Wonderfully cheap food, electric boats bobbing on lakes, cute animals and plentiful toys make China a great family holiday destination. The country is fun, safe and full of interesting, child-friendly activities.
Our trip to China came about after my older son’s best mate, Max, went off to Beijing for six months with his parents. They invited us to stay with them – a chance that seemed just too good to miss. So off we went: our sons Harry (10) and Felix (six), with my wife Alison and me to keep an eye on them. We only had two weeks, so rather than travel too far in a country bigger than Australia, we stayed in Beijing, which is busy preparing to host the 2008 Olympics, and took a side-trip to Xian to see the Terracotta Warriors.
We flew Japan Airlines (JAL) to Beijing – firstly, because it was the cheapest fare we found and, secondly, because JAL gives you a free stopover (and breakfast) at Tokyo Airport, a smart way to break the journey. Our evening meal at the airport wasn’t cheap – it cost JYE 11,250 (about $130) for the four of us – but breakfast was free. I breakfasted boldly on mackerel, boiled fish paste (a Japanese delicacy), miso soup and muesli. Bonzer! Felix and Harry ate chips and sausages. A tall Indian woman in a flowing sari poured black coffee over her breakfast cornflakes, a meal she was obviously used to, but which filled us with wonder. Tip: You can check in for your onward flight to China in the hotel lobby – much easier than doing so at the airport.
While talking about food, the fruit and veg in China are superb. Tomatoes are sold straight from the market, retaining that “real tomato” tang, and beans are often grown in back gardens. A big hit with the kids was moonfruit, sometimes known in the west as pamplemousse. It looks like a huge grapefruit but is milder and sweeter. Felix, who would never touch anything as sour as a grapefruit at home, just loved it.
If your kids need more familiar food, western fast-fodder like KFC and McDonalds is available – but why go to China for that? Chinese food is better value and an adventure. Soft baozi buns in various flavours (savoury and sweet) cost just a few cents at streetside outlets. A lively, fun restaurant in the evening is Old Beijing Zhajiang Noodle King at 29 Chongwai Jie. It’s full of bustling waiters who roar out table numbers (in Chinese, of course) as diners arrive. Kids love the pantomime atmosphere, and food is so diverse they’re almost bound to find something they like. One dish, cabbage in hot mustard, means exactly what it says and is not for kids. If you’re into hot food, it does wonders for adult sinuses.
Getting around Beijing is easy. The subway is clean, fast and efficient; cabs are cheap and plentiful; buses are frequent but driving can be a bit jerky. Throughout the city, bikes are cheaply rented and fun if your kids can ride. Cycle in the hutongs (traditional residential suburbs) away from main traffic.
Our first stop on the tourist agenda was the Drum Tower. The steps leading to it are steep but the view is great if the day is clear. Costumed drummers pound big, ancient red drums at regular intervals, as they have for centuries, to sound the time of day. “No drum beating” says a sign in the drum room. Beating by visitors, it means. The staff often make exceptions for children, but only little kids are allowed to beat the big drums – not stroppy pre-teenagers.
Not far away, Beihai Park is a kids’ delight. All sorts of boats – little electric-powered ones, pedal-boats shaped like swans, and rowboats – can be hired to putter around the lake. A four-person electric boat costs RMB 60 (about $10) an hour. A bit of bumping goes on between boats – all good-natured. Bags of tasty crispy/savoury snacks are on sale in and out of the park.
Drop into the Bell Tower; it contains a giant bronze bell you can strike with a swinging painted log to produce an enormous, reverberating DONG!
Beijing Zoo is a children’s favourite. The big, black-and-white pandas may be the main attraction, but their little cousins, the red pandas, come close to stealing the show. You don’t know what “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” means until you’ve met a red panda. It’s hard to imagine a cuter animal. No, you can’t take them home.
Temple of Heaven Park provides musicians, games of shuttlecock (your kids can join in) and astonishingly cheap and lovely kites to buy and fly, or to take home. (They are wood and paper, so declare them to Customs in Australia. You won’t have any trouble getting them in.)
To travel to the Great Wall under your own steam (quite easy), get yourself to Beijing’s Deshengmen bus station and hop on a number 919 bus to Badaling Great Wall. Catch the aerial cable car to the top of the wall and walk down from there. It’s all very friendly and Chinese people love having their photos taken with your kids.
The Ming Tombs are another short excursion from Beijing. Kids enjoy the Sacred Way with its carved stone animals.
A longer excursion – more like a short break – is Xian, capital of Shaanxi Province. It was the seat of supreme power for 11 dynasties. Now famed for its army of terracotta warriors, Xian is about an hour and 15 minutes by air from Beijing. Even on this short journey, China Eastern Airlines serves a hot meal in economy class. We booked the Xian trip through Helen Wong’s Tours, a company that specialises in China, has its own offices there and is known for delivering value.
Xian is surrounded by a massive, intact city wall. You can drive around the top of the wall (about 14 kilometres) in a chauffeured golf buggy, stopping off here and there. The trip takes about an hour and costs RMB 50 (about $8.50) each, with no discount for children. Look down on the rooftops of Xian and you’ll be impressed how many have solar panels fitted.
A visit to the Shaanxi History Museum set the scene for the Terracotta Warriors, which are housed is an enormous, hangar-like building. Helen Wong’s includes a Tang Dynasty Cultural Show and dinner in the evening – a real knock-out, with traditional Chinese song, dance and acrobatics, gorgeous costumes and a brilliant flautist who played wondrously diverse melodies on a Chinese multi-barrelled flute. Our boys were spellbound. So were we.