such times. Generally speaking, it's a good idea to go on a group tour to China, since there are language barriers and other difficulties for the independent traveler.
Menu Cards in Mandarin
He would interpret the menu cards printed in Mandarin and help us place the orders. Our children enjoyed these meals and gorged enthusiastically on noodles, dim sums, sticky fried rice, pak Choy, prawns, fish and chicken delicacies. They tried their best to use chopsticks but gave up after several hilarious attempts. Why blame the poor moppets when even their parents couldn't really get the hang of chopsticks!
We alternated Chinese fare during lunches with dinners at fast-food joints like Pizza Hut, Mc Donald's, KFC etc which are present all over Beijing and Shanghai. This meal strategy made our children very happy and it was a good balance for all four of us.
After a splendid three days in Beijing, visiting the Imperial palace (also called the Forbidden City), the fantastic Beijing zoo where our children finally got to meet cute and cuddly Pandas, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, we flew over to the ancient capital of the Tang dynasty and starting point of the ancient Silk Route, Xian.
Xian - Gateway to the Silk Route
We simply fell in love with Xian's cultural treats and wonderful hospitality. We had booked ourselves at the Sheraton Xian and they provided us with outstanding service right from the welcome at the airport, to the friendly staff at the hotel's restaurants and souvenir shops, and everybody went out of their way to make our children comfortable.
Xian is a much smaller city as compared to Shanghai and Beijing and one should not expect the cosmopolitan glitz of the former cities out here. Xian is a big tourist spot too with its two famous sightseeing attractions of the Terra Cotta Warrior Museum and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.
At the Terra Cotta Warrior Museum, my son was so enamored by the life-sized statues of Xianese warriors with their unique facial expressions and detailed attire that he promptly posed for a photograph at one of the museum stalls. They digitally morphed his picture to resemble a terra cotta figure of a general in the Xianese army and he looked very stern and handsome indeed in his army attire!
Beijing ZooWe stumbled upon a gem of a place for kids in Xian - the Tang Dynasty Park. This is a huge park with a lake in the middle and beautiful gardens and pavilions all around the park, play-areas for children and a place where we saw a karate school in progress.
It was fun to see young boys display their skill in warding off attacks with chops, whoops and leaps in the air. Another highlight out here was a camel-drawn carriage ride all around the park and this was a delightful first-time experience for Soham and Srishti!
Guilin - City of Fabled Mountains
We proceeded to Guilin after Xian and somehow I found Guilin to be a bit of a disappointment. After having heard so much about the city being a world-renowned vacationing resort, I was expecting Guilin to be a picturesque place with misty mountains and waterfalls - the kind that one can see in classic Chinese scroll paintings.
But we realized that these scenes are actually visible much further away from Guilin when one takes a cruise down the Li River to see the uniquely weathered limestone mountains. Guilin town actually looks very much like a typically crowded town in India and it has a few local attractions like the Elephant Trunk Hill, Reed Flute Cave and Fubo Hill.
The Li River cruise that we took the next day was quite enjoyable. As we entered the cruise boat, Soham and Srishti ran up to the top deck, made friends with some other children and spent the entire cruise playing with them, oblivious of the picturesque landscape scrolling by.
We left them alone and stared dreamily at the scenic mountains around us, as the boat made its way languorously between mountains with funny names like Painting Brush Peak, Bat Hill, Five Tigers Catch a Goat, etc.
At lunchtime, we were delighted to discover a sumptuous buffet on board, with a lavish Chinese spread as well as fast-food items for the children.
Hangzhou - One of the Prettiest cities in China
We returned back to Shanghai and planned one last day-trip out of Shanghai, to Hangzhou, (located about three hours drive from Shanghai) described by Marco Polo as the most beautiful city in the world. Well, I wouldn't know about the world part, but would definitely think that it is one of the prettiest cities in China!
The city's hallmark is the beautifully landscaped West Lake, bordered by hills and tree-lined avenues. We toured the lake in a gondola and as we approached one of the several islands within the lake, we saw intricately designed pavilions and pools dotted with lotus and lilies.
Our children scampered off on one of the islands charmingly named, 'Three Pools Mirroring the Moon' and played hide and seek amidst the weeping willows and pavilion gates.
After lunch at the fantastic Shangri-La hotel located bang opposite the lake, we visited the ancient Lingyin temple nearby. The temple has an Indian connection: it was built about 1600 years ago by an Indian Monk Hui Li, who was so captivated by the beauty of the place that he thought this was a place where immortals resided. Hence the name 'Lingyin' came about which means 'Temple where immortal souls dwell'.
As we were approaching the temple, I was amazed to see a huge faded inscription of 'Om' in Sanskrit script cut against the hillside and it made me feel proud to see this inscription in a place so far away from home!
The temple has several halls with gigantic Buddha statues, the most impressive of them being the Main Hall with an eighty-foot wooden statue of Sakyamuni (Buddha) gilded with gold leaf with imposing statues of other saints and disciples surrounding it. Colorful paintings of dragons and phoenixes grace the walls.
The artistically decorated halls and pavilions in the temple precincts with their gigantic sculptures of Buddhist deities, made us look in awe and wonder at the amazing craftsmanship of the people during that era.
All too soon, our day-trip to Hangzhou was over and we were reluctant to say goodbye. We had found Hangzhou to be a beautiful place full of natural and historic tourist attractions, yet very quiet and unaffected by the fast commercial pace of its cosmopolitan neighbor, Shanghai.
After a final two days in Shanghai spent on last minute bargain jaunts, we bid adieu to charming China.
I would like to mention a few last words about our experiences of traveling in China with our children.
We found everyone in China to be very warm and friendly and were especially touched by how everyone befriended our children. Right from our tour guides to our hotel staff, everyone welcomed us, chatted with us and smiled and talked to Soham and Srishti. At several places, perfect strangers stopped us and spoke to us, telling us how lucky we were to have a boy and a girl. The warm and friendly nature of the people of China simply bowled us over!
While going on day-trips, I would suggest that one should try and reserve all such tours in advance and hire English speaking tour guides wherever possible. Without a tour guide, one could lose out on much of the fascinating details of cultural monuments like the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Terra Cotta Museum, etc.
Carry packed lunches from your hotel if you plan day-trips to places far off from the main city (as we did for the Great Wall at Mutianyu and at Xian's Terra Cotta Warrior Museum). Really useful if you are traveling with kids.
Finally, be prepared to shop, shop, shop till you drop; all the while bargaining to your heart's content! China is a great place for children's clothes, footwear, accessories, pearls, souvenirs, T-shirts, etc of pretty good quality and some of them even belonging to international labels.
You will surely go berserk with excitement at the amazing bargains that you get here (sometimes even better than the bargain markets in India), so please carry an extra suitcase along; or better still buy one at the bargain markets, as we did!
Moumita Deb is a software professional based in Mumbai, India. In the midst of a busy career, she finds time once in a while, to pursue her other interests of travel, travel writing and volunteering with non-profit organizations.
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