At the base of the Great Wall of China lies a gamut of souvenir stalls, cafes, touts and a variety of animals. For a trembling moment Grandma believed we would be riding a very hairy two-humped camel to the top!
Poor old Grandma, whose idea of an exotic holiday was Devonshire tea in the Blue Mountains, had been lured to travel with mum and
kids to the “the ends of the Earth” for a leisurely stroll along the longest human-made structure in the world. Now she peered at the camel with an unsteady look that spoke more of wanting to knit a warm cardigan from its long hair, than ride it up the Great Wall. For his part, the camel looked like he would prefer to squeeze into a cable car than carry an Aussie family up a wall.
However you get there, the wall is worth it. Up on top, we gazed at sweeping views of the surrounding wild hills and walked a very short way along the wall itself, a 6700 km rollercoaster of stone interspersed with scattered watchtowers.
We were on the closest section of the wall to Beijing, the capital of China, a vibrant, family-friendly city of 15 million people. The city is fast developing its tourism as preparations progress to host the 2008 Olympic Games.
As a return visitor, my head was constantly spinning at the enormous changes. Seventeen years ago, most of Beijing’s streets were full of bicycles or belching, groaning buses that invariably had more people precariously hanging on the outside than squeezed inside. Gone are the concrete box-like buildings; instead glass skyscrapers tower above busy shopping strips.
Food has also improved, including the growth of excellent family restaurants in a society that values children above all else. The best places to eat are the little noodle cafes in which cooks create long stringy noodles by swinging, looping and throwing around lumps of dough using extravagant flourishes of hands and arms.
Aside from the Great Wall, the best-known attraction is the Forbidden City with 9000 rooms within 800 buildings alongside decorative courtyards and gardens. Royalty used to spend the warmer months in the lovely Summer Palace, enjoying beautifully landscaped gardens sprinkled with gracious buildings, boats and a picturesque bridge sporting 17 arches.
To balance all this royal sumptuousness, a rickshaw (kids loved these strange ‘bicycle carriages’) tour of the hutongs or alleyways took us down a few of the 3000 charming old streets revealing stone courtyards, gnarled bent trees and decorative doorways.
An acrobatics show delighted all three generations, as did the Beijing Zoo. Though the cages were not as clean and spacious as western zoos, it is worth visiting for the enormous range of animals including monkeys, yaks, tigers and of course, giant pandas.
The only problems we encountered were getting used to the heavy pollution and the insatiable curiosity of the locals. Travelling with two blonde, blue-eyed children amongst a dark-haired dark-eyed population restricted to one child per family, created scenes usually accorded to celebrities.
Our hotel became a sanctuary to relax... and play. One morning I found my eldest son and heir sliding around China World Hotel’s gleaming gold and marble lobby – playing soccer! Trent was probably the first person to have played soccer inside the best hotel in China, a six-star tribute to modern Chinese opulence.
We returned with a string of exciting memories as long as the Great Wall itself. Over the next Blue Mountains scones and tea outing, Grandma looked around the rather tame surroundings, before declaring, “Oh, we really should have ridden that lovely camel up the Great Wall.” Who would have thought that the ‘Ends of the Earth’ would dish up such a great family holiday?
Avoid the Chinese New Year in February, May Day and mid-October’s China National Day, when accommodation and transport are difficult to find and visitors compete with holidaying crowds of around a billion or so people.
Flight time to Beijing is around 12 hours direct depending on airline and routing.
Visas are required for Australians, ranging from single to multiple entry visas available for six to 12 months.
June/July can get warm and dusty while January/February is very cold and clear.